Writing 101: What Is a Cliché? Learn When to Use Clichés in Writing, and 20 Common Clichés All Writers Should Avoid

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 15, 2019 • 3 min read

“All that glitters is not gold.” If you’ve heard an expression like this a thousand times, it is probably a cliché. A cliché is a phrase or idea that has been used to the extent that it has lost its original meaning—and its allure.



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What Is a Cliché?

A cliché is an expression that was once innovative but has lost its novelty due to overuse. Take the phrase “as red as a rose” for example—it is a universal descriptor for the color red that is now commonplace and unoriginal.

Other examples of clichés include demarcations of time, such as “in the nick of time” and “at the speed of light.” Clichés also include expressions about emotions, such as “head over heels” to describe love, and the phrase “every cloud has a silver lining” to express hope in difficult situations.

The word “cliché” comes from French. It was first used to describe a stereotype: a metal plate used for printing an image. Both the words “cliché” and “stereotype” derive from printing jargon but now have negative connotations.

What Is a Thought-Terminating Cliché?

A thought-terminating cliché is a phrase that offers a reductive answer to a complex idea. The term was popularized in the 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China by physiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. Thought-terminating clichés are also known as semantic stop signs or thought-stoppers. Here are some examples of thought-terminating clichés:

  • “To each his own.”
  • “You win some, you lose some.”
  • “I’ll cross the bridge when I get there.”
  • “Take it or leave it.”
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Why You Should Avoid Clichés in Writing

Overused clichés can show a lack of original thought, and can make a writer appear unimaginative and lazy. Clichés are often specific to language and cultures and may be a communication barrier to international readers. Some old clichés have been repeated for so many years that the original reference is archaic and irrelevant.

3 Examples of When it’s OK to Use Clichés in Writing

There are a few instances in which the use of a cliché as a literary device is acceptable, but clichés should always be chosen wisely. Here are some examples of admissible usage:

  1. To sync with a readership. Clichés of idiomatic phrases and slang words can work for specific audiences. If you’re writing for a baby boomer audience, the cliché “back in the day” would make sense. By contrast, millennial readers would be familiar with the cliché “the struggle is real.”
  2. To simplify. Clichés can be used to explain beginning level concepts. For example, a how-to guide for expectant mothers might use the phrase “Remember, you’re eating for two!”
  3. For characterization. Writers might have a character use clichés to demonstrate that they are not an original thinker.


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3 Tips on How to Avoid Clichés in Writing

Clichés play such a big role in how we communicate that it may seem impossible to avoid using them in your writing. However, clichés can often be rephrased to convey the same meaning as the original expression. Here are some steps to take if you find clichés in your work:

  1. Think about the meaning of the cliché. Use a dictionary to identify synonyms that could replace the word or phrase that is cliché.
  2. Decide whether or not you need to include the cliché. Often, clichés are unnecessary placeholders in writing and can be deleted.
  3. Rewrite the sentence with new words in place of the cliché. For example, if you’re describing a musical with the cliché “comes full circle,” the description could be changed to say that the musical “returned to the themes with which it started.”

20 Common Clichés to Avoid

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There are a number of clichés that are so overused that they should be avoided like the plague (including that one). Here is a list of clichés you should avoid.

  1. “The wrong side of the bed.”
  2. “Think outside the box.”
  3. “Loose canon.”
  4. “A perfect storm.”
  5. “Can of worms.”
  6. “What goes around comes around.”
  7. “Dead as a doornail.”
  8. “Plenty of fish in the sea.”
  9. “Ignorance is bliss.”
  10. “Like a kid in a candy store.”
  11. “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
  12. “Take the tiger by the tail.”
  13. “Every rose has its thorn.”
  14. “Good things come to those who wait.”
  15. “In the nick of time.”
  16. “If only walls could talk.”
  17. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
  18. “The pot calling the kettle black.”
  19. “The grass is always greener on the other side.”
  20. “Beating a dead horse.”

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