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It's Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches
 
 

It's Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches [Kindle Edition]

Orin Hargraves
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Careful writers and speakers agree that cliches are generally to be avoided. However, nearly all of us continue to use them. Why do they persist in our language?
In It's Been Said Before, lexicographer Orin Hargraves examines the peculiar idea and power of the cliche. He helps readers understand why certain phrases became cliches and why they should be avoided -- or why they still have life left in them. Indeed, cliches can be useful -- even powerful. And few people even agree on which expressions are cliches and which are not. Many regard any frequent idiom as a cliche, and a phrase regarded as a cliche in one context may be seen simply as an effective expression in another. Examples drawn from data about actual usage support Hargraves' identification of true cliches. They also illuminate his commentary on usage problems and helpful suggestions for eliminating cliches where they serve no useful purpose.
Concise and lively, It's Been Said Before serves as a guide to the most overused phrases in the English language -- and to phrases that are used exactly as often as they should be.

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More About the Author

Orin Hargraves was born in Denver and grew up in Creede, Colorado. He graduated from the University of Chicago (BA with Honors) in 1977. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco in the 1980s. He is the author of three guidebooks in the Culture Shock! series: Morocco, London, and Chicago. He began his career in lexicography while living in London in the early 1990s. He has since written numerous articles and books about language, as well as contributing to dozens of dictionaries from publishers internationally. At present he researches language at the University of Colorado and lives in Niwot, Colorado, near Boulder. He writes the monthly "Language Lounge" column for VisualThesaurus.com and also blogs for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Filler Up 25 Jun 2014
By David Wineberg TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition
There are rich pickings in the land of the cliché. Our inherent laziness permits us to insert them frequently and pointlessly to make our writing appear richer, or at least longer. Orin Hargraves blames the news media for spreading them ubiquitously. He thinks that the rise of blogs and the decline of newspapers have meant the disappearance of editors. Everyone publishes without real oversight, and clichés fester and bloom in that environment, because they are easy out. Even when they don’t work or make sense. Basically, Hargraves thinks they make sentences less concise and therefore less authoritative.

Journalism boasts more clichés per unit of text than any other source. Many are the near exclusive property of the news media. He cites bone of contention, commanding lead, corridors of power, end of an era, fevered speculation, dyed in the wool, not immediately clear, deal a fatal blow, fuel speculation, grip the nation, sound the death knell, spearheading, swept to power, usher in a new era, and rich tapestry, among others, as rarely or never appearing in civil conversation.

He can make such claims because of the research tool at his disposal. Hargraves tapped the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), a massive database of nearly everything published in English. It contains upwards of 2.5 billion instances of words in context, including radio, tv and internet. Software allowed him to search not just clichés themselves, but their environments: what words precede or follow, the syntax they represent, and their frequency, compared to others, compared to non clichés, compared to just about anything in the OEC. It showed him usage patterns, quantity, genres, and the example itself, from which he populated this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A lexicographical study of clichés 11 July 2014
By Roman Clodia TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition
This is a lively and accessible book which opens up academic language research to a non-specialist audience. Hargraves studies clichés statistically and argues that context and misapplication often determines what is and isn’t a cliché rather than mere overuse.

After setting out his research questions and explaining the statistical methodology used in the book, he then goes on to examine clichés and evaluate them according to their effectiveness and frequency within a given corpus of language. As Hargraves himself points out, the definition of cliché is both fuzzy and subjective and he strives to add a certain mathematical order to the idea.

I’m not a linguist but it may be the case that this isn’t sophisticated or theoretical enough for an academic specialist and perhaps a bit too detailed for the generalist reader: if you enjoy books about words and language (e.g. Mark Forsyth’s The Horologicon) then this might be a good choice.

(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher)
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  51 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Filler Up 13 Jun 2014
By David Wineberg - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
There are rich pickings in the land of the cliché. Our inherent laziness permits us to insert them frequently and pointlessly to make our writing appear richer, or at least longer. Orin Hargraves blames the news media for spreading them ubiquitously. He thinks that the rise of blogs and the decline of newspapers have meant the disappearance of editors. Everyone publishes without real oversight, and clichés fester and bloom in that environment, because they are easy out. Even when they don’t work or make sense. Basically, Hargraves thinks they make sentences less concise and therefore less authoritative.

Journalism boasts more clichés per unit of text than any other source. Many are the near exclusive property of the news media. He cites bone of contention, commanding lead, corridors of power, end of an era, fevered speculation, dyed in the wool, not immediately clear, deal a fatal blow, fuel speculation, grip the nation, sound the death knell, spearheading, swept to power, usher in a new era, and rich tapestry, among others, as rarely or never appearing in civil conversation.

