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Janet Roberts

A Plethora of Cliches to Avoid, To Be Sure
By Janet Roberts

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Pity the poor old cliche. Once, it was a bright, fresh expression that captured the spirit of the times. Everyone who said it was praised for being clever and original. It showed up in magazines and books. It was all over the Web.

Then, one day, snobby people said it was overused. English teachers red-penciled it, and newspaper copyeditors deleted it. Whenever it was spoken on a marginal TV show, the show got canceled the next day. It just wanted to slink into oblivion, but someone would always pull it back into the mass language, and the whole circus would crank up again.

Okay, enough pity. English, being the flexible and colorful language it is, produces a twitch-inducing one almost every day. You probably have your own list. My newest pet peeve is at the end of this column.

Bob Baker, an editor and writing coach for the Los Angeles Times, has distilled the newest crop of cliches into a list of the 17 most overused phrases. It performs like the anti-jargon list we wrote about a few weeks, because it aims to force writers to express original thoughts instead of relying on hackneyed phrases. They're not wrong, or grammatically incorrect. I don't necessarily agree with every item on this list, to be sure. If you care about how your writing sounds, however, you can find more distinctive ways to say what you mean.

Here's the list, which we have excerpted from Bob's in-house newsletter with his permission. To read the entire story, click here.

The 17 Worst Cliches in the Newspaper Business

  1. "To be sure" This cliché is a reminder we ceaselessly use for emphasis. But if you're writing with decent transitional logic, the reader is in synch and doesn't need this pretentious help.

  2. "Ratcheted up" It's hard to live in a world this pressurized. One hallmark is the number of times something is "ratcheted up." Writers, unable to resist the lure of a word that drips with tension, have beaten it into the ground.

  3. "Defining moment" Life is full of defining moments. But if life is too full of "defining moments," the moments lose value. When I did a check last year, my paper was publishing defining moments at the rate of about one every three days. This doesn't count a hefty number of quotes in which our own sources proclaim defining moments.

  4. " ... not alone." We fall into "not-alone" land because it's easier to describe something by what it's not than by what it is. That's why people wind up being described too often as "not angry," or "not surprised." ... By contrast, affirmative descriptions, by their specificity, are far more powerful and necessary. The next time your fingers type "not alone," ask yourself if you can't do better.

  5. "The Holy Grail" Do you know the real reason nobody can find the Holy Grail? Because writers use it so often as a figure of speech they have beaten it deep into the ground.

  6. "The rest is history"

  7. "If you build it ... " "Field of Dreams" is now 12 years old, yet several of our writers treat the movie's signature philosophy--"if you build it, they will come"--like a new toy.

  8. "Welcome to the world of ... "

  9. "Fast forward ... "

  10. "Brave new world"

  11. "Inner-city"

  12. "Move forward"

  13. "Hammered out"

  14. "Quality"

  15. "Sea change"

  16. "Level playing field"

  17. "Irony" The words "irony," "ironic" or "ironically" appeared nine times on Jan. 1 in my newspaper and a total of 42 times during the first nine days of 2001. The three-year average is five times per day. That's right, 5.5395 doses of irony per day. Sometimes, we misuse irony as a substitute for odd, or strange. Other times--many times--we hit the reader over the head with it.

I also maintain a list of overused words. At the pinnacle right now is "plethora." I see it everywhere. On Wednesday, it showed up 12 times on 17 Web sites, one Word-A-Day mailing and in at least six newsletters (I finally gave up in despair.) Say "variety." Use "many," and save yourself the two extra words it takes to carry "plethora" in a sentence.

Ezine-Tips for June 28, 2001

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