Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Ear Worms

     Pardon me if I seem to be in a “pet peeves” mode today. You know how sometimes you notice one little detail, and suddenly you see it everywhere? Well, lately I’ve noticed an overuse of two clichés, the literary equivalent of ear-worms, so I’m on a de-worming campaign.

     A cliché starts as an original expression, but devolves through misuse and overuse into meaningless verbiage. One I can’t get out of my head is “turn on one’s heel.” The original use appears to have been an attempt to show how a character can spin around, usually in anger or disgust. My problem with the phrase is not only overuse, although that’s bad enough. What gets to me is that the action described is nearly impossible to do. The angles of our knees and ankles and the balance of our muscles are all wrong for this motion. Seriously, have you ever tried turning on your heel? I dare you to do it without landing on your derriere. Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait… See? If you want to change direction quickly and emphatically, you pivot on your toes. The only person I’ve ever seen turn on his heel was an actor, playing an alien disguised as a human. The effect was truly eerie and, well, alien.

     The other worm in my ear, though more ubiquitous, could be considered less obnoxious because it takes many forms:
I forced my way through the crowd.
He picked his way over the stones.
She edited her way through a manuscript.
They ate their way through the meal.
We swam our way across the river.

     All these sentences indicate movement against resistance, which isn’t so bad. But he pushed his way through the open door? Yes, I’ve run into that one. Where’s the resistance he’s pushing against? My objection to this cliché is its frequency and its lack of detail. How about:
 I wriggled between the dancers.
He tested each stone before he trusted his weight to it.
She wielded her red pen like a machete over a jungle of turgid prose.
They gorged on a smorgasbord.
The river nearly carried us off, but we floundered to the other bank.
He took one bold step into the room.

    Yes, these sentences are longer, but much more vivid.

     Clichés serve a purpose. They are a kind of shorthand we use without thinking, in the faith that our readers will know what we mean. Indeed, if you never use a cliché your writing may feel foreign or unnatural. However, we can do better. We can use stronger verbs, more precise nouns and more descriptive adjectives to create a sharper picture in our readers’ minds. Examine your use of clichés. If they are not the best way to get your ideas across, turn on your heel and work your way through to better writing. Better yet, ditch the cliché and get creative.


  1. I am working my way through posting a comment and wondering if you have ever worked your way through turning a heel while knitting a sock.

    1. Hi Jacqui! Good to hear from you. I love turning heels, but I admit I still need the directions on my lap while I do it. It takes a little practice, but the result is so worthwhile.

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  2. I suppose we use cliches everyday without even realizing it and that does carry over into our writing. Here's one I seem to read a lot: right as rain. Another: dumb as dirt. They're both common alliterative similes used often.Writers are always in need of editors to catch our overused expressions and repetitions.

    1. Ay, there's the rub, Jacqueline--overuse. If we overreach for alternatives to cliches, we run the risk of not being understood or not sounding natural.

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  4. Excellent post, Nikki. I dislike cliches too, try hard not to use them, but suddenly in speech they all too often pop up. So many of these find their origin in plays like Shakespeare's, where they were once fresh and vibrant. I do use them now and again in a poem, but in an offbeat way--like describing the birth of a cow but ending with "this calf will stand a chance." A cliche, but a reference to the life/luck/ of the calf.

  5. Hi Nancy. I like your idea of using cliches in an offbeat way. That's creative!