Avoiding clichés like the plague

William Safire once said, “Avoid clichés like the plague.”

That’s humorous yet sound advice, presuming one knows the definition of clichés. According to Weber State University, they are “old coins of language: phrases that once made a striking impression but have since been rubbed smooth by repeated handling.” There are several types of clichés, which include similes, metaphors, idioms and inflated phrases. Many business professionals consider clichés trite and annoying at the very least, but more often representative of lazy communicators and thinkers.

Business writing has its own special collection of buzzwords that fall into the category of clichés: For example: “synergy,” “win-win,” “scalable enterprise solutions for the desktop,” and “in this troubled economy,” to name just a few. One prominent columnist for Bloomberg News, Caroline Baum, even compiled a list of the six most overused phrases of 2009. Her choices?

  1. “new normal”
  2. “unprecedented”
  3. “exit strategy”
  4. “green shoots”
  5. “uncertainty”
  6. “historic opportunity”

Unfortunately, business writing contains far too many of these phrases, and historic events like the recent recession only provide an excuse to create dozens more. While it’s sometimes difficult to break the habit, it’s important to make the effort. Proof your writing not only for spelling, grammar and content, but for the overuse of clichés as well. I know this is hard to do. Many of us are afraid we’ll seem foolish, ignorant and less than hip if we can’t toss around the latest jargon like a cheap plastic Frisbee at a backyard cookout. Conversely, I propose that using business jargon doesn’t make one appear intelligent and cutting-edge, but rather shallow and lacking in originality and creativity. Rather than denigrate your work, I’ll bet that your readers will thank you for sharp, clear writing—something that is enjoyable and understandable—for a change.

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