Cliches and redundancy - Vocabulary Builder

The Right Word: A Writer's Toolkit of Grammar, Vocabulary and Literary Terms - Waldram Sarah 2021

Cliches and redundancy
Vocabulary Builder

Roy’s repertory was extensive and his scent for the word of the minute unerring; it peppered his speech, but aptly, and he used it each time with a sort of bright eagerness, as though his fertile brain had just minted it.

Somerset Maugham

Cakes and Ale (1930)

This chapter examines some bad habits that can creep into writing and hinder its effectiveness: clichés and redundancy. What constitutes cliché or redundancy can be quite subjective, and to some degree all writing is susceptible to them. Used sparingly and deliberately, these elements can serve an effective purpose, but excessive or ill-considered use generally makes writing less forceful, less persuasive and less concise.


A cliché is a fixed expression that has become stale through overuse. It’s useful to be able to recognise clichés and, unless they are intended for literary effect, avoid them when there is a more appropriate expression available. In everyday life, clichés may have a role; Somerset Maugham, for example, wittily points to those who ’have invented so wide a range of pithy and hackneyed phrases that they can carry on an amusing and animated conversation without giving a moment’s reflection to what they are saying and so leave their minds free to consider…more important matters’ (Cakes and Ale, 1930).

In writing too, it may be worth bearing in mind that one person’s cliché is another person’s useful shorthand or otherwise satisfying expression. The borderline between idiom and cliché is thin and sometimes blurry. As Dakin in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2004) puts it, ’Clichés can be quite fun. That’s how they got to be clichés.’

Problems arise, however, when set expressions no longer seem original, striking or vivid. One attraction of clichés is that many of them started life as fashionable terms. The first time curate was used to mean ’present material’ in a business rather than in a museum or art context, for example, it probably created a frisson. But the nth time it is heard, it is unlikely to leave the same impression.

Exceptionally, of course, the deliberate and knowing use of cliché can be very effective in pinpointing meaning. Often this is for humorous effect, especially when used satirically to highlight human behaviour.

Here is an A to Z list of some set words and expressions that, with all the provisos touched on above, may be best used only with care. Note that some, for example, it goes without saying and at this moment in time also suggest REDUNDANCY (see here below).


an accident waiting to happen

add insult to injury

agree to disagree

all in a day’s work

all things to all people


armed to the teeth

at the end of the day


at this moment in time



bad hair day

beat a hasty retreat

been there, done that

beneath contempt

the best-laid plans

best practices

the big picture

big society

blissful ignorance

a bolt from the blue

boots on the ground

the bottom line

brave the elements

breath of fresh air

breathe a sigh of relief

bright and early

a bright future

a budding genius

but that’s another story

by leaps and bounds

by a twist of fate


the calm before the storm

a case in point

a commanding lead

commune with nature

compare apples and oranges

conspicuous by its absence

cool as a cucumber

crystal clear


dead as a doornail

defend to the death your right to...

deliver the goods

the depths of despair

don’t go there

down but not out

draconian measures

drastic action

draw a line in the sand

at the drop of a hat



end of story


eternal reward

the eyes of the world


fake news

fall on deaf ears

far be it from me

fast and loose

a (media) feeding frenzy

the feel-good factor

fever pitch

few and far between

the finer things of life

first and foremost

flavour of the month

a fond farewell

food for thought

a foregone conclusion

from the sublime to the ridiculous


generous to a fault

a glittering occasion

the global village

going forward

gone but not forgotten

a graphic account

grind to a halt


hale and hearty

a hapless victim

the happy pair

a haughty stare

have the bandwidth

having said that

head over heels

the healing process

heave a sigh of relief

hedge one’s bets

history repeats itself

history tells us


ignorance is bliss

one’s inner child/self

innocent bystander

in no uncertain terms

in the same boat

iron out a difficulty

irreparable damage/loss

it goes without saying

it is interesting to note

it is what it is


just deserts


keep a high/low profile


a labour of love

the lap of luxury

last but not least

a lean and hungry look

leaps and bounds

a level playing field

life’s little lessons

long haul

lost in thought

lost in translation

low-hanging fruit


a mad dash

the marketplace of ideas

a matter of life and death

the moment of truth

a moot question

the mother of all…

a motley crew

movers and shakers

my better half



a necessary evil

needless to say

needs no introduction

never see the light of day

the new normal

nip in the bud

no spring chicken

not rocket science

not waving but drowning


off the beaten track

one’s own worst enemy

the only game in town

an open secret

overcome with emotion


pandemonium reigned

paradigm shift

a pillar of society

play the blame game

play your cards right

a plethora of…

plumb the depths

at this point in time

poster boy/girl for

powers that be

pull no punches

put one’s head above the parapet


quality time


raise the spectre of

reach out

the realms of possibility

reign supreme

render a decision

reopen old wounds

retail therapy

ride an emotional roller-coaster

ring true

a risky business

rotten to the core


sadder but wiser

a sea change

seal one’s fate

second to none

a seething mass

sick and tired (of)

