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Clichés, Idioms, Euphemisms

Clichés, Idioms, Euphemisms

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Author: Gavin McCall
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This lesson explains clichés, idioms, and euphemisms.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? Today, we'll be looking at three kinds of words and phrases that writers of academic English. can sometimes get into trouble with, cliches, idioms, and euphemisms. Then, we'll look at some examples of how to avoid them.

The first word constructions we'll look at today, cliches, are words, phrases, or ideas that are commonly used to the point where they lose potency, phrases like sharp as a tack, or absence makes the heart grow fonder, dime a dozen, the list goes on. Cliches are common and can be useful at times because they can quickly convey complicated information. For example, how else could you express the ordinariness meant by dime a dozen in so few words. When writing in general and when writing academic essays in particular, it's best to avoid cliches because they tend to make the writer seem unoriginal and lazy.

Idioms, similar to cliches, are well-known words or phrases with literal meanings that don't match their connotations or implied meanings. Some of the most common examples of these are rule of thumb, pulling my leg, or spilled the beans, as well as proverbs like the early bird catches the worm. These are all phrases whose intended meanings are not implied by their literal meanings, and as such, they can be useful because of their evocative language, and many, but not all readers will easily understand them. That being said idioms are best avoided in formal writing because they're generally too casual, too much like slang. And often, they veer into cliche as well.

The last of the often problematic constructions we'll look at today, euphemisms are words or phrases that refer indirectly to other things usually to mask something offensive, such as swearing, sexual meanings, or bodily functions, or to soften something that might be upsetting if brought up directly. Phrases like passed away, which is used to soften a term like died, or adult entertainment replacing pornography are examples.

Like cliches and idioms, euphemisms are common, especially in spoken English, and they can be useful for conveying sensitive or problematic information quickly and carefully. But here, again, we should try to avoid them in writing, especially in academic or formal writing. They have a tendency to make writer seem lazy or unoriginal. And since their purpose is to obscure meaning, it shouldn't be a surprise that academic, professional audiences are unlikely to look at them with favor since those discourse communities tend to value clear, precise, effective language, not words or phrases that try to hide what they're really talking about.

One of the other reasons writers should avoid cliches, idioms, and euphemisms is that readers from another culture or those who didn't grow up speaking English are likely to misunderstand them or not understand them at all. Now, let's look at a short passage that's making too much use of all three of these.

"Colleges and universities should ban alcohol, and cities should block establishments that sell alcohol from being within a mile of any educational institution. You've heard it before. I was so hammered. Tonight, we're going to get completely wasted. People who embrace becoming intoxicated like this often drink more as a cure, saying things like, the hair of the dog that bit you. They'll say this happily as if they weren't completely green around the gills. I say that it's time to abandon ship on such foolhardy practices and actively discourage such behavior before we all go to hell in a hand basket."

Can you spot all the cliches, idioms, and euphemisms here? There are a few, so don't worry if you don't notice them all. What's important is that as I was reading it, you recognize something about the tone, style, and word choice of this passage was just not right for an academic or professional audience and not just because of the subject matter, which as we'll see, can be discussed in a style and tone much better suited for those kinds of readers.

The first problems I noticed in this paragraph are here. Euphemisms people use in speech to avoid saying their drunk, intoxicated, inebriated, et cetera. These should be changed, but first, let's find the rest. The end of the next sentence is an idiom. And I should note here that, for these three that I've just found, even though they are being used consciously-- notice the quotation marks-- they're still unnecessary for the argument and too distracting to be used in an academic essay even if they're not technically an error, like the next that we'll find.

The very next sentence contains one, this green around the gills is another idiom and one that should be avoided. Finally, the last sentence contains two cliche phrases, which aren't adding anything useful to the paragraph and are also inappropriate for any academic or professional text. So here's an edited version with all the cliches, idioms, and euphemisms replaced by more standard and, I would argue, more effective words and phrases.

"Colleges and universities should ban alcohol, and cities should block establishments that sell alcohol from being within a mile of any educational institution. We've all heard young people describe how drunk they were, often using terms meant to lighten the negative effects of drunkenness. People who embrace becoming intoxicated often even drink more as a cure, as if that's an appropriate way to handle the physical after effects of alcohol. People even talk about drinking more while being ill. I say that it's time to stop such foolish and harmful practices and actively discourage such behavior before the situation gets any worse."

What did we learn today? We learned about cliches, idioms, and euphemisms, including why and how to avoid them. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Cliché

    Words or phrases that are commonly used to the point where they lose potency.

  • Euphemism

    Words or phrases that refer indirectly to other things, often to mask things that might be offensive (profanity, sexuality, bodily functions) or soften things that might be upsetting.

  • Idiom

    Well-known words and phrases with literal meanings that do not match their connotations or implied meanings.