Popular Cliches Explained for ESL Students

let sleeping dogs lie

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A cliche is a common phrase that has been overused. In general, cliches are to be avoided. In reality, they are not avoided - that's why they are cliches! Understanding popular cliches is especially important for English learners because they provide a deeper understanding of set phrases - or 'chunks' of language. You might hear movie stars or politicians using cliches. They're phrases everybody understands. 

10 Popular Cliches

  • The writing on the wall = Something that is about to happen, something that is obvious
    • Can't you see the writing on the wall! You need to get out of that business.
  • To pull an all-nighter = To study or work all night
    • We had to pull an all-nighter to get the work finished on time.
  • Pearls of wisdom = Wise words or advice
    • I'm not really interested in his pearls of wisdom. He lived in a different period.
  • Too much of a good thing = Generally used when saying that's impossible to be too happy, or lucky
    • Enjoy it! You can't have too much of a good thing.
  • Fit as a fiddle = To be ready and able
    • I'm fit as a fiddle. Let's do this thing!
  • Curiosity killed the cat = Don't be too inquisitive, it can be dangerous!
    • Remember curiosity killed the cat. You should just forget about it.
  • Don't do as I do, do as I say. = Used when someone points out that you are being hypocritical (doing one thing while insisting that others do that thing differently)
    • Stop talking back! Don't do as I do, do as I say!
  • Let sleeping dogs lie = Don't look into (investigate) something that was troublesome in the past, but in which people are not currently interested
    • I'd let sleeping dogs lie and not re-open the investigation into the crime.
  • A cat has nine lives = Someone might be having problems now, but there are many chances to do well or succeed
    • His career reminds that a cat has nine lives!
  • Moment of truth = The moment in which something important will be shown or decided
    • It's the moment of truth. Either we'll get the contract or we won't.

Where Can I Find Cliches?

These chunks of language known as cliches are found everywhere: in letters, in films, in articles, in conversation. However, cliches are most often used in conversation. 

Should I Use Cliches?

A good rule of thumb for English learners is to understand a variety of popular cliches, but not necessarily use them actively. Many times the use of a cliche signals fluency, but often cliches are considered inappropriate or unoriginal. On the other hand, if a native speaker uses a cliche you will understand!  

The Difference Between an Idiom and a Cliche

An idiom is a phrase that means something else than the literal words. Idioms always have figurative, not literal meanings.

  • Literal = Meaning exactly what the words say
  • Figurative = Having a different meaning than what the words say

Two Idioms

  • To get under someone's skin = To bother someone
    • She's getting under my skin these days!
  • No spring chicken = Not young
    • Tom's no spring chicken. He's almost 70!

Two Cliches

A cliche is a phase which is considered overused (used too often) which can be literal or figurative in meaning. Here are some examples:

  • The good old days / literal = In the past when things were better
    • I remember my years at college. Yes, those were the good old days.
  • Tip of the iceberg / figurative = Only the beginning, or just a small percentage
    • The problems we are seeing are just the tip of the iceberg.