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And what to lose in 2009

December 31, 2008

Hello again,
Surely we all hate clichés, but if this is true why do they seem to have such a long shelf life? Sorry but once you start thinking this way, the clichés...

... just line up waiting to be used.

I am sorry to report that people still use “at the end of the day” with predictable monotony. Let’s make a resolution to drop that one in 2009. Another one that I find particularly irritating is “with great respect”. The point is that it is only used when somebody wants to pour utter scorn on the person they are speaking to, so respect is the last thing in question. In similar vein is the expression, “to be fair”, which, similarly, always precedes an entirely unfair comment.

Old chestnuts such as “ touch base”, “24/7” and “singing from the same hymnsheet” are still going strong so let’s make a special effort to drop them next year.

Some clichés have become quite sinister. It is now inevitable that when the most ghastly errors have been made by people who should not made them, they brush the whole thing aside by saying “lessons will be learnt”. I’m sorry but the lessons should have been learnt before the event not after. Instead of talking about the future, those who are incompetent should reflect on their mistakes and resign, as they are clearly not fit for office. But these days, the worse your crime the greater your golden handshake, or so it seems.

On the brighter side, it has to be said that some clichés seem to have faded from use. “It’s not rocket science”, “moving the goal posts” and “a level playing field” seem to be less used than last year. R.I.P.

If I had to say which was my most hated cliché in current use it would be: “going forward”. A close second is "out there", which is a completely redundant phrase and used by far too many people who should know better. Why not tell me yours?

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  1. Franklin Orosco Says:

    Thank you for your interesting columns. Sometimes, I read this website to catch up on job opportunities, but more often, I read your column to see what I can learn.

    There is one error which has plagued common conversation among Americans in the last decade or so, and I go crazy when I hear it. Here is an example: "I went in my car, which it is new."

    How did this start? Why do people say it? Have you any idea?

  1. Bob Toomey Says:


    To Franklin Orosco, after reading your note I breathe a sigh of contentment. I have been out of America for 16 years, but what I see on America TV, since I have a satelite dish, the English language has gone wrong a lot since the Bush administration started that "Let no child left behind" stupidity, and which drove many teachers out of the classroom, I hear incorrect pronoun usage, subject/verb disagreement, and a host of other misspoken words, phrases, and sentences. In the movies, in the news, and in common speech I hear mistakes and more mistakes. It boggles my mind, but sometimes I believe it must be only me. Brenda's column has assured me that I am not alone. Thank you, Brenda. And Franklin, I am glad I have missed that misuse of the English language. Funny stuff!!!

  1. Lewis Waitt Says:

    Fascinated with language (of which my main focus is English and French) I found your article extremely interesting not only in the interests of good teacher practise but the phrases themselves.

    With this in mind, I have recently read 'Touché - Why Britain and France are so different.' by Agnès Catherine Poirer. For those people who share this interest in social differences which can provoke language contradiction I recommend this book. Particular reference should be made to the 3rd chapter 'Apologising' which discusses the English mentality of "being sorry" (or "to be fair"), when in reality the focus of the sentence should be on the generally unfair nature of it.

    The 'rough-tuning' or adapting of teaching language has proved and effective way of removing such clichés from the classroom (simply, using DIRECT language).

    Quote 'Touché - Why Britain and France are so different.' by Agnès Catherine Poirer:

    " "I'm affraid I won't be able to come tonight", "I'm affraid this is wrong" and "I'm affraid dinner is a little overcooked". I thought why are the English constantly 'affraid'? "

  1. Barry Richardson Says:

    You seem to be a making an artificial distinction between a cliche and a word, phrase or saying which comes into common use, as you have no problems with using "golden handshake" and "brush the whole thing aside" but dislike "at the end of the day". The English language, in everday use, is now, thankfully, not a static relic of the past or the property of university language departments. "Golden handshake" was not used ten years ago, and probably wont be used in ten years' time. Perhaps in an age of Internet retailing, grocery stores with food on shelves will disappear, so 'shelf life' will have no contemporary meaning when applied to non-food items. That's good, I think. Cliche, when applied to language elements - as opposed to its use in describing situations - came into common use in the 60's. Perhaps, "in a similar vein", it's time to "drop" this use of the "old chestnut" "cliche".

  1. Ron Intilia Says:

    I also find your articles of considerable interest, keep them coming.

    Regarding cliches, I think you missed an obvious one which sens a chill down my spine when I hear it. How often have we all heard ....thinking 'outside the box'. I have been guilty of using it in the past and I now find it particularly annoying.

    Keep up the good work.


  1. Linda Says:

    One of the cliches I dislike the most is "to make a long story short". By the time you have to say that, most of your audience will either be asleep or wish they were anywhere but there.

  1. David Reid Says:

    What is so wrong with using 'cliches'? Who defines what is a cliche? Why do people need to look down on certain forms of language? Surely, language is for communication. Or are we all just looking for ways to feel superior?

    As this is an EFL website not a linguistics one, I think we need to address this topic from a learner's perspective. Modern EFL pedagogy is now using corpuses to inform. I would be delighted if my students could communicate fluently with native-like phrases used correctly, allowing them to use their brain power to focus on what they want to say and not how they say it.

    From a Native English language user's perspective I can only think of the worlds of academia, law, etc, as places where such language seems out of place. But for everyday people in everyday situations cliches can serve the role of making communication easier and help people be more fluent. Isn't that what 'chunks of language' are for?

  1. Ilse Schmidt Says:

    I agree with you David. It is wonderful that people are passionate about their area of learning, but it seems a bit pedantic to be so serious about 'cliches' (that come and go, anyway) on this site. It belongs in higher institutes of learning or better, in the editing departments of news rooms.

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