There is no absolute line that divides the clichés that warrant a slap of the ruler on the desk and phrases that work just fine given the context. But lexicographer Orin Hargraves has written a new book that may help writers
move the needle avoid phrases that lull readers into a dreary stupor.
In It’s Been Said Before, out July 30 from Oxford University Press, Hargraves argues that most people believe they know a cliché when they see one. So we’re letting people put their clicks where their mouths are with this handy quiz. (After a brief primer on where Hargraves draws his line.)
For one, an idiom (an expression whose meaning isn’t obvious from the words in it, like kick the bucket) isn’t necessarily a cliché. Hargraves defines cliché as the type of phrase that “puts the audience on automatic pilot” because it suggests they’re not going to hear anything they haven’t heard before. To qualify, he thinks an expression has to be both overused and ineffective, often because people have started throwing the phrase around in such a wide array of contexts that it has ceased to convey anything meaningful.
So idioms with a specific meaning, which convey an idea more economically than other combinations of words would (like getting caught red-handed) are not considered clichés in his opus. But vague, space-wasting combinations of words like in actual fact are branded with a scarlet ‘C.’
So, keeping those qualities in mind, try your hand at this little pop quiz to see whether you can figure out which of these ten common phrases are meaningless clichés and which are useful idioms according to Hargraves.