Avoiding Clichés Like the Plague
Paul Davis, UK
Paul Davis is a teacher, trainer and author. He has co-written: Dictation, CUP, The Confidence Book, Longman, and More Grammar Games, CUP, and Ways of Doing, CUP. He has worked in many kinds of ELT teaching and training in many countries. He is a regular Pilgrims trainer. His present ELT interests include Silent Way, Linguistic Psychodrama and Corpus Linguistics. E-mail: email@example.com
Look at the two lists of lexical chunks below.
||it’s raining cats and dogs
|at the moment
||it’s a funny old world
||there’s nowt so queer as folk
||who would have thought it
||he thinks he’s the cat’s whiskers
||gone to meet his maker
||a good time was had by all
Intuitively the ones in the first column seem more useful to learners and deserve teaching. Those in the second column are the type of colourful fixed expressions that learners find attractive but are not much used by native speakers.
To check our intuition we can do a bit of quick research using the British National Corpus (just google BNC and click on “simple search”). His shows that:
“talking about” has 5,385 hits and “at the moment” has 5,114. Massive. “It’s a funny old world” gets just 16 hits and “it’s raining cats and dogs” a measly two.
This begs the question why do we have these “colourful” fixed expressions if we so seldom use them? The answer (as usual) lies in the hands of Roland Carter and Mike McCarthy who have done their corpus research more thoroughly than me. From what I understand they say these type of colourful idioms are used:
- For pragmatic bonding rituals.
Four people are sitting in a pub. They have almost finished their drinks and there is a lull in the gossip:
Person A: It’s a funny old world.
Person B: Who would have thought it.
Person C: There’s nowt so queer as folk.
Person D: Well, well, well.
This exchange of colourful clichés has two functions. Firstly as bonding – these kind of clichés are often age or gender or group culture specific. Secondly as a pragmatic signal – do we have another drink and continue the gossiping or do we go home? They are not used in open speech but have a pragmatic meaning and often come in groups.
I recently heard someone use the “the elephant in the room” (meaning the issue that people are not wanting to mention and needs to be avoided). But that is not exactly what the speaker said. He “twisted” the cliché – what he actually said was “Electoral reform is the elephant in the room but with the Lib Dems pointing at it”. A clever twist. I also came across it in a novel: “But it was there, the proverbial elephant in the room, and we both saw it and avoided it” – from Long Lost, Harlen Coben page 115. Again it’s twisted, it’s kind of a post-modernist joke with the author saying to the reader I need to liven up this cliché a bit.
So what can learners do? Well, maybe we can remind them of the old adage “avoid clichés like the plague”. There’s nothing wrong with knowing “colourful” fixed expressions but maybe the skill of becoming an advanced speaker in a foreign language is to not use what you know. Native speakers don’t use them often and then rarely in open speech. And maybe we need to notice that they are used pragmatically in a group or else are punned and twisted to make them acceptable.
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