Self-discrediting language

Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.—William Safire

Having spent most of my career at a consulting firm, I struggle to keep cliches out of my writing. Despite my efforts, I still catch myself writing hit it out of the park or something equally insipid.

While some cliches are benign—at worst, conventional and unimaginative—there are a few that make me cringe, and I think it’s interesting to figure out why.

My all time, number one, world champion most disliked phrase is “think outside the box”. Using a cliche to convey the idea of unconventional thinking is a remarkably compact irony, which is what makes it so awful. It’s the perfect example of self-discrediting language: words that convey the opposite of their intended effect.

It’s a lot like hearing someone trying to sound cool by using slang that doesn’t come naturally to them. It just amplifies the distance between what they are and what they aspire to be.

Net-net is also self-discrediting, but in a more subtle way. To me, net-net is worse than the bottom line, another cliche that means the same thing, but why? The bottom line refers to the last line of a balance sheet which shows a summary of a company’s net value at a single point in time. While it’s dull, it’s a reasonable metaphor for in summary. Compare this to net-net. Benjamin Graham, a depression-era financial analyst, coined this term to describe a technique for valuing public companies (net-net = cash and equivalents + 0.75 × accounts receivable + 0.5 × inventory). It isn’t nearly as good a metaphor for in summary, and that’s what makes it self-discrediting: someone using net-net is trying to sound sophisticated and business-y, but they’re not using the term very well. It indicates that they don’t know (or aren’t thinking about) what it really means.

I imagine that I’m preaching to the choir here (oops!), but at the end of the day (sorry!), you have to tell it like it is (sorry again!).