Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cliches - Part 1

[written by The Man and posted on his behalf by Conroy]

I Come to Praise Clichés, Not to Bury Them

Although style mavens deprecate clichés, it's important to know them—whether or not they make for fine writing, and whether or not you actually use them.  That's because clichés save time and often enhance communication: they provide ready-made formulations of common ideas, and are likely to be understood immediately by just about any listener.  In fact, most clichés were once successful, vivid metaphors, and so provide a model of what a superlative metaphor might look like.  Moreover, many clichés are rich with meaning, interesting history, and even uncommonly known facts about the world.  They are a treasure trove of rhetorical technique.  And if you don't want to use them as they are, you can always give them a surprising twist.  

So why do style experts deplore clichés with such utter contempt?  Because they are boring?  Perhaps.  But I would suggest that the primary motivation is snobbery—the snobbery of a literary elite.  After all, anybody can scribble a simple-minded cliché.  Avoiding clichés, on the other hand, means having to generate different ways of expressing ideas, which is difficult to do.  This gives those who can, something to crow about.  But perhaps sometimes it's not worth taking the extra time and effort that "being original" requires.  Sometimes it's better just to use the nearest cliché that does the job.  Style isn't everything; substance matters too.  And isn't it always a good idea to be cost-effective, even if that means falling back on a few tried-and-true clichés, every now and again, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel all the time?

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