When is a “cliché” not a cliché?

Hands up all those who have been told to avoid clichés. Everyone? Very good. Now, hands up all those who were given a definition of “cliché” at the time. No one? Oh dear. So how can we avoid something if we’re not sure what it is?

We all think we know what a cliché is. Tutors dispense avoidance advice; students note: Must avoid clichés at all times!!! (The lecture on exclamation marks comes later.) A short story competition I looked at recently put “Don’t use clichés” as their top tip, assuming entrants would know what was meant. But do we really know?

Let’s look at a couple of definitions:

A cliché is an expression which has been so overused that it has lost its force or colour and shows lack of originality on the user’s part.

as happy as a sandboy

think outside the box

a pillar of the community

like greased lightning

at the end of the day

All’s well that ends well.


A common collocation is a group of two or more words frequently found together.

make a mess

inadmissible evidence

come to terms with

of paramount importance

riding high

a tax-deductible expense


All clichés – by definition – are common collocations, but few common collocations are clichés. The question is:

When does a common collocation become a cliché?


Before answering that, let’s look at two ways in which clichés can be avoided:

(1) Referencing

This means referring to an expression without quoting it in full. For example, if you see identical twins on the other side of the road and remark to a friend, “Gosh, they’re as alike as two peas in a pod”, you may get a strange look. The cliché is too obvious; people rarely use the full simile any more. If, however, you say, “Talk about (two) peas in a pod”, your friend understands and no further comment is necessary. The truncated version has gained a measure of acceptability which the original version has lost.


(2) Changing the cliché

This entails using the structure of the original expression but injecting an original element into it. During this year’s Swanwick Writers’ Conference in Derbyshire, a delegate in the Flash Fiction session produced the sentence, “That really took the Garibaldi” (instead of “biscuit”). This met with laughter all round, since the original idiom was as recognisable as the writer’s originality. (I’d love to credit him/her – could someone who was there write to me with a name?)

I often use this technique – and not only in fiction. Readers like it, and you can have a lot of fun with it. It works particularly well with idioms and similes. Try a few out for yourself:


Original                                                    What you could say instead

Everything was in apple-pie order.            Everything was in squashed apple-pie order.

take the bull by the horns

as flat as a pancake

a different kettle of fish


Now let’s return to the difference between a common collocation and a cliché. An esteemed writer friend recently warned me off using The Swinging Sixties in the blurb for my next novel, since it is now considered by many to be a cliché. Paranoid about lapsing into clichés, I immediately sought to change it. But to what? Just The Sixties? No, that wouldn’t do. It conveys nothing of the atmosphere of the decade. The phrase needs some stimulus, something evocative, for those who did not live through those years. What about The Libertarian Sixties, The Sexy Sixties, The Pop-Fashion Sixties? They don’t quite hit the mark either. How about The Beatles-Mini-Skirt-Mini-Car-Carnaby-Street-Contraceptive-Pill-Drug-Fuelled-Fashion-Model-Photo-Crazy-Pop-Festival-Hippy-Culture-Flower-Power-Psychedelia-Sixties? Now we’re getting near it, but isn’t that a teensy-weensy bit long? Isn’t there a shorter expression which conjures up all of that? Er…The Swinging Sixties.

Sometimes an expression in frequent use is a lightning conductor to a whole set of connotations. Maybe another expression doesn’t have that power, however original it may be. Sometimes one man’s cliché is another man’s useful collocation.

How do you feel about these? Are they, for you, clichés or useful collocations?           

            It ticks all the boxes.

            a hard act to follow

            the tail wagging the dog

            too many cooks

            on top of the world

Think about fatally flawed, which skyrocketed from total obscurity to ubiquity and then got on people’s nerves. Some expressions enter clichédom prematurely, the victims of fickle linguistic fashion.



Q: When does a common collocation become a cliché?

A: When its lack of originality is painfully obvious.


Q: When is a “cliché” not a cliché?

A: When it is a useful, common collocation.


I hope this article will not be misunderstood. I am not saying writers should use more clichés. On the contrary, I am saying we should use fewer clichés. But trying to reclassify all common collocations as clichés is simply wrong. Don’t throw granny out with the bathwater.

1 Comment

  1. Geoff Parkes

    The creator of the “That took the Garibaldi” line was Allison Symes. Well done, Allison!


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