". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Thursday, November 29, 2007


When teaching writing, one of the things I always try to emphasize is the value of avoiding cliches--words and phrases that have through overuse become almost meaningless and that therefore make one's writing sound tired and predictable.

Yet if you think about it, the reason a cliche becomes a cliche--the reason it is overused in the first place--is that it contains truth. And at one time it was vivid in its freshness, a particularly striking image for its intended reader or listener.

Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about:

"Take time to stop and smell the roses."

"Don't count your chickens before they're hatched."

"Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today."

All three are such well-worn phrases that they float in and out of our brains without leaving much of an impression, yet they contain wise words that any of us would do well to heed.

Take that last one, for example. Sometimes if you put something off too long, the opportunity to act recedes entirely. So someone else gets the last piece of pie. Or that skirt on the sale rack gets purchased by another shopper. Or that dear old person dies before you get around to visiting. And sometimes you miss doing the thing you should have done by just a matter of days, and you kick yourself even more (there's another useful cliche).

Here's a poem I really like by Sara Teasdale. (I think one reason I appreciate it so much is that when I read it I also hear the music that is paired with it in a particularly gorgeous choral setting with which I am familiar.) It's about embracing life in its tinest moments, being willing to "spend" time on the beauty that is available for "purchase." Some people might find even this poem a bit cliched. I still like it.


Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit's still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.


Susan said...

I LIKE cliches! They are useful. They say a lot in a very concise way. "Make hay while the sun shines." Y'know, when you see hay rotting in the field, and know that it's going to get used for compost instead of animal-feed, then you recognize the importance of all those farmers out there with their hay-mowers and their hay-rakes on sunny days. And it makes a lesson for the kids: that they ought to use the time that is appropriate for the job, instead of sticking strictly to your preconceived schedule.

And "a penny saved is a penny earned." Actually, given our tax situation, a penny saved is a penny-and-a-half earned. Maybe our country wouldn't bow down so much at the altar of our consumeristic god quite so much if we TAUGHT people the cliches and what they mean and why they're important.

I could go on with my "I love cliches" rant, but I'll spare you any more of this. LOL.

Hey, Cheryl, Mrs Writing Professor, would you feeeeel better about cliches if we called them "proverbs"? ;-)

AmusedMomma said...

Like Susan, I love cliches! They are succinct and truthful and I love her idea of calling them proverbs instead. Unlike, Susan, I'm not as clever as thinking of a cliche to use in this comment.

So, I'll just say, "Thanks for sharing!"


Glenda said...

I don't know if these are cliches, but I sure heard them lots from my parents. My kids think it is funny when they hear Mamaw use them, but they know what she means. 1. You don't have a dog in this fight. 2. Learn to listen and listen to learn.

I know there are more, but those are what came to mind right now.