Bête Noire #2: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

(If you need to catch up, check out Bêtes Noires Three, Four, and Five.)

Raise your hand if you remember when Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released in 1991. Remember how great it was? How it totally blew you away when you first heard it? And how, three months later, it had been played exactly 23,452 times on every radio station and you swore that you’d throw up if you had to hear it one more time? If you’re too young to remember this happening to Nirvana, then just substitute whatever media darling du jour is being ruined by the evil of overexposure.

One of the reasons I didn’t name my list the Top Five Language Pet Peeves is because I’m so tired of the term ‘pet peeve’. It’s too easy and it’s been used too many times. It’s been overplayed. I’ve previously mentioned my similar disdain for the term ‘think outside of the box’. It means that someone has ignored conventions of traditional problem solving in order to figure out a unique answer to a problem. The essence of the phrase  refers to originality, but it’s become so overused that it is betraying that essence. The irony, of course, is that a term that means ‘unconventional thinking’ now has become a laughably conventional cliché in speaking and writing.

These are not the only bees in my bonnet. (See how annoying they are?) Some of the more odious phrases to my ears are: at the end of the day; step up to the plate; 24/7; if you think about it; it goes without saying; and in this day and age. These are unfortunately some of the phrases that I see the most commonly in my students’ writing.

It is what it is. And that's the way it is. You just gotta do what you gotta do. Just roll with the punches... (Image courtesy of zahkman on flickr)

Now, I am not trying to malign the very existence of clichés . They can be useful shortcuts to various generalized meanings, and this can serve to foster a sense of connection or shared experience. For example, when the person next to me at the gas pump starts a friendly conversation about how high the prices are, am I really going to engage in reasons why this is so? Or am I going to nod politely and say, “Yeah, it’s tough, but what can you do?” I am not really interested in the answer to that question. I don’t expect him to say, “Well, I could carpool or buy a more fuel-efficient car.” What I am really interested in doing is showing that I share feeling of frustration and worry about a common problem.

They can also come to the rescue when trapped in a conversation with someone who is spouting opinions that you don’t agree with. It’s not always the time nor the place to argue, and it may be necessary to simply humor that person. Instead of pointing out all of the bigoted, illogical ‘arguments’ the person has employed, it may be easier to just smile and say, “Well, it is what it is.”

It is what it is. What does that even mean? Okay, it suggests an acceptance of a perceived reality, but beyond its use to fill space in a conversation or avert an untimely argument, what does it actually mean? Do you know if I agree with you or not? And what is the ‘it’ that we are supposedly agreeing upon? Pavel Somov, excerpted in the Huffington Post, wrote, “But to say that something ‘is what it is’ is to say nothing. Functionally, the phrase ‘it is what it is’ is a form of interpretive silence, a form of informational silence.”

This idea – that in fact, the speaker is saying nothing – is my objection to the overuse of clichés in writing. The generality of these phrases impedes clarity. The references are vague and the meanings are so generic that they can refer to almost anyone, anything, at any time. This lends them the flexibility to be used in a variety of situations, but it also creates such ambiguity that no real substance is expressed.

I also object to them because despite the fact that they contain little substance, they still allow people the illusion that they are making meaningful points. Writers (and students!) who overuse clichés avoid the responsibility of making a point. It’s safer – how can I disagree when I’m not even really sure what the statement was? Somov continues, “In saying nothing, we are saying nothing false — and that is, perhaps, the closest we come to expressing that ultimate (one, non-dual) truth that we can all agree upon!” That just feels like cheating to me.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the use of these popular catchphrases can also create blatant inaccuracies. Recently, Serena Williams was interviewed about her recent history of foot injury and the resulting blood clot. Commenting on her health scare, she said, “I definitely dodged a bullet. Literally.”*

You'd have to dodge a bullet AND a shag carpet. (Image courtesy of The Discovery Channel.)

In reality, Serena didn’t literally dodge a bullet. She may have done so metaphorically, but there was no actual projectile hurtling towards her but not hitting her because of evasive maneuvers. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the Mythbusters proved that it’s impossible to dodge a bullet in real life conditions. The bullets are too fast and our reactions times are too slow.

What Serena really did was to choose a word that is increasingly misused to give emphasis, when it really means ‘not figuratively’. She’s not the only one. Grammar Tip of the Day takes on the use (or misuse!) of the word by a government official, and – despite her dismissal for improper citation – Victoria Ilyinsky explores reasons for the misuse in The Harvard Crimson.

Clichés aren’t going anywhere and we all resort to using them at times. The real disappointment is to read something that is so filled with meaningless platitudes that it becomes nothing more than vapid babbling on a page. Students are most prone to this when they lack confidence, but sometimes they don’t even realize how little content they’ve conveyed. They’ve fooled even themselves into thinking they have a substantive piece of writing.

And so, unless you are Yogi Berra and can create brand new clichés out of old ones, then for the love of Fred, limit your usage! I beg of you! Think of the children!

And that’s all she wrote.

What trite, hackneyed phrases get your goat? Bring tears to your eyes? Do your head in? Drive you mad? Get your panties in a bunch?

*NB: So that I don’t commit the same sin that got Ilyinsky’s column pulled from The Harvard Crimson, I feel compelled to mention that I could find only informal references to this quote on the Internet. Several are from Twitter (for example, these two by @laurieallsop, and also by @JonCoates) and another is on a site that I can no longer find. It’s a slippery little sucker to track down, but I truly did see it with my own eyes in an actual newspaper. Which I unfortunately no longer have. I am not making this quote up and am trying to attribute it properly!

5 thoughts on “Bête Noire #2: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

    • Oh, so am I. But cliches in spoken language have different functions – they can add a sort of flavor and voice to story-telling or making a point. We have body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice to help relate what we mean. We don’t have those things in writing, so cliches are far less useful.

      The one I’ve picked up is, I believe, mostly a Northeast phrase: not for nothing. It’s used to soften a complaint or a rather direct statement: “Not for nothing, but the argument was mostly your fault, you know.” Because it’s generally used when things are sort of riled up, it usually gets said with a stronger NY accent than I normally have! :)

  1. I start WAY too many sentences with “actually”. It’s not a cliche, but I’m not sure why I started using it. For example: Are you busy today? Actually, I’m not. OR How are you? I’m well, actually.

    Actually, this. Actually, that. Someone thump me!

    • Do you know how hard it was to not type “Actually, I think I do the same”? :) I have to make an effort to not do that so often when I’m speaking, too.

  2. Pingback: Drum roll please… | As a Linguist…

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