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Aug 11

Banish Clichés

In 1926, H.W. Fowler, a British schoolmaster, lexicographer, and wordsmith, published A Dictionary of Modern English Usage  and thereby became known as "the King of English." Previously, he and his younger brother Frank had edited The Concise Oxford Dictionary and published The King’s English, but it was Fowler's Modern English Usage that cemented his reputation.

Fowler's searing – and amusing – put-downs shame us into avoiding lazy clichés. He scolds us to pay serious attention to word usage, and to take the time it takes to find just the right word. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word," according to Mark Twain, "is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

In Modern English Usage, under the heading "hackneyed phrases," Fowler writes: "There are thousands for whom the only sound sleep is the sleep of the just, the light at dusk must always be dim, religious; all beliefs are cherished, all confidence is implicit, all ignorance blissful, all isolation splendid, all uncertainty glorious, all voids aching. It would not matter if these associated reflexes stopped at the mind, but they issue by way of the tongue, which is bad, or of the pen, which is worse."

Fowler goes on to say that we all lean on "hackneyed phrases" from time to time, but we must resist the urge to use them. When they come to mind, we should think of them as "danger signals" that what we are "writing is bad stuff, or it would not need such help."

"Each of them comes to each of us at some moment in life with the freshness of novelty upon it," Fowler writes. "On that occasion it is a delight, and the wish to pass on that delight is amiable. But we forget that of any hundred persons for whom we attempt this good office, though there may be one to whom our phrase is new and bright, it is a stale offense to the ninety and nine."

Fowler's list of clichés includes:

Acid test
Blessing in disguise
Conspicuous by his absence
Damn with faint praise
Dim religious light
Explore every avenue
Fair sex
Few and far between
Filthy lucre
Free gratis and for nothing
His own worst enemy
Ill-gotten gains
Inner man
Irony of fate
Last but not least
Leave no stone unturned
Method in his madness
More in sorrow than in anger
More sinned against than sinning
Neither rhyme nor reason
Of that ilk
Of the ____________ persuasion
Olive branches
Powers that be
Sleep the sleep of the just
Splendid isolation
Take one's name in vain
Tender mercies
There's the rub
To be or not to be
Through thick and thin
Tower of strength
Weaker vessel

  • Take three or more phrases from Fowler's list and find other ways to express them. Try them out in sentences that show the meaning or build a poem or short story around one or more of the phrases. 
  • Make your own list of clichés that you are really tired of hearing.
Now that you're aware of Fowler's "list," you will be much more conscious of finding the right word. Let Fowler be your guide, and you'll never slip common clichés into your writing again.