In 1918, Cornell University English professor William Strunk privately published The Elements of Style for the use of his students, who gave it its nickname, “the little book”. In it Mr Strunk directed their attention to a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated.
In his column for The New Yorker on July 27, 1957, E B White (author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little) praised the “little book” as a “43-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” (Two years later he was commissioned to revise it.)
Note the emphasis on brevity. Both Strunk and White ask new writers to revisit their work and pare it ruthlessly. By their dictum, there is no room for redundant phrases, tautology and padding – and, if at the end of it not much remains, it means the writer didn’t have much to say in the first place.
What is it, in writing and speech, that comes to us like second nature, which we fall back unconsciously upon for a sense of reassuring familiarity, and which we have so much difficulty in expunging to tauten our lines? The cliché, of course – that trite word or phrase that has become overused to the point of irritation.
A cliché could also apply to a hackneyed sequence of events done to death: think of a guest speaker promising not to detain you, but being obliged to say a few words given the auspiciousness of the occasion; a birthday party where the celebrant blows out the candles and cuts the cake while guests sing, followed by the obligatory feeding of one’s nearest with the first slice and have it rubbed all over their face. “Speech, speech!” anyone? Today no one takes us seriously even if we sign off with ‘best wishes’ and ‘fond regards’ – too blasé and blah.
Access the site Clichésite.com and you’ll be amazed at the number of phrases we’re all guilty of overusing. Just for fun I’ve tried to compose a passage in alphabetical order using some: “As luck would have it, birds of a feather flock together. But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link… Dangle a carrot in front of him, and a fool and his money are soon parted. Moral of the story: don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”.
And that’s only seven from among hundreds!