What Are Clichés and Why Are We Supposed to Avoid Them?

Questions and Answers About English Grammar and Usage

cliche monster
Avoid the Cliché Monster! He's as old as dirt, as boring as hell, and dumber than a box of rocks. (amdandy/Getty Images)
Clichés are a dime a dozen. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. They've been used once too often. They've outlived their usefulness. Their familiarity breeds contempt. They make the writer look as dumb as a doornail, and they cause the reader to sleep like a log. So be sly as a fox. Avoid clichés like the plague. If you start to use one, drop it like a hot potato. Instead, be smart as a whip. Write something that is fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack. Better safe than sorry.
(Gary Provost, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. Mentor, 1985)

The words cliché and stereotype are related metaphors derived from a French printing method introduced in the late-18th century. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, both terms originally referred to a process involving a metal plate cast from woodcuts. By the start of the 20th century, the nouns had acquired the figurative meanings (and the negative connotations) that we're now all familiar with: a cliché is any overly familiar word or phrase, while a stereotype is an oversimplified image of a person, place, or thing.

What this means, among other things, is that the word cliché didn't yet exist in the early 18th century when English poet John Gay (1685-1732) composed his comic ballad "A New Song of New Similes." As you read the opening stanzas of Gay's mini-anthology of similes, consider how many of them might now be considered clichés:

My passion is as mustard strong;
I sit all sober sad;
Drunk as a piper all day long,
Or like a March-hare mad.

Round as a hoop the bumpers flow;
I drink, yet can't forget her;
For though as drunk as David's sow
I love her still the better.

Pert as a pear-monger I'd be,
If Molly were but kind;
Cool as a cucumber could see
The rest of womankind.

Like a stuck pig I gaping stare,
And eye her o'er and o'er;
Lean as a rake, with sighs and care,
Sleek as a mouse before.

Plump as a partridge was I known,
And soft as silk my skin;
My cheeks as fat as butter grown,
But as a goat now thin!

In Gay's complete poem, we find other familiar comparisons, including "busy as a bee," "dead as a door-nail," "lighter than a feather," "smooth as glass," and "warm as any toast." Even in the 18th century, these "new similes" had lost their original luster.

In our own time, most style guides advise us to avoid clichés, characterizing them as tired, hackneyed, and stale.

But like many of the "rules" of writing, this piece of advice is trickier than it sounds. 

The Scribner Handbook for Writers asserts that "clichés are too predictable and too familiar to be interesting," while the editors of Writing: A College Handbook insist darkly that "using worn-out phrases tells the reader that you have no imagination of your own." Yet some would argue that being interesting is not always the writer's intention--and that it's virtually impossible not to rely on some "worn-out phrases" (itself a worn-out phrase) if we're to be understood when we write.

So at what point do similes turn into clichés--and must we always be hell-bent on eliminating them? Consider the advice offered by the editors of Webster's Dictionary of English Usage:

You might . . . want to base your notion of the cliché not on the expression itself but on its use; if it seems to be used without much reference to a definite meaning, it is then perhaps a cliché. But even this line of attack fails to separate cliché from the common forms of polite social intercourse. A second and more workable approach would be simply to call a cliché whatever word or expression you have heard or seen often enough to find annoying.

Be skeptical (or at least be as pert as a pear-monger) when you're presented with a list of clichés to be avoided at all costs (or like the plague). One person's cliché may well be another's striking figure of speech. As editor Patricia O'Connor observes in Woe Is I (Putnam, 1996), we can’t possibly eliminate all clichés: “It would take a roomful of Shakespeares to replace them with fresh figures of speech, and before long those would become clichés, too.”