Clichés are trite, overused expressions, many of which rely on figurative language. In the beginning, an expression is a fresh way of saying something. Although it's hard to believe, pretty as a picture, old as the hills, sharp as a tack, and smart as a whip were once new and exciting comparisons. But through overuse, they've become tiresome, and most writers avoid them. Other examples turn up everywhere from online chat and social networks to newspapers, magazines, and television. For example, someone may be following his dream, while someone else may be trying to burst his bubble. Sometimes what you see is what you get, but other times you meet people who have a hidden agenda. Watch out for real‐life superheroes, unsung heroes, human dynamos, living legends, people who push the panic button, people who live in glass houses, and even the man on the street.
Along with stale figures of speech are phrases that have been used so often they are clichés: all bent out of shape, axe to grind, contributing factor, first and foremost, grave danger, go belly up, get an earful, grieving widow, grisly murder, in the final analysis, integral part, once and for all, one step closer, read between the lines, raw deal, the be‐all and end‐all, tried and true, vital role, unforeseen obstacles, and so on. These trendy phrases appear and spread quickly, then become overused just as quickly; so avoid them in your writing.
A television reporter described a man as having signed his own death knell. Her error illustrates a mix of clichés. The reporter no doubt meant signed his own death warrant, an overused expression that means to cause one's own destruction through a particular act. But she confused that expression with another, sounding the death knell, which means to announce the end of something, or, to cause the end of something, as in “Cutting off the funds sounded the death knell for the struggling program.” Literally, a knell is the sound of a bell tolling, as at a funeral. Obviously, it's not possible to sign a knell.
Before you use any expression or description that sounds familiar, think about it carefully. Is there a better, more descriptive or precise way to say what you want to say? For example, it is stronger to say that he was enraged, rather than he was hopping mad or mad as a wet hen. Whatever you do, don't use a cliché and then apologize for it: Pardon my use of the cliché, but it's true that all that glitters is not gold. The apology does nothing but draw attention to the tired, overused expression.
Using clichés in new ways
On rare occasions, clichés get new life with a witty turn or a surprising application. For example, baseball legend Yogi Berra twisted a standard expression when he said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”; and civil rights activist H. Rap Brown did it with his line “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” If you can use a trite expression or cliché in a new, surprising way, you are overcoming the expression's predictability. As with all attempts at cleverness, be sure that you're achieving the desired effect and not just making a bad joke.