Our last post talked about how to identify the clichés in your writing and why you want to get rid of them. This post tells you how to do that.
The first step to eliminating clichés is understanding what they mean. Given that we use clichés because they’re seemingly widely understood, discerning their meaning should be relatively easy, right? Well, yes … if you understand the meaning. That’s not difficult with some of the examples given in the previous post (e.g., few and far between, think outside the box, path of least resistance). But with idioms that have become clichés, it can be more daunting.
Idioms are figurative expressions that can’t be understood from the meanings of their individual words but have separate meanings of their own (think raining cats and dogs, paint the town red, have an ax to grind). They frequently puzzle non-native English speakers who interpret them literally, and they’re often misstated by many — non-native and native English speakers alike — who don’t understand their meaning (e.g., we’ll burn [cross] that bridge when we come to it, that’s a tough road [row] to hoe). The confusion such expressions generate is another good reason for avoiding their use entirely, particularly in light of ever-increasing global business communications.
To replace nonidiomatic expressions, you can often use just one word rather than many (e.g., replace in light of the fact that with because, or replace at this moment in time with now). Use a thesaurus if needed to generate more succinct alternatives. To find the meaning of idiomatic expressions, the Free Dictionary’s idiom finder, although not comprehensive, is a good starting point. From there, a dictionary or thesaurus is useful for figuring out an appropriate substitute.
You may be able to delete the offending phrase altogether. Many clichés included for emphasis actually can weaken the impact of a message. Consider “The company will not tolerate discrimination in any way, shape or form” versus “The company will not tolerate discrimination.” The shorter sentence delivers a stronger punch. (Words and phrases don’t have to be clichés to clutter writing. We’ll talk about this more in a future post on concise writing.)
Once you’ve figured out the meaning of the cliché and determined that simply eliminating the cliché is not the answer, rewrite your sentence using words or phrases with a similar meaning. Consider how you might rewrite the following:
- Once we get all our ducks in a row with opening the new office and hire 12 more employees to cover our bases in sales, the sky’s the limit.
- Now that we’ve figured out our strategic game plan, we can get the ball rolling and start rebuilding this company from the ground up.
- In a nutshell, we have our work cut out for us.
- These new hires need to learn the ropes ASAP if we’re going to stay ahead of the pack.
- Our Q4 numbers were lousy. We need to get out from behind the eight ball if we don’t want this ship to sink.
Here’s what we came up with:
- Once the new office opens and we’ve hired 12 salesmen, the potential for growth is limitless.
- Having finalized our strategic plan, we can begin to rebuild this company.
- In short, we have a lot of work to do.
- Our new employees need to learn their jobs quickly so we can stay ahead of our competitors.
- The Q4 financials were bleak. We need to improve our numbers in the first quarter and keep that momentum going if the company is to remain viable.
These rewrites are, of course, just some of many possibilities, but ideally they effectively illustrate the impact of replacing clichés with words that leave no doubt as to the writer’s meaning. The Oxford Dictionaries blog post on clichés also provides some excellent examples.
A final strategy for dealing with clichés is to turn them around so that they’re still recognizable but say something new. For instance, you might say “The ancient copier on the second floor is worth its weight in feathers,” recasting the worth its weight in gold cliché to imply that the copier is not particularly valuable. Because the result is often sardonic, this technique can paint you as a bit of a crank, so use it judiciously.
If you have ideas about how to make over clichés but no appropriate outlet for them, include them in a comment below. We’ll compile a list for a future blog post, which undoubtedly will ensure you have a nice day.