The Washington Post published a game-changer recently. Donning the mantle of a grammar maven, it weighed in on the hot-button issue of clichés.
In a piece titled "150 journalism clichés—and counting," the paper promised this was "not your father's list of journalism clichés."
Time will tell if the list has any effect in communications. But there's much for organizational writers to chew over, whether they're in public relations,
internal comms, or marketing.
Outlook Editor Carlos Lozada writes that in recent years, he and some Post colleagues "have played our own parlor game, assembling a list of verbal
crutches, stock phrases, filler words, clichés and perpetually misused expressions that we should avoid in the Post's Sunday Outlook section—or at
least think hard about before using."
The list doubles the number of offenders listed on a previous version, he says. Among the Post's phrases to avoid are:
A favorite Washington parlor game
Dons the mantle of
Effort (as a verb)
Table (as a verb, as in "table the talks")
Point of no return
At the end of the day
In a nutshell
The Post solicits further contributions, and I was distressed to see that they left out to be sure, make no mistake, just askin', and color me as in skeptical. With the upheaval in Ukraine, "all options are on the table" has come burbling up out of the diplomatic drainpipes. (It is particularly weak when some options clearly are not. Nuke Moscow? Land NATO paratroopers in
Don't drink the Kool-Aid
The Post, of course, is not alone in gathering taboo phrases for its writers.
Commenting on the Post's list, the Bleacher Report—a sports website with a blog for its writer contributors—notes that it has published a list of 20 banned clichés. The site's
blacklist includes some, er, chestnuts that the Post overlooked:
Easier said than done
When push comes to shove
Drink the Kool-Aid
First and foremost
The writer calls The Post's list a "terrifying, entertaining collection":
If you're a writer, even if you never write about Beltway politics, you're sure to find your own words in that list, taunting you, laughing at your
laziness, or worse yet your silly idea that you were being original when you wrote, say, "This is not your father's [anything]" or "What happens in
[somewhere] stays in [somewhere]."
As for its own list, Bleacher Report is says, "There are only 20 phrases on it, but we're serious about them. We refer to the list when evaluating current
and prospective B/R writers."
Public relations has its own stock phrases, as we at PR Daily noted in a story last year on "20 words and phrases that will doom your pitch." Among these are landmark, turnkey, and state-of-the-art.
Get advanced writing and editing tips from Mark Ragan and Jim Ylisela.]
We all have our favorite clichés to loathe. A British firm, Ramarketing & PR, recently offered "5 PR clichés to avoid like the plague," such as "we get under the skin of your
business." Color me clueless: I hadn't heard that one.
Naturally, any such list is open to debate. The Post doesn't like the verb shutter, as in "they shuttered the factory." I won't argue that it's
particularly fresh, but is closed any livelier? As for the ban on tabled, I'm guessing Lozada has never had to cover a small-town school
rightly holds a place on the Post's list. Still, I recently tried to sneak this one past our editors at Ragan Communications, modifying the name of business investor Carl
Icahn (pronounced icon). Sadly, it didn't make the cut. Executive Editor Rob Reinalda says we don't pun on peoples' names. (Perhaps this should
have occurred to a writer named Working.)
Internal comms has its own jargon and stock phrases, as Steve Crescenzo exclusively revealed in Ragan's HR Communication some time ago. His story cited
five "communication clichés that belong in the trash." These included "facilitate dialogue" and "offer a smorgasbord of communication options for employees."
Tenuous at best, a dizzying array of cliché lists burst onto the national scene from time to time. Or so it seems. Grizzled veterans are well advised
to avoid them. But don't blame me if somebody calls your favorite phrase a cliché. At the end of the day, the choice is yours.
Russell Working is a staff writer at Ragan Communications.