Colloquialisms Part I: Clichés -->

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Colloquialisms Part I: Clichés

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Nathan Sacks
By Nathan Sacks, Writing Consultant

A couple weeks ago, I received an email from a student who was curious about a series of comments I left in his paper, warning against colloquialisms, slang, and informal language. The student wanted to know if there was an online resource that would comprehensively list all forms of slang not allowed in APA-style papers. Unfortunately, like the English language itself, the nature of what is considered formal and informal language is constantly changing, and sometimes correct word choices in an APA paper come down to little more than your instructor’s individual preferences. Ultimately, it is impossible to compile a list of every single article of slang because once a list is started, it would probably never stop.

This blog post will be the first in a series that will tackle the many ways colloquialisms and slang can creep into your paper. And creep is right—a lot of the word choices we make in papers are done imperceptibly, so it is normal for even the best writers to not give much thought to worn-out phrases like on the other hand when comparing one source’s argument to another.

Colloquialisms can be defined as words or phrases that are “better suited for a familiar, face-to-face conversation than for scholarly documents.” In this post, I want to talk about a subsection of colloquial language called idioms, otherwise known as sayings, jargon, and clichés. These are well-known phrases that may not mean exactly what they seem to mean, but because they are so popular, almost everyone will get their meaning immediately. An example of this is cut off your nose to spite your face. Rarely, in the history of humanity, has anyone chosen to cut off his or her nose as revenge against a troublesome or uncooperative face. Instead, this expression signifies a stubborn personality type who is more willing to sabotage his or her immediate comfort and desires than admit to being wrong.

word cloud of clichesThis type of idiom may be useful in everyday conversation, but you want to avoid these types of phrases in APA papers. Take section 3.09 of the APA manual as your guide: “Make certain that every word means exactly what you intend it to mean.” In other words, when it comes to descriptive language, use only the most basic and literal terms to get your central point across. Phrases like on the other hand do not work in APA papers because you are not literally referring to another hand, or any hand at all, usually. Instead, use the neutral, literal equivalents alternately or conversely, which mean exactly what their definitions say they mean, and nothing more or less.

This is not to say that clichés and idioms have no place in any type of paper. But even with creative writing, you will want to think very carefully about how you choose to employ common phrases and ideas. Consult with your instructor or ask us in the Writing Center if you are curious about the employment of a particular phrase or word combination that seems a bit too familiar.

Now, if you’ll allow me an On the other hand…

Some writers have argued, on the other hand, that clichés can have great emotional and expressive power, if employed correctly. For instance, in a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, the late author David Foster Wallace had this to say about clichés:

  • Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.
In novels such as Infinite Jest, Wallace argued that sometimes clichés can express truths more clearly and directly than original ideas, because they are so familiar and easy to understand. I have found this to be occasionally true in my own life. For instance, when I was younger, I used to have a piano teacher who was a stickler for correct posture and fingering. When I would play a piece in a lesson that was technically correct but performed with the wrong fingering, she would say that Practice makes permanent—not perfect but permanent.

She was implying that not all practice was correct practice, and it was just as likely for me to internalize bad habits as it was for me to learn to play a piece to perfection. If I did not practice music with the right fingering, it would become a habit for me to play incorrectly all the time, and that in turn would require much more practice to relearn how to play correctly. This statement is definitely a cliché (or a variation on a cliché, which for APA purposes is just as unacceptable), but for me, it expresses a certain truth that no amount of clever, original wordplay has ever gotten close to signifying.

So yes, clichés can have value, but think carefully next time you write something like throwing out the baby with the bathwater to symbolize a thorough research job. Do these words really mean what you intend them to mean? Probably not, unless the topic of your research is the relative trajectory of babies thrown out of windows, in which case, consult the ethics board.

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