Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Facing Up to the Hard Facts of the Situation: Clichés in the Classroom

Fitch O'Connell, a longtime teacher of English as a foreign language, has been musing on a dilemma involving clichés. Though they are often disparaged by writers of English, clichés are nonetheless "part of the bread and butter of speech, and thus we would be doing a disserve to our students if we didn't encourage their fluency with a significant number."

I've just been reading the newspaper. To be precise, I've been reading extracts from the Irish Times from 1943. It keeps me out of mischief. Avid Hibernophiles will accurately guess that I've recently taken to delving into Cruiskeen Lawn, a regular column written by Brian O'Nolan who published in the Irish Times under the name of Myles na gCopaleen, but who is arguably better known by another nom de plume, Flann O'Brien. Amidst the wealth of literary attack dogs, beautifully spun puns and flights of absurdity are a series of acid-daubed barbs stuck into the heart of writers who insist on using clichés. Myles na gCopaleen is insistent about doing this: "I have now made up my mind to shoot my mouth off, whatever the consequences may be."

Clearly Myles had an axe to grind, and had no compunction about stepping on other people's toes, even if it went against the grain. In his column he was prepared to go out on a limb with his tongue lashing — there could be no ifs or buts about it, and he drew the line in the sand over the use of clichés. If you are clutching your head in dismay at this point, then fear not for the storm is now over (six clichés in two sentences leaves even me reeling — oops, there's another), but I think I've made my point (sorry, that's one more). Myles was actually railing against the use of clichés by professional writers, or at least people who dared to have their writing printed for all to read. He felt it was lazy writing and must be challenged.

He had a valid argument. Like George Orwell writing at more or less the same time, he was concerned that the use of language was deteriorating by misuse and neglect, and even worried that if it carried on then the standard of English used by the Irish "would sink to a level probably as low as that obtaining in England and it would stop there only because it could go no lower."  Of course, writers and academics have been complaining about the standards of language use for centuries, and each generation seems to foretell the demise of language as we know it. The main point that Myles was making, though, concerned clichés, and that had me thinking about how we use this form of speech when teaching English to those for whom it is not the first language.

I think it is fair to say that we tend to introduce clichés to students when they reach an intermediate level, and the reason we do this is because it provides them with extremely useful shortcuts into fluency, both in receiving and producing the language. Clichés are, by definition, tried and tested combinations of words that deliver a specific message in a specific situation. The first time what was later to become a cliché was uttered, it was undoubtedly heralded as a smart idea, a clever combination of words and an excellent way of delivering a message. Indeed, it was so smart and so clever that it was copied endlessly thereafter. Imitation being regarded as a form of flattery, here it was taken to the point where  it became a stock phrase with all the freshness wrung out of it. But, having achieved that status, the cliché is now irrevocably established in the language and is known — loved or hated — by the majority of native speakers. English language clichés also have the dubious distinction of being highly transferrable from one form of English from another, and many (though not all) will crop up in equal measure in America, South Africa, Australia and the British Isles.

There is nothing that can impress like an appropriately delivered stock phrase or idiom by a foreign speaker of the language (though, conversely, there is nothing quite so painful as to hear one delivered incorrectly or inappropriately). As an English language teacher I feel a responsibility to increase the comfort level of my students in using English fluently, and the introduction of a few well-chosen clichés often promotes a level of ease. What's more, clichés, like proverbs and idioms, also give an insight into the culture behind the language: the form of words adopted gives an inkling into how native speakers see the relationship between certain words and concepts. I won't attempt to go into the debate about the difference between cliché and idiom save to say that idioms are figurative expressions (i.e. not literal) and that some idioms are so overused they have become clichés. We could say that we can find both literal and figurative clichés, but we will only find figurative idioms but quite when an idiom becomes a cliché is anyone's guess.

There is a small dilemma to resolve here, then. While accepting that Myles na gCopaleen has a point and that professional writers really have no business trotting out cliché after cliché (and should, probably, be looking to invent brave new combinations of words which might become tomorrow's clichés) for the average native speaker of the language they are part of the bread and butter of speech, and thus we would be doing a disserve to our students if we didn't encourage their fluency with a significant number. Of course, it is quite likely that our own students of English won't go on to make a living by writing English (though I, for one, would have lost if I'd bet on that supposition) so perhaps the injunctions against using clichés put forward by Myles don't actually apply to them. Those who are disturbed by the indiscriminate use of the offending items would have to block their ears when they come near my classroom, for hackneyed as some of the phrases are, they still add richness and depth for learners and I, for one, don't intend to stop introducing them when appropriate.

So I'm sorry, Myles, but in this particular case you'll have to get off your high horse and just go with the flow.

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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 22nd 2012, 3:40 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Yes, and what is lost when failing to use an apt idiom.
I marvel at my friend's lack of understanding when I say, someone should "throw in the towel."
Or, he can't "make it to first base."
There can be no argument of how much is lost when the idiom hasn't been learned.
The use of idiomatic speech is essential to commanding English speech.
Thursday March 22nd 2012, 6:52 AM
Comment by: madeline D. (FL)
Such a charming read.
Thursday March 22nd 2012, 9:03 AM
Comment by: Deborah F.
Idioms make us think twice about what we are saying. After more than 35 years living in the non-English speaking world (and unfortunately losing a lot of my mother-tongue in the process), I am often amused by idioms and the comic situations they incur. The same often exist in another language, but slightly different. For example, when my French-speaking husband signals in English his doubt of an affirmation, he dubiously points to his eye (the French version) and says "my foot!". Or did you know that the frog you must clear from your throat in English is a cat, in French?
Thursday March 22nd 2012, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Tom W.
Good article. Cliches are indeed an easy way out, but for non-professionals, what's the big deal? It's like criticizing a right-handed person's basketball skills if s/he can't shoot left handed like the pros can. Back off and let me have some fun! I may not be a pro but I still got some game, even if I resort to using my right hand (my bag of cliches) a little too often.

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