a sign of the times

silver lining(s)

six of one, half a dozen of the other

skeleton(s) in the cupboard

the sky’s the limit

the spice of life

stamp of approval

steep learning curve

a step change



think outside the box

thoughts and prayers


throw the baby out with the bathwater

time immemorial

the tip of the iceberg

tip the scales

the thrust of the argument

touch base

turn the page

turn over a new leaf


uncharted waters


a vale of tears

a viable alternative

view with alarm

a volley of criticism


water under the bridge

a watery grave

wax eloquent

white as a sheet

wide-open spaces

a window of opportunity

win-win situation


the wrong end of the stick


yadda, yadda, yadda


Redundancy in language means unnecessary repetition, that is, using a word whose meaning is already conveyed by another word. It may alternatively be referred to as wordiness, verbosity or tautology. For example, since antiques are by definition old, the phrase an old antique is an instance of redundancy.

Simple repetition isn’t necessarily a fault in speaking or writing. It may be necessary to make one’s meaning clear, or for emphasis or other stylistic effect:

Come close; come closer; closer still!

’But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,

And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,

That I scarce was sure I heard you’

Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven (1845)

What makes for poor style, however, is anything that suggests the writer is not in control of the words being used or not aware of their meaning. That’s why grammarians don’t like redundancy.

Redundant expressions

Use of the phrase a hollow tube may suggest the writer doesn’t know that tubes are by definition hollow. Similarly, the phrases shuttle back and forth and yo-yo up and down give the impression of unawareness as to how shuttles and yo-yos move. A gift is always freely given, so, when shops refer to free gifts, it’s a redundant expression.

Abbreviations and acronyms present a high risk of redundancy, since it’s easy to forget what the letters in the abbreviation stand for. For example, since ATM stands for ’automated teller machine’, ATM machine is a redundancy. The same is true of:

GPS system, since GPS stands for ’global positioning system’

PIN number, since PIN means ’personal identification number’

HIV virus, since HIV stands for ’human immunodeficiency virus’.

Of course, it may seem pedantic to insist on correction of these, since, for example, the phrases ATM machine and PIN number, though strictly redundancies, are, practically speaking, quite useful as a reminder of the acronyms’ meanings.

Some common word-based redundant expressions are given below; the words in small capital letters are not required, and each expression is followed by a brief explanation.

allude to INDIRECTLY

Allude already means ’refer to something indirectly’ or ’hint at something’. It is possible to say, for example,

She alluded to the buyer several times in our conversation but never actually mentioned his name.

assemble TOGETHER

Assemble means ’come together’, so there is no need to add together. The verbs gather and congregate have similar meanings, so likewise do not require a further together.


Blend means ’mix substances together’; it’s unnecessary to add together. The same is true of fuse and merge, since both these verbs already imply two or more things mixing together to form one.

TERRIBLE catastrophe

A catastrophe is a terrible event or disaster. There’s no such thing as a catastrophe that’s not terrible. The same applies to the noun tragedy, which similarly does not need to be preceded by the word terrible.

consensus OF OPINION

Since consensus already means ’a view or opinion that is generally shared’, expressions such as general consensus and consensus of opinion are, strictly speaking, tautological. Occasionally a modifier can be justified, as in There was a consensus of feeling, but no consensus of opinion. It is advisable to consider whether or not consensus without modifiers already expresses what is intended.

SERIOUS crisis

A crisis means ’dangerous or worrying time’, so cannot be anything other than serious.

ON A daily BASIS

This long-winded adverbial phrase has the same meaning as the adverb it contains: daily. The same is true when other adjectives such as global, regular, continuing, weekly, monthly and hourly replace daily. In all cases, it is better to use simply the adverb, for example, regularly, rather than the whole phrase, on a regular basis.

SINGLE entity

Entity is a singular noun that means ’thing’. It’s generally not necessary to put single or one in front of it, since it’s already implied.


To explode means ’burst or shatter noisily and violently’. A related redundancy is the expression violent explosion.

BASIC fundamental

A fundamental means ’basic element or principle’; it cannot be anything other than basic.

OPENING gambit

A gambit is an opening move in chess. Opening gambit is a cliché that reveals a (perhaps understandable) lack of appreciation of how a gambit in chess works.

