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A Word, Please: What to watch out for to avoid clichés

Cross-country runners race at Central Park in Huntington Beach.
Cross-country runners race at Central Park in Huntington Beach, a “bucolic setting” grammar expert June Casagrande writes might need a better description to avoid cliché.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Any writing expert will tell you: If you want to get your message across, avoid clichés. The problem is, no one seems to know what, exactly, a cliché is. Is it an overused sentence like “The grass is always greener on the other side”? Is it a two-dimensional rendering like a mobster who wears a fedora or a private investigator who keeps a liquor bottle in his desk? Is it any needless phrase like “It is important to note that”? Can it be a single word, like “synergies”?

The answer isn’t clear, but the lesson is: If your words or descriptions are so overused that they’ve lost their impact, you should look for ways to rephrase them. Sometimes you won’t find a better alternative because that’s the nature of clichés: They get overused because they capture an idea or image exceptionally well. But if you make an effort to replace clichés, sometimes you’ll find a fresh new way of saying something that actually has an impact on your reader.

Every writing genre has its own clichés: fiction, journalism, marketing, business communications. So every list of clichés is different based on the list-maker’s own observations. Here, from my experience reading articles, fiction and business communications, are some clichéd words and expressions to watch out for.

First and foremost. The reader already knows something is first because you’re mentioning it first. Plus, saying something is “foremost” can amount to editorializing — saying this thing is important instead of just giving the facts and letting readers decide for themselves. Usually, you can just delete this expression.

Burst into tears. This one’s tough. Even the best writers use “burst into tears” because it’s so hard to come up with an alternative. “Explode into tears” doesn’t cut it. “Dissolve into tears” is also cliched. Play around with alternatives like “began to sob” or “started crying.” But if nothing works better, rest assured “burst into tears” is tacitly endorsed by many good writers.

Sweat profusely, bleed profusely. The adverb “profusely” hardly exists outside these expressions, which is your clue that they’re cliched. Would “sweating excessively” or “bleeding heavily” get your point across in language that doesn’t make you sound like you’re parroting someone else’s words?

Ornate language meant to make writers sound intelligent can leave readers thinking the opposite, writes grammar expert June Casagrande.

It’s a win-win. Business writing clichés are less forgivable. They’re dismissive of the reader, like saying, “Just believe us when we tell you our widgets are great, but don’t expect us to explain why.” If you have to say “it’s a win-win,” then you’ve failed to show it.

Underscores our commitment. It’s all about you, right? Like saying, “See? This proves we’re great!” This point is of little interest to readers. Talk about something they care about instead.

A perfect storm. This expression was great, at first — a concise way to talk about powerful forces colliding with potentially catastrophic results. That’s why it got overused to the point of sounding hollow and trite.

Think outside the box. Tempted to use this term? Then heed its poorly articulated message: Think creatively. Be original. Innovate.

Decadent desserts. Once upon a time, this meant sweets that are so indulgent they’re sinful. Now it just means the writer’s brain is on autopilot.

Pop of color. The first hundred or so times I saw this wording, it popped. Now it fizzles. Try splash of color, burst of color, colorful accent or just color.

Break into a cold sweat. Does this even happen to three-dimensional humans or only to characters in horror novels? Either way, the words are just droning noise at this point.

A bucolic setting. According to Google’s Ngram viewer, which lets you search words or phrases to see how often they appear in print, the word “bucolic” is more popular with writers than ever. But how many times have you heard someone say it out loud? That’s your clue that “bucolic setting” is just a crutch for writers.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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