He can make such claims because of the research tool at his disposal. Hargraves tapped the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), a massive database of nearly everything published in English. It contains upwards of 2.5 billion instances of words in context, including radio, tv and internet. Software allowed him to search not just clichés themselves, but their environments: what words precede or follow, the syntax they represent, and their frequency, compared to others, compared to non clichés, compared to just about anything in the OEC. It showed him usage patterns, quantity, genres, and the example itself, from which he populated this book. It makes for some fascinating discoveries, such as date of first use, as well as some laughs. Elephant in the room is used more often in the OEC than there are elephants in Africa, by about 20:1, for example. I particularly enjoyed the clichés that made no sense themselves, such as meteoric rise, considering that meteors don’t rise, they fall. But we never see the phrase meteoric fall, so what good is it?

It also allows Hargraves to give 2-4 examples of the each cliché in use. He gets to examine the context, accuracy and effect of their deployment, and determine just how useless the cliché is. This is actually important, because by his definition, if the phrase has any real use at all, it’s not a cliché. His evaluation: “Clichés are the sterile offspring of a mind that is not engaged in creativity, and following the advice of an authority is surely the opposite of creativity.”

Hargraves divides clichés by their syntactic placement, as noun replacements, adjectives, adverbs or predicates. What help this is he does not say. He proposes no use for it. I personally found his segregating of clichés this way of no practical use. Syntax is an innate function, and native speakers automatically place clichés in their sentences correctly. I think it would have been far more useful to collect them by genre or characteristic.

-There are the news media clichés, above.
-There are redundant clichés, such as each and every, various and sundry, in actual fact, over and above, close proximity, categorically deny, in and of itself, null and void, and for all intents and purposes.
-There are archaic and obsolete word clichés, such as beyond the pale, down the pike, wend your way, every nook and cranny, by and large and emblazoned on, none of which today’s speakers can define.
-There clichés that are so useless, people actually use them incorrectly, and few notice.

Isolated and collected like this, they become ever more insulting to read about. Categorizing them this way drives home their redundancy, verbosity and empty filler nature, and might help towards goal of making people of aware of them, and of avoiding them.

It’s Been Said Before is a reference work, not a dictionary. Hargraves argues that he has included only phrases he considers clichés, while some readers might consider others for membership. That there is room for disagreement opens the door to conscious-raising even wider. I have my own test. “As opposed to” turns out to be a decent test of whether or not a cliché makes any sense. If there is no other possibility (see meteoric rise, above), then the phrase is not falsifiable/deniable, as they say in science.

It’s not perfect, but I don’t need to check dictionaries and reference books to know if I’m barking up the wrong tree, as it were.

David Wineberg
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great reference book for cliches 18 Jun 2014
By Chicago Book Addict - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I work in marketing and have a very writing-intensive job so I'm always looking for resource books that help me improve my writing and make sure I'm not using words and phrases incorrectly. I love this book. It's a great book when I'm not 100% sure what a cliche means. I also have quite a few co-workers for whom English is a second language so this has been helpful for me to find other ways of stating something when a cliche does not quite resonate. It's not a book I'd recommend reading cover to cover, but it is handy when I want to look up something cliche-related for reference.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful commentary on clichés 15 May 2014
By Sanpete - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Though a primary use of this book will be as a dictionary or catalog of clichés, the author claims it isn't intended to be either (page xii). His point is partly that he doesn't attempt the kind of comprehensive survey or authoritativeness that dictionaries typically do--he stresses the subjective elements in determining what counts as a cliché.

More importantly, he believes what counts as a cliché varies according to use, and he wants to discourage the idea that his book provides a catalog of expressions not to use. He believes they're sometimes just the right words to use. A major feature of the book is the author's advice about when a cliché is well used and when it isn't, both generally and for the specific clichés he collects.

This is a selective reference, as explained further below. Hargraves has entries for roughly 440 clichés, considerably more if variants are counted. By comparison, a dictionary of clichés claiming to be the most comprehensive includes over 4,000. Each entry includes:

-- an indication of how frequently the cliché is used (more on this below)
-- the meaning, if it isn't obvious
-- examples of use, usually three
-- commentary, usually including analysis of what makes it a cliché, when it may be well used, and sometimes remarks about history or common usage

The style and complexity of information are pitched at a general audience. It's occasionally snarky in a dry way, not overly biting.

Hargraves uses the word "cliché" in both its usual pejorative sense and in a neutral sense. To be considered a cliché for the purposes of the book, an expression must in a significant number of cases meet the criteria for the pejorative meaning of cliché, but even when such an expression is used in ways that wouldn't meet those criteria it may still be referred to as a cliché.

The criteria Hargraves applies to determine what is a cliché are derived from the standard notion that it's an overused expression:

-- The first condition is, naturally, that it be an expression in frequent use. He draws on objective data relating to this, though even here subjectivity creeps in, as frequency varies with type of expression, and no clear line for any type is offered.
-- Second, since frequent use doesn't imply overuse, the expression must also be commonly ineffectively or improperly used, i.e. used where it doesn't apply well, would be better omitted, or could be replaced by more effective language, an idea that includes economy of words (even syllables).
-- A further, even more subjective factor is whether the expression is annoying or tiresome.

Hargraves excludes some idioms and types of expressions that are sometimes treated as clichés, mostly because he thinks they don't meet the second criterion in that they're generally effectively and properly used. He excludes proverbs partly for that reason, partly because as full sentences they don't fulfill a grammatical function, and (mainly I think) because proverbs and other complete sentences are semantically complex and would require a larger book. He includes only a few complete sentences, ones that typically don't stand alone but serve to frame other expressions. He also excludes "fillers," i.e. words commonly used to fill pauses in speech that don't affect meaning, such as "you know" and "I mean." And he generally doesn't include single words, as those are already well treated in ordinary dictionaries.

He arranges the clichés in a peculiar and perhaps overly complicated way, though he does have reasons for each organizing principle. Rather than just list the clichés in alphabetical order, he breaks them into groups by their grammatical or semantic function, within which they're presented in alphabetical order. Unless you have the mind of a lexicographer, and one named Orin Hargraves in particular, this will make it difficult to find a cliché without consulting the index. Happily, that's easy enough to do. The principles of alphabetization within each group, explained in the "Organization of this book" section of chapter one (page 15 in the advance copy I have), are also a little more complicated than seems necessary, but the index is ordered in the conventional way.

One useful feature of the book is that it gives some indication of how common each cliché is, assigning a frequency number from 1 to 5. The numbers are relative to each group of clichés, so that the frequency of use that corresponds to a score of 2 in one group may correspond to 4 in another. I would have liked to see some absolute numbers given for each as well, as it would make more exact comparisons and comparisons across groups possible, something that would be all the more useful because in some cases which group a cliché is placed in is somewhat arbitrary. But that would have added to the complexity of the entries, something Hargraves evidently wanted to avoid.

Hargraves' choices and comments strike me as generally reasonable, though I did scratch my head over a few, such as his treatment of "a woman's right to choose," which he acknowledges is a euphemism but then says is unmoored from its meaning and thus a cliché when not used with the term "abortion." Wouldn't the point of its use as a euphemism be to avoid the use of the term it stands for? In some instances he seems to stress the literal more is than called for, such as in his treatment of "almighty dollar," which he sees as an increasingly unsuitable term for mammon because of the vicissitudes of the actual US dollar. Hargraves sometimes indulges a little redundancy.

Quibbles aside, this book is well suited to be an aid in one's own writing, and for those called upon, in editing the writing of others. I had an occasional guilty response to seeing terms I use listed and explained in ways I hadn't considered. But I was also pleased to see some expressions I like justified, and the use of cliché justified in some general and specific ways, a feature of this book that sets it apart from most other resources of its type.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Academic and Accessible 1 Aug 2014
By ck - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Orin Hargraves has made a career of studying words and phrases: What works, what doesn't; and what's overused, and why. In "It's Been Said Before," he draws on masses of text to trace the rise and spread of the verbal shorthand known as cliché.

And what he finds and concludes may surprise you. Yes, he takes writers to task for employing overused, trite phrases that are evidence of lazy, uninspired work, compounded by a lack of internal standards and the absence of a skilled editor. However, Hargraves maintains that not all clichés are inherently bad. To the contrary, he notes that they sometimes are a clear, expedient way of conveying an abstract concept or making a point. Similarly, in verbal communication, a cliché can provide a virtual anchor for both speaker and audience, boosting comprehension.

If you're a "word person," rein yourself in and spend some time with his teasing-out of what constitutes a cliché, and his litmus tests for placement on the effective/ineffective continuum. Doing so will make the analysis of the words that follow more meaningful and useful.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keep reading 26 Jun 2014
By M. Wolf - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I opened this book midway on a chapter about predictive cliches. The first sentence broke down the sentence of predictive cliches and I took many steps backwards to my freshman English teacher and was almost twitching with terror.

Don't let the terror of sentence structure stop you from reading on.

After reading this book I have a much greater awareness of how truly prevalent the use of cliches are. The section on predictive cliches changed how I listened to new reporting. I have been annoyed by the hyperbolic statements before but now looking at the cliches as well it brings a whole new way to be annoyed at the news.

This is a fun book to read aloud and discuss. I would love to make it mandatory reading for sports casters, most of whom have lost the art of flowery metaphors and lazily resort to a tiresome short list of overused cliches.
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