It’s Been Said Before: A guide to the use and abuse of clichés

O Hargraves (Oxford University Press, 2016), 246pp, £11.99 (pbk)
ISBN 978 0 19062 415 6

Reviewed by Wendy Toole

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The subtitle of Orin Hargraves’s book refers to the use as well as the abuse of clichés – and, yes, it is absolutely fine to include in your writing and editing many of the terms and phrases he discusses, provided that you do so with care. By ‘clichés’, Hargraves means not merely the type of overused expressions that should be avoided like the plague (see what I did there?) but also other familiar collocations, formulas and idioms that may or may not function effectively depending on the context in which they are used.

Like the original clichés – words commonly found in combination that would be set by printers as a single block of type – many of the phrases Hargraves discusses are the kinds of verbal groupings that occur in the English language as matters of grammar and familiar usage and not merely lazy or thoughtless forms of words dropped in to fill a syntactical slot. They are certainly not all what authors and editors normally consider clichés, and many are natural ways of conveying simple information efficiently. However, if the reader accepts Hargraves’s use of the term ‘cliché’ to cover the whole range of frequently found collocations in the English language and refrains from quibbling too much with his definitions, It’s Been Said Before is an enjoyable read.

The book is divided into chapters with titles such as ‘Clichés that name things’, ‘Framing clichés’ and ‘Modifier fatigue’. Within the chapters the author gives a short introduction to the general word formula spotlighted, followed by numerous examples – such as ‘a bone of contention’, ‘dare I say it’ and ‘consummate professional’ in these three chapters, respectively. The examples are followed by a few sentences containing them, which he analyses, explaining, in his opinion, those that work and those that should be avoided. I found I disagreed with Hargraves sometimes, not only on the choice of phrases targeted but also on when they did and didn’t work, but the exercise of thinking through his verdicts and justifying my own was good brain exercise and a lot of fun. Plus I learned several vivid and amusing new expressions that I shall use (but not too often).

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