During a recent conversation with my wife, I said that someone was trying to “pull the rug over our eyes.”
“Wool,” she said.
I had no idea what she was talking about. “What?”
“Wool. It’s ‘pull the wool over your eyes’ and ‘pull the rug out from under you.'” My wife, laughing at this point, continued: “How would someone pull a rug over your eyes, anyway, unless they were talking to you while you were lying on the floor?”
Oh. Right. Good thing we were alone.
This is just one of several reasons not to use clichés—in conversation or in your writing. If you use them incorrectly, they can distract your reader or listener from what you’re trying to say. My wife missed my point completely because she was too busy rolling on the floor laughing—where, ironically, someone actually could have pulled a rug over her eyes.
Another reason not to write or speak with clichés is that they’re not your words. Your listener wants to hear you. When you drop in a clichéd phrase, your listener goes from being carried along by your unique ideas to… suddenly hearing some centuries-old thought for the thousandth time. It’s as though you’ve temporarily left the conversation and told your listener, “Here, talk to my Great Aunt Melba.”
There’s one more reason to stay away from clichés: they’re conversation killers. Imagine: you and a friend are having a nice talk, and your friend says, “Well, that’s the way the ball bounces,” or “… cookie crumbles,” or whatever. What’s left to say? Your friend chose to use someone else’s overused phrase rather than say something original. Clearly, your friend has given up on this talk. This is how clichés end conversations. You don’t want to be the one who steers a nice chat into a wall.
By the way, clichéd phrases also include imprecise expressions. A few weeks ago, a cable news correspondent said on the air that a Senate candidate “has a ton of support” from his party. Really? I didn’t realize we measure political backing by the pound.
Keep these vague expressions out of your speaking and writing as much as you can. Don’t use “every ounce of my energy” or “without a drop of experience” or anything similar. Use the “does it make sense” test. If you can’t actually measure experience by the drop, then don’t use drop.
Remember: you are unique, with a unique life and unique insights gleaned from that life. The people to whom you speak and write really do want to hear what you have to say, what no one else can say quite the way you can. So avoid clichés like the plague. Fight them with every fiber of your being. Don’t touch them with a 10-foot pole.
How about you? What clichés drive you up the wall, make your skin crawl, and make your blood boil?