Clichés Bugging You? Me, too.

That's me, after hearing a cliche

I used to think of journalists as the leaders, rather than the lemmings, of our language. Well, maybe I was thinking of print journalists, New Yorker writers, who don’t go in for clichés as broadcast journalists too often do. They (and the self-aggrandizing pundits who appear on their shows) seem to have sunken happily into the sloth of clichés.

Old enough to remember the first Gulf conflict, when Stormin’ Norman and Colin Powell brought us “prosecute a war?” For months after that war ended, you couldn’t watch a news show without hearing someone mention prosecuting something—and they weren’t talking about a person or a courtroom.

On the Ground
There’s nothing like a war to stir up broadcasters to copy military terms and apply them long after those terms have anything to do with war.

I hear journalists using “on the ground” for just about any exciting event, especially bad weather. A tornado has passed through? They tell us they have a reporter on the ground, then ask the reporter: “Can you tell us about the situation on the ground there?”

War Zone
Most of us haven’t ever seen a war zone (thank heavens) except on TV. But anywhere there’s rubble, a broadcaster’s sure to exclaim, “It looks like a war zone!” The phrase has caught on to the extent that people use it to describe their offices and their teenagers’ bedrooms.

Embed
For quite a while after journalists began traveling as part of fighting missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, everything was embedded. Everything.

Order of Magnitude
Does anyone really know what an “order of magnitude” is? I hear it on the radio practically every day, particularly in reference to the escalating US debt.

Arguably
Ugh. I don’t remember who it was, but someone wrote that you could just substitute “not” for arguably and come close to the truth. Try it.

Fiercely Independent
One of my longtime annoyances. Some family protecting its rights in Vermont is fiercely independent. The phrase is written as if its constituent words cannot be separated. Why is no one ever intensely independent? Forcefully independent? Ferociously independent?

The same goes for “companionable silence,” although I admit that one usually pops up in novels.

Why Do So Many Journalists Employ Clichés?
The habit of leaning on clichés could be tied to the pressure of writing stories under tight deadlines (or just plain lazy brains). So, I asked Shari Lopatin, a journalist who doesn’t rely on clichés, for her take on the subject.

“As a journalist and media strategist, one of the first lessons I was taught in journalism school, was to avoid clichés. And I try my darned hardest to stick to that lesson! Nevertheless, those clichés will arise inevitably. Have I noticed a rise in the clichés used by other journalists? Not any more than I’ve seen in the past.

“I cannot think of specific clichés that rub me the wrong way (catch that one?). But I have other pet peeves in print-and-broadcast writing that drive me bonkers—such as beginning a sentence with ‘There is.’ Or adding too many ‘thats’ to a paragraph. I understand the pressure that comes with writing news under deadline, but I always try to go through my work and check for clichés before submitting it. Because the best writers and journalists think outside the pen.”

Mired in clichés yourself? Try Phrase Finder. And see: Are You Addicted to Clichés? Help Is On The Way!, by Russell Working. He’d also be grateful if you’d take a look at the trailer for his book, The Hit.

Add the clichés that bug you in the Comments below.

In my next post I’ll rant about rampant incorrect usage: “Hopefully,” anyone?

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18 thoughts on “Clichés Bugging You? Me, too.

  1. I *hate* “at the end of the day.” I’m not sure why it bugs me more than other cliches, but it does. I think I may have used “companionable silence” before – ouch! Hopefully it got yanked in revisions. 🙂

  2. Hi Lynette,
    I’ve heard all of these too many times, except for “companionable silence”. I don’t mind admitting that I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. We try to avoid them, but I’m sure that if I reviewed my posts I’d find a few. The talking heads seem to rely on them more than the print media. Clichés are especially prevalent in sports. Some of the worst examples are: Any percentage above 100% when describing effort, “taking it one game at a time”, “this is for all the marbles”, and especially “at the end of the day” as Jennette mentioned in her comment. When I hear these, it’s hard not to think of the basketball player interview scene from Bedazzled. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1F4W0R1Zr_8

  3. Great post. I am a member of the club that has never heard of “companionable silence”, but hey – live and learn! Se la vi.

    I also belong to the club that does not like “at the end of the day” but even more annoying to me is “it is what it is”. ROAR!!! What does that mean? I always feel like I need to ask “well, what exactly is it”?

    I’m sure I use cliches that drive others nuts. We’re only human. lol

    Hope you do a posting on corporate phrases. So many of them make me cringe.

  4. I don’t object to “it is what it is”, because that’s what coaches say to avoid saying anything of interest to the press. What drives me crazy are the strange new words that sports commentators (and why isn’t that word just “commenters”?) introduce: “audibilize”? why not “say” or “yell”? “Defense” as a verb, as in “the Jets aren’t successfully defensing the red zone”?

  5. This is an excellent article. I’m trying to beef up Brave New Web’s blog posts with more articles about effective writing. Might I be able to post this – with appropriate attribution – to the blog? It would also go out to my accounts on Facebook and Twitter.

    Many thanks!

    Margy Rydzynski

  6. Hi Lynette,
    There are many broadcasting cliches that drive me nuts, but
    radio & TV interviewers constantly asking interviewees to “Remind Us” or “Remind our listeners/viewers”, tops the lot.
    Guaranteed at least once in each interview.
    I have heard this cliche 3 times in a single question.

  7. Yes, Brandon. I agree. I sometimes think the host actually means, “Tell me, since I haven’t read your book and have no idea what your thoughts are, although I’m interviewing you.” 🙂

  8. I agree with all your statements and the comments. “At the end of the day” annoys the heck out of me. Another one is speakers adding “right” and “okay” in their statements. Everyone does it. I think language goes in fads. People seem to want to speak and write like everyone else. I’m sure I’m guilty of it too.

    Another weird/freaky language trend is when people ask a question in a conversation, and then answer it!
    For example: “Do I know that fracking will cause earthquakes in Kansas? No, not for certain. But experts say that adding jobs will stop the bleeding.”

    Medical terms for economics is another pet peeve of mine.

    Sorry! Couldn’t help myself. 🙂

  9. Oh, the cliches. Maddening. It’s so true that people try to fit in and seem cool by parroting what others say. It shocks and annoys me to see how much journalists mimic certain “in” phrases. I hadn’t noticed that asking a question then answering it! It’s hilarious (i.e., ridiculous), and now I realize how often I’ve heard it.

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