Clichéd Thinking Is Worse Than Clichéd Language

Though The Two Are Connected

We’re all familiar with clichés of language — “a needle in the haystack,” “backbone of steel,” and “put your best foot forward.”

They’re the rhetorical shorthands that, like jargon, cultivate a sense of belonging and prevent us from having to think too long or too hard about what we’re trying to say. They’re also the enemies of all serious writers, and should be avoided when trying to convey creativity and originality.

(If you want to learn more about how to avoid clichés in writing, read this post by Roy Peter Clark, who has been teaching writing for decades and is taken seriously enough that no one blushes at the fact that he uses his middle name all the time.)

From Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, available here:

Ok, so clichéd language is problematic and taken seriously enough that there are countless lessons in how to avoid them. But what about the corollary to language clichés –clichéd thinking and ideas?

Here are a few examples prevalent in politics. You’ll note that many of these are associated with clichés of language, which is another reminder that words do matter.

· Immigrants are living in the shadows (Examples here, here, and here.)

· America is unraveling (Examples here, here, and here.)

· Congress is gridlocked (Examples here, here, here, here, here, here…)

Each of these clichéd ideas point to trends in politics that are real and worrisome. Illegal immigrants do live in the shadows, American society has unraveled in certain ways, and Congress does seem particularly bad at (cliché alert: getting things done) passing legislation.

But regardless of what we do for a living, we shouldn’t fall into fallacious, clichéd traps. Not all immigrants (even illegal ones) live with the constant anxiety of being deported. Congress does and has passed legislation in recent years. And, as James Fallows shows in a wonderful essay published this weekend in The Atlantic, some parts of America are “raveling up.”

So when you next come across a cliche in written or verbal form, think about the idea it represents and ask: Is the idea itself a cliché?