BROAD general terms

It’s acceptable to write either general terms or broad terms. They mean the same thing. But the phrase broad general terms is a redundancy. The temptation to add broad should be resisted in other contexts too. The following noun phrases, for example, are both correct and adequate: general issues, general vicinity, general topics, general education, general surveys.

PAST history

History by definition is in the past.


An incumbent is the current holder of an office or post, so preceding the word with current or present is unnecessary.


A panacea is a supposed cure for all diseases or problems, so the idea of universality is already implied.


A protagonist was originally the main character in a play, so the idea of ’main’, ’leading’ or ’chief’ is already implied.

FUTURE prospects

Prospects are possibilities, usually favourable ones, that are hoped for in the future. It’s not necessary to state that twice.

ORIGINAL prototype

A prototype is already a first or original model of something from which later versions develop. For example,

Engineers are testing a prototype [not original prototype] of the car.

reason WHY

Some linguists argue that the reason why is redundant, while others disagree. The safest course is to avoid using it. It is better to say

The reason [not reason why] he failed is that he did not work hard enough.

NEW recruit

A recruit is a newly enlisted member of the armed forces, or someone who has just joined an organisation. There’s no need to specify that a recruit is new.


To recur means ’occur again’. It is possible to say

The problem kept recurring.

But the following is tautologous:

The problem kept recurring again and again.

reiterate AGAIN

To reiterate means to repeat something. So unless one is repeating again something already repeated once or more, it’s not necessary to use again with reiterate.


Unanimous means ’completely in agreement’:

The judges were unanimous in their verdict.

Any addition of completely or totally is redundant.

various DIFFERENT…

Various means ’of different kinds’. If various is used, different is not required, and vice versa.

in any way, SHAPE OR FORM

Way is a noun of very general reference and it’s not made more specific or otherwise changed by adding shape or form to it. This expression is mainly used for emphasis. It usually refers to something that is already abstract, making the sense of shape, and to some degree of form, not entirely appropriate.

FROM whence

The expression from whence has occurred frequently over the centuries, most notably in translations of the Bible. Nonetheless, it’s best to avoid use of from with whence, because whence already means ’from where’.

Empty words

Avoiding empty words is important in writing for clarity, precision and getting a message across. It’s best not to be too swingeing, though, since sometimes extra words are fulfilling a purpose.

English is remarkable for the flexibility of its vocabulary and grammar. This allows for essentially the same words to be combined in different ways, and thereby slightly shift the focus, tone or register. For example,

There were children playing in the park. [factual in tone]

Children were playing in the park. [descriptive in tone]

Many constructions in English have the effect of making language sound more indirect and formal. Used appropriately, these constructions can be very effective. It is better to avoid them when they serve no purpose, however.

Sentences beginning with grammatical expletives

It’s useful to begin a sentence with a ’placeholder’ word like it or there when the verb comes before its subject or has no complement:

There are a dozen good reasons why you shouldn’t be here now.

There is a way.

It’s not that I don’t want you to come.

However, it is advisable to avoid these constructions when the subject of the sentence can be made more vivid and the whole more succinct. Thus,

There is a need for more people to read this article,

can be rephrased as

More people need to read this article.


It is necessary for students to report to their form rooms at the start of the school day,

can be revised to read

Students must report to their form rooms at the start of the school day.

The pointless passive

Passive constructions are useful when there is a good reason to conceal or ignore the agent in a sentence:

All the applications had been filed by the deadline.

Does anyone know why the doors have been left unlocked?

However, the passive voice is merely cumbersome when a valid subject exists for a sentence. Thus, instead of

In his diaries it is made clear that . . .

it is possible to write

His diaries make clear that . . .

Needless fillers

CONJUNCTIONS (see chapter 1, here) serve the useful purpose of relating ideas to each other. They should not be used needlessly however, and it is certainly better to avoid wordy conjunctive phrases that could be either replaced by a single word or deleted entirely. For example,

I went into the kitchen in order to make a pot of coffee

is better expressed as

I went into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.

Other phrases with a quasi-linking function that are best treated with caution include

it should be noted

as a matter of fact

it is significant that

as previously stated

it has been determined that

the reason that

the question is

one must recognise that

Very often such phrases are better simply omitted, and the rest of the sentence reworked slightly as required.

Verbs, not verbal nouns

Certain colourless verbs such as make and use may combine with verbal nouns in constructions that could be expressed with an ’action’ verb in the active voice. For example, it would be advisable to consider replacing is used to detect with detects, make the arrangements for with arrange, and do the calculations with calculate.