Clichés Don’t Belong in Professional Writing

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Some of the common cliché phrases that we find ourselves using every day do not belong in professional writing. This has become abundantly clear to me as it has become more commonplace for me to work with international clients.

As an American, I am familiar with the intended meaning of a number of common sayings that really don’t make much sense when interpreted literally or translated into another language.

I was writing an e-mail message to a client in another country, and I found myself typing something to the effect of making sure we were “on the same page.” I stopped and look at what I wrote, and realized that what I wrote wasn’t really what I meant.

The next day, I found myself writing an e-mail to a co-worker that said that I wasn’t “at the top of my game” that day. Hmm … another phrase that really doesn’t make sense if you don’t know the implied meaning.

Someone not familiar with American vernacular would not be likely to understand these phrases. Even if my clients and business associates do know what I mean when I use clichéd phrases like these, they might find it not professional.

Look at the phrases that you use when you write and see if they make sense when translated literally. If they don’t, replace them with language that is clear and direct, with no room for misunderstanding.

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14 thoughts on “Clichés Don’t Belong in Professional Writing”

  1. In Italy people say “scrivere a prova di coglioni”… which is slightly harsher than foolproof ;).

  2. Excellent advice. Cliches stifle description, can obscure meaning and reflect poorly on the author. The business world is necessarily full of jargon and quick, imprecise communication; we need to be as clear as possible whenever we can.

  3. Indeed Americans use a lot of cliches, being a non-american sometimes some of the cliches I find very strange.

  4. I grew up in Israel, and I always found it amusing how some slang terms and cliches just didn’t translate well from Hebrew to English. I had to explain to a fellow Israeli the other day why people were amused when he told them that he enjoyed finally meeting them frontally. (In Hebrew, this is roughly equivalent to meeting them face to face).

    Even if you’re just writing for an American audience, you should try to avoid cliches and slang terms. They vary from region to region and are not always compatible.


  5. I presume you are talking about idioms, and not cliches?

    Probably cliches do not belong in professional writing either, but you’ve described idioms. =)

  6. Thank you Sam for pointing out that these are idioms and not clichés.

    How did that get by this great panel of writing tip writers?

  7. I am from India, and often write for American audience. The clichés usign baseball terminology is not understood by many outside US. Even other English-speaking countries like UK and Australia.

  8. Sometimes the lines between idiom and cliché merge.

    When I read the first paragraph of this post I thought it was going to be written humorously with a lot of clichés in order to impress the point on the reader.

    What made me think that? The cliche “abundantly clear.”:)

  9. Clichés or idioms have no place in writing for a general audience, as Meg says. I was recently attending a training seminar in which the chairperson shared a fictional and humorous story about the Pillsbury Doughboy.

    I understood the story, having grown up in Canada and hearing those ads and terms on television, but the fellow trainee next to me was from Hong Kong and had only been in Canada for a few years. I speculated that he would not be familiar with the character since he wore a puzzled look on his face. When we talked afterwards, I asked him if he was familiar with the character names. He said, “No.” The value of the story was completely lost for him.

  10. I came a bit late to this article but here is my contribution anyhow. Indian English is full of cliches. My boss keeps throwing us cliches of perverse order at regular intervals. Sample these –

    1. Keep the momentum going.
    2. At the top of my head.
    3. Let us prepone the meeting. (The word prepone is oft used in India despite the fact that it has no reference in dictionary. “prepone” is just the opposite of postpone i.e. to reschedule a meeting at an earlier time.
    4. Please do the needful (Another common error in Indian english. Much used in professional contexts)
    5. Things have fallen between the cracks (One of my boss’ favourite. He uses it when he is at loss of words especially in impromptu meetings and calls)
    6. I will leave it upto the gurus to solve (a washing-my-hands-off sentence. Much used by my boss where the discussion becomes too technical).

  11. I have always loved English idiom, slang, and love making notes when I hear truly outrageous mistakes on TV or radio. One of my favorites is ‘Put your John Hancock right here’ for ‘sign this’. WHY, tell me, do so many people say ‘put your John Henry….’? John Wayne, in one of his ‘cavalry’ movies says just that. I couldn’t believe it! And for that matter, can anyone pronounce ‘cavalry’ instead of ‘calvary’? I have a large collection of mistakes and malaprops along with notes about who said what, day, date, time and channel. My all time favorite is a quote by author Michael Crichton which I cut out from a magazine. Crichton: “Keeping fears in perspective leads me to ignore most of the frightening things I read and hear-or at least to take them with a PILLAR of salt.” I am not an expert but doesn’t he mean ‘grain of salt’? I have many pages which amuse me if no one else.

  12. I remember having to learn around hundred idioms in ESL classes (private tutoring for 16 years – British English; in school I’ve been taught American English and not so many idioms), and some of them I use quite often. I admit I sometimes have trouble distinguishing between idioms and cliches, and as idioms are a normal part of my English vocabulary, it’s not easy to restrict their use, especially when I write fiction.
    And, yes, this article is about idioms, not cliches.

  13. With regard to idioms and cliches: My undersanding is that an idiom is simply a dead metaphor. Am I correct in this, or is ther more to it than that?

  14. This is a great way to sound like a robot and be boring. Yes, clarity is important and obviously you shouldn’t use cultural references or slang when speaking to someone from another country.

    But one of the keys to being an effective communicator is speaking to your audience in their own language. Another is being interesting and engaging. Sometimes idioms, expressions, slang, etc. are effective tools for expressing specific subtext, for sounding more natural, for wordplay and for many other reasons.

    If everything you write is “TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, I BELIEVE WE NEED TO SCHEDULE A CONVERSATION TO ENSURE WE HAVE ARRIVED AT THE SAME UNDERSTANDING OF THIS SITUATION” you will seem inauthentic and robotic. Sometimes a “Hey Jim, let’s hop on a call real quick to make sure we’re on the same page” is what works.

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