Cliché – The Teacher’s Friend


Cliché – The Teacher’s Friend

As a writer I try to avoid cliché wherever possible, to the point of paranoia. But, in planning a creative writing workshop*, I realised that, from the perspective of a language student, cliché is the best thing that can happen for their English.  So maybe we should be teaching as many of them as we can cram in.

It’s an interesting paradox that a native speaker who wishes to show wizardry in mastering their language, the more original they want to make their utterances. Russell Brand is a genius at sculpting language,  as this Guardian piece shows. I have my moments too, occasionally. Yet, for a foreigner, the exact opposite strategy is advisable.

Play it safe and clutch onto those clichés. Originality will more likely lead to incomprehensibility and failed exams.

Looks like a CAE level text to me!

It’s similar to the dilemma I’ve faced when writing Graded Readers where the art of writing them well means breaking many of the rules of Good Writing. Speaking good English means being unoriginal, not playing with language, not being able to bend the rules. It’s the basic principle underlying the Lexical Approach, which, to me, has always seemed like the most sensible way to teach.

For example, until McDonalds made “I’m loving it”  acceptable use no NNS would have got away with such shocking disobedience of the “rules” about stative and non stative verbs. And even though “I’m loving X” has come to mean something like “I am so into X right now and this is a recent and joyful factor in my life”, you can bet an FCE examiner would be frowning in disapproval if they heard it.

However, I don’t suppose many people learning a language really care about innovating in their L2 (aka making mistakes because it’s only innovating if you’re a native speaker) so the good news is that there is a site which holds currently 3300 clichés in English:Cliché Finder.

The best, and pretty addictive, part is the Random Cliché generator. At every click, ten of them appear. Not that you’ll be able to stop at ten. I average three doses per session before I detach myself and get back to work.

Some of the clichés are dubious, to a non US resident at least. I’m not feeling** this one in my last set of ten at all:

Two ways to do it. My way and the wrong way.

Then again, Google turned up 565,000 results on that phrase.

But more useful, and therefore learnable/teachable are:

turned the gun on himself

pinch me to see if I’m dreaming

over the hill

all that glitters is not gold

to make a long story short

The first appears in just about any news article involving gun men that then commit suicide. The second could be learned as a lexical chunk to show extreme delight at a situation. The third comes up often enough in describing (rudely) someone’s age. The fourth, one of the many clichés we’ve gained from Shakespeare’s gift for turn of phrase, is no more or less useful than “it’s raining cats and dogs” which all EFL students seem to encounter at some point. And the fifth is very useful for telling stories.

The clichés we most heavily promote in TEFL have always struck me as the most misleading. Linking words for essays. I dutifully make students put them in to score  high on the exam marking criteria  and then cringe at the resulting, badly patch-worked mess that comes from shoehorning five or more of them into a 250 word essay about whether it’s the responsibility of citizens or governments to reduce pollution. I would never write an essay with that many of them in myself.

These days we could do our students the most favours by teaching them, “At the end of the day; to be honest; to be fair; I’m like….; WTF; LOL

Because, at the end of the day, that would cover about half of all native speaker utterances if social media is anything to go by. To be honest, I’m guilty of some of them but, to be fair, I make more effort when I’m doing serious writing. That said, if I look back at this text, I’m like WTF?! it’s full of cliché! (face a dilemma, have my moments, bend the rules, do someone a favour…) Oh dear, LOL 🙂


*If you’re interested in the creative writing workshop on Avoiding Cliché, it’s here along with other resources by Madrid Writer’s Club.

**Note my acceptable for a NS, incorrect for a NNS use of the verb “feel”.


Originally posted at Simple English. Reposted with kind permission of Nicola Prentis.


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1 Comment

  • Eric Roth says:

    Thank you for sharing this article and making an important point, especially for EFL teachers, about the importance of knowing cliches. In my writing courses for international graduate students, I have given out the Washington Post Outlook Section list of cliches to avoid – and flipped the assignment. It’s crucial for our students to at least recognize these cliches that appear in both mainstream publications and in their disciplines. Of course, many international students want to sound and write like native speakers. Adding appropriate, common phrases achieves that often elusive goal.
    Here is the list of cliches that your students might want to study too!
    BTW, Jim Romenesko’s blog has become rather influential in media studies and journalism circles.

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