Grammar Moses: Avoid cliches like the plague

“When do idioms devolve into clichés?” Tom Connelly writes.

Tom’s question is an interesting one. His verb choice hints at one of the main differences between the two: Idioms are generally thought of as good, while clichés are almost always considered bad.

There is more to it than that. Idioms are expressions with a figurative meaning not easily deduced from its literal meaning. For instance, to “kick the bucket” means to die. But how does one derive that meaning from the information given when a bucket is rarely at the scene of a death, let alone having been kicked? There are theories on how the phrase came to be, dating back hundreds of years, but nothing conclusive. Two I’ve heard involve suicide by hanging and the slaughter of livestock, so I won’t go into it now and ruin your breakfast.

To be under the weather is to feel sick. But how do we know that other than from hearing other people use it? It is a nautical expression. When the weather soured and seas got rough, sailors went below decks to avoid becoming seasick. But when you’re lying on the couch with a wreath of snotty tissues surrounding your head, it’s not the foul weather you’re concerned about but the microscopic bug that has invaded your body.

Cliches have worn out their welcome because of overuse. They no longer contain meaning or the punch they used to. Word to writers: They’re indicators of a lack of imagination and originality.

Tom gave an example of one sports column in which the writer used “steal the show,” “take to the bank,” “in good shape” and “blink of an eye.”

No need to roast anyone over the coals here. It’s easy to lapse into clichés, because, by definition, we use them all the time, notably in everyday speech. They provide an easy way to convey a thought without having come up with a new way to express it.

But, yes, using this many clichés in one column is a surefire way to turn off a reader.

Lively writers avoid clichés like the plague.

What I enjoy is watching clever people turn clichés on their ear.

A variety of people, including voices of our time Groucho Marx and John Lennon, turned around the cliché “time heals all wounds” and gave it a twist, arriving at “time wounds all heels.”

One of the wittiest songwriters IMO, Nick Lowe, even immortalized the phrase on his 1983 album, “The Abominable Showman.”

Back to Tom’s original question: When do idioms devolve into clichés? The phrase first must be an idiom. Second, it must be overused to death. I won’t beat around the bush, but if you thought you were going to get a definitive answer out of me, you are barking up the wrong tree.

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim’s book, “Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage,” at Write him at and put “Grammar Moses” in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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