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Jots and Tittles: Avoid them like the plague.

Not to put too fine a point on it, and let’s not beat about the bush, we’re going to hell in a handbasket. Clichés, I always say, should be taken out and shot at dawn. Only when every last one of them has been hunted down and killed dead as a doornail can we rest assured that our work is done. And then it will be the dawn of a new era…

What’s wrong with the above is that it isn’t original. There is nothing there that hasn’t been seen many times before: it is full of clichés. That’s why it sounds like a politician.

A cliché is an idiom or a phrase that has been used so often, it has lost of all its freshness and novelty, and, very often, much of its meaning. Our reaction to a cliché is one of tired recognition, not marvel at the writer’s wit and artistry.

Clichés are cute, clever and funny. Not!

Most well-known clichés are so old, nobody can be certain how or when they first appeared. Their origins are — forgive me — “lost in the mists of time”. Many of them are similes or metaphors: corpses are dead as a doornail or dead as a dodo; it rains cats and dogs; before Sally met Harry, she didn’t know him from Adam; in Germany the trains run like clockwork; it’s a dog-eat-dog world; and when things go wrong, it’s back to square one.

The thing about these clichés is that when they were first coined, they were probably very clever; but now that everyone knows them, they’re more likely to provoke a sigh than raise a smile.

You can see this process in action by watching the life-cycle of a more modern cliché. For example, the popular Wayne’s World sketches had a running gag in which a sentence was uttered and then, after a pause, the word “Not!” added to indicate that the sentence was ironic. The humour was in the way the actors parodied geeky teenagers, but this didn’t prevent real teenagers from adopting this gag as their own and suddenly the English-speaking world was full of young people punctuating sentences with a long-drawn-out “Noooooooot!” and collapsing in helpless giggles. Now, of course, this figure of speech is no longer cool.

Choose rewboss for instant relief from tired old hackneyed expressions

Some clichés are faintly ridiculous. “Lo and behold!” cry the mildly surprised, unaware that “lo” and “behold” mean the same thing. “I could care less,” answer the jaded Americans, equally unaware that that logically means they do care, at least a little (the original, still current in Britain, being “I couldn’t care less”). “This technology represents a quantum leap in user-friendliness,” say the marketing people, which sounds great until you realise that a quantum leap is an almost undetectable change in one atom.

Marketing has a lot to answer for when it comes to clichés, especially meaningless ones. Most washing powders seem to get upgraded to new improved almost on a monthly basis, while painkillers routinely provide instant relief. But those are just for public consumption; advertising copy aimed at managing directors and other executives is replete with phrases about “growing the market” and “synergies”: clichés in their own domain and totally meaningless to most of us — and probably meaningless to many executives, but they sound impressive so it must be good.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, clichés are tired old phrases which no longer have the impact they used to. For this reason alone it’s best to avoid them. In the realm of creative writing, clichés are bad news because clichés, by their very nature, are not creative. The entire first paragraph of this article is nothing but a string of clichés jammed together. That’s just lazy writing. Anyone claiming to be an author who peppers compositions with such hackneyed phrases is like someone claiming to be a carpenter when all their furniture comes from Ikea.

Yet another dark and stormy night

Not that clichés are always bad — as long as they are used sensitively and sparingly. Clichés got to be clichés in the first place because they were clever, funny, witty or simply did a useful job. The phrase, so often found in British journalism, “helping police with their enquiries” is a cliché of the sort that tells you nothing; but this is actually a good thing because British law says you have to be this vague in order to protect the innocent: saying someone is being interrogated implies you think they are guilty, and until a verdict is reached, you’re not allowed to say that.

Sometimes the use of a cliché can be justified as a kind of shorthand for something else, but only as long as you don’t over do it. Starting a serious novel with the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night” is pretty much professional suicide for a writer after the now famous Edward Bulwer-Lytton used it in what has since become regarded as the worst opening sentence of a novel of all time. But when Charles Schultz’s creation Snoopy types the same phrase, it becomes a stand-in for a cheap and rather trashy mystery.

Of course, using the odd cliché here and there is not automatically bad; but neither is it usually very clever or original, unless you manage to use it to humorous effect. But wherever possible, it’s best to avoid them. Many of them have served for a very long time and deserve to enjoy their retirement in peace.

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