Thinking about clichés

There are two definitions of a cliché:

1 - a trite or overused phrase

2 - an expression so exact that it moves into common language.

I've been pondering these two in relation to a couple of copyediting jobs I've had recently.

The doornail is an example of the former. Why is a doornail dead, or deader than any other nail? How dead is it? I asked my client these questions and he replaced the phrase with 'deader than last week's Radio Times', an expression that is fresher and - for a British audience at least, conveys the absolute lack of life in the corpse in question.

An example of the latter is 'raining buckets'. It is a cliché, no doubt about that, but whenever we tried to come up with an alternative, it looked as if we were straining for an effect and all that we could see, when we looked at the text, was the attempt to get around the three or four phrases that everybody would have expected to see there; raining buckets, raining stair rods, raining cats and dogs etc.

Of course clichés have value, they wouldn't make it into public awareness if they didn't, and that value often depends on what you're writing. In my first client's thriller, quite a few clichés were allowed to remain because they moved the action on and the last thing you want, when you've written a break-neck car chase (see that one?) is the reader stopping to ponder what you mean by some unusual phrase.

For my other client, who is writing an M.A. narrative of 20,000 words, my job is to pounce on (and that one?) every cliché with glee (that one too?) and help her find either a new way of saying what she means, or a simpler and less obtrusive one, so that if the prose isn't sharp and thought-provoking it's at least as clear and distortion-free as George Orwell's famous window pane.

Knowing your purpose helps you understand how to use language. Clichés aren't always bad, but we need think as carfully about how we use them as we do with our more original phrases.