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Today, let’s learn about clichés and jargon – perhaps the most annoying parts of the English language. We’ll look at some examples, discuss why clear English is important, and I’ll give you some tips on how to remove clichés and jargon from your vocabulary!

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George Orwell’s Rules for English Writing

Every few months, I like to read George Orwell’s essay on Politics and the English Language. Orwell is one of the most respected writers of the 20th century (you may have read Animal Farm or 1984), and his essay he introduces some valuable information and rules on how to make your English as effective as possible.

Writing is a major part of my life. I spend most of my time writing – and writing for some unique and specific purposes.

Half the time I write podcasts and blog articles aimed at you guys – intermediate to advanced level English learners. Sometimes I write business emails aimed at American and international companies. And some of the time I write advanced research papers concerning international politics, migration, and political theory.

By reading Orwell’s essay every few months, it reminds of a few basic rules which I can follow to make my writing as clear and effective as possible. Although I write to different audiences, at different levels, and for different purposes, I always try to make my language as clear as possible.

I recommend you all to have a look at Orwell’s essay (I’ll link a free copy on the Thinking in English blog), but, to summarize, Orwell gives us all six rules to follow when writing.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

In my opinion, these rules are valuable for everyone – English learners and native English speakers.

Over the past few months I’ve spoken with a few companies and agencies who have been interested in working with Thinking in English, but every time they send me proposals I wish they followed Orwell’s rules.

People tend to try too hard to sound intelligent and professional. Business people, especially, like to fill their English full of clichés, jargon, metaphors, idioms, and other useless and confusing words. Why? Because this is the language of business culture in America. But in reality, it just makes the language difficult to follow for people outside the industry!

Today, I want to look at 2 types of language that cause a lot of confusion: clichés and jargon.

I’ll first explain the meaning of clichés and jargon and give you all some examples, before talking about why you should be careful filling your writing with this type of expression!

What is a Cliché?

Do you “think outside of the box”? Has anyone ever told you “good things come to those who wait”? Is “the grass greener on the other side”?

I’m sure many of you have heard expressions and phrases like these before. Especially if you follow online teachers on Instagram or TikTok, you will have noticed that they love to talk about these kind of idioms.

But these phrases are clichés. And they are some of the most common clichés in the English language. I would recommend you never use these clichés, and I even found the three sayings on an internet article with the title “Avoid These Clichés At All Costs.”

I’ve said these are clichés… but what exactly is a cliché?

The dictionary defines a cliché as “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.” A slightly more understandable defintion is an expression which was once new, interesting, and innovative, but has today lost all of its power and meaning due to overuse.

This is exactly the thing Orwell was talking about when he wrote “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Rather than copying already existing phrases, Orwell wants to encourage us to be creative and make new or innovative expressions.

Take this example, “as cold as ice.” This is used to mean extremely cold, but this cliché has been used so often (it is even a song title) it is now unoriginal and commonplace. Rather than imagining the feeling of ice and understanding how cold that is… we just think of the meaning as cold.

Clichés are an easy way to describe something. If you are really in love with someone… you are head over heels. You shouldn’t base everything on a first impression… you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. If you are in a bad mood, you woke up on the wrong side of the bed.

And in business they are everywhere. Value-added, paradigm shift, put a pin in it, my door is always open, failure is not an option, it is what it is, pick your brain… there are hundreds of different business clichés I could mention.

Even though these clichés are common, they have been used so much that they have lost their originality, creativity, and impact. If someone tells you their door is always open… is it really? No. It is a meaningless cliché people use in business. If someone asks to pick your brain… they actually want to ask you some questions.

Clichés just make things more complicated, confusing, and difficult to understand. They make your English boring and repetitive. When we hear a cliché, we tend to ignore it – it has been used so often we are uninterested in it.  

What is Jargon?

Orwell’s fifth rule for writing was “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

What exactly is jargon?

Jargon is the specialist and complex language used in specific professions, groups, and disciplines. Jargon allows people in such professions or groups to communicate clearly and precisely with each other. But it can be almost impossible to understand to people from outside the profession.

Jargon is sometimes essential. Doctors and medical professionals use scientific and highly specialised vocabulary to talk to each other. Law is full of legal vocabulary. Last week I had a conversation about my website and didn’t understand much about custom htmls and css classes. And I used a lot of jargon when writing as a researcher in the past.

This vocabulary is necessary inside the industry. Rather than saying cancer, a doctor needs to know exactly what kind of cancer is affecting a person. Instead of saying broke the law, lawyers need to know exactly which law and how you broke it. Jargon allows this information to be communicated precisely.

However, jargon can cause major problems when communicating with “outsiders.” It is often completely meaningless to people who are not in that profession or discipline. Let me give you an example. If you are a doctor, you might know the term myeloproliferative neoplasms… but I didn’t until I just searched it on google. If a doctor told me that I had myeloproliferative neoplasms I would have no idea what they meant… but if they used a non-jargon term like a type of blood cancer I would understand instantly.

This is why we need to be careful using jargon. While jargon is essential to communicate complicated ideas and topics within disciplines, it can make our language impossible to understand.

Orwell’s rule was “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Sometimes you need to use a technical term – and this wouldn’t be useless jargon. Maybe there is an “everyday English equivalent.” But this doesn’t mean you need to fill your whole sentence with jargon.

If there is a clear and normal way of explaining your message, use the common terms. Just because you know a technical word doesn’t mean everyone else does. You need to change your vocabulary and English depending on who you are talking to. Two software developers discussing their jobs will have a completely different vocabulary than a software developer and a teacher discussing their jobs!

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The Case for Clear English

I believe we should try to make our English as clear and effective as possible. And one of the best way to do this is to remove clichés and jargon from our everyday vocabulary.

Writers like to use jargon to appear professional and intelligent. They believe that saying the complicated term makes them appear better or superior. But, in reality, it makes your language more difficult to understand. Clear English can deliver your message just as accurately as jargon filled sentences.

Make sure to distinguish between essential technical terms and unnecessary jargon. If you can explain something using clear English it will always be better. And if you need to use a technical word (like my conversation last week about css classes on my website), make sure to explain and define what you are talking about.

Many English learners believe that learning loads of English idioms, sayings, expressions, and phrases is the best way to become fluent and an advanced speaker. But often these sayings and phrases are boring clichés which make a bad impression.

Clichés can make communication difficult, especially if you are talking to people from other countries. And many are based on old references which are now irrelevant.

And if you want to use powerful and creative ways to describe emotions, feelings, or experiences, be innovative and make your own descriptions! A 5 year old at the school my mum works at was practicing similes (a type of English saying) wrote the phrase “floating like a leaf in the wind” – I had never heard this before and the image was so powerful to me.

Make your English clear, precise, understandable, and creative!

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How to Avoid Clichés and Jargon?

How can you avoid using clichés and jargon? Here are a few tips to follow.

First, think about the meaning of the cliché or jargon. By thinking about the meaning, you can decide alternative or simpler ways to explain what you need to communicate.

Second, decide if you need the jargon or cliché. Sometimes they are completely unnecessary and can be deleted.

Third, rewrite sentences using more relevant or understandable words!


Final Thought

Today I wanted to introduce clichés and jargon, two of the most annoying parts of language, to all of you. By avoiding clichés and jargon in your English, you will appear more professional and be far easier to understand!

As an English learner, you should be focusing on clear communication instead of filling your vocabulary full of unnecessary jargon and clichés!

What do you think? What is an example of a cliché or piece of jargon you’ve heard before?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

One thought on “204. What is a Cliché? What is Jargon? And Should We Use them?”
  1. Tom, to be honest, before reading this article, I was trying to understand all the cliches and jargon I met in our conversation club and my business communications, and I have to say, some of them are hardly understandable for me to imagine why they are used in this sentence. Maybe it’s kind of stupid for me as a non-native English learner to do it. Your article is giving me a light bulb moment(is it a cliche? anyway, I like this saying…). In my writing, I am still intimidated to use these cliches to avoid misusing them to make the audience confused or get someone offended. However, as you mentioned, I was