« Tossing the glove | Main | Emily Dickinson on the copy desk »

Get rid of it

If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, a colleague or, hell, a human being, you would do well to purge stale, formulaic expressions from your writing and conversation. The list below is far from exhaustive, but it’s a respectable starting point.

At the end of the day
A pretentious way to say ultimately or finally.

At the 30,000-foot level
A perspective from which you cannot tell what is actually going on down there.

Building to a crescendo
A crescendo is a steady increase in volume, not the highest point. Didn’t your piano teacher teach you anything?

In the final analysis
Save it for the day you graduate from therapy.

In the wake of
If you’re not on the water, you’re not in the wake of anything. Try since or because of.

Information superhighway

Have you traveled on an interstate highway lately? Surrounded by tractor-trailers and people in hulking SUVs going 90 miles an hour? You want the Internet to be like that?

It’s all good
No, it’s not.

Long battle with cancer
Dying is bad enough, but to be sent off with a cliche is just sad.

Mission critical
Squeezing half a percentage point out of the profit margin does not mean that you are Jack Bauer saving the nation from a nuclear explosion.

On the ground
Meaning where people do the actual work and face the actual difficulties, as opposed to the serene empyrean from which you observe them. Don’t be such a prat.

Past experience
When else would you have had it?

Taking it to the next level
So you’re saying that your work is like a video game?

That dog won’t hunt
Favored by faux-Southerners.

Thinking outside the box
An infallible indicator of unoriginal thinking.

This point in time
Means now.

Wake-up call
Just go back to sleep.

War on terror
Terror is an emotion. Good luck with armed combat against it. A war on terrorism, that is, opposition to those who foment terror, has a marginally greater chance of victory.

A final caution: It is futile to expect that most writers will abandon cliches, because the very familiarity of well-worn expressions is what provides comfort, along with the illusion that one is being profound. I’m reminded of one of the favorite expressions of the late Bob Johnson, my first news editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer, who liked to point out, You’re looking up a dead hog’s ass. If looking up a hog’s ass is a fruitless endeavor, then looking up a dead hog’s ass is doubly nugatory.

Still, since that’s where we are, we might as well enjoy the view.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:44 PM | | Comments (9)


Bravo, John. Someone had to say this, although those that perpetrate these assaults on the English language will never see or understand what you are saying. I am positive that all recent earthquakes are caused by our deceased teachers spinning in their graves.

At the end of the day, it is what it is.

I've yet to understand just what box outside of which we are compelled to think. (A little hommage to Churchill, there.) And in the same vein, what is the tiresome envelope so many people are pushing? Is it a Sisyphean endeavor or is it strictly in the realm of the metaphysical?Not only are the expressions stale, they are and ever were, meaningless.It should come as no surprise that they still are used primarily by academics, politicians and all who sail in them.

I agree... except for the one about the dead hog's ass- I think I might start using that one!

John, if you would, please offer us a list of recognizable English expressions that are not to be rejected on the grounds of cliché, redundancy, or non-literal-mindedness. And a quick follow-up: Is“starting point” on the acceptable list? Or would Mr. Strunk have us shorten that to “start”? ;-)

Just superb. How about adding "currently" with any present-tense verb (I know; it's not a cliche per se). Now this is something that would be grand to see circulated around the Web. Then again, in real life, my name is circulated thousands of times associated with "examples of bad high school writing," even though the example cited is for humorous bad analogies submitted to the Washington Post's Style Invitational (currently, ahem, run by a copy editor).

What about "on a daily basis"? Why not just "every day"?

Yes, tighten, tighten, tighten -- till there's nothing left to read. Damn all these pesky word thingies that are cluttering up the English language. Like rats -- wretched, worthless vermin these words are. Damn them all. Damn them all to hell! Back to the good ol' days of hieroglyphics, I say!

Interesting post, but why would you be upset about cliches? Especially the "war on terror"? we use the notion of "war" as a metaphor in so much of our everyday language, and you'd probably do well to look at a rather interesting read on the topic of war as a metaphor - "Metaphors we live by" by Lakoff & Johnson. I've also noted that in a number of your other posts, you also use cliche to effect. Style guides are just that, a guide (kinda like a serving suggestion in my opinion). Sociolinguists shudder to think of the rich cultural insights we could lose if we wer to ban the use of the cliche! I say use them freely and frequently, so long as they don't interefere with the gist... (and make up as many new ones as you can along the way!)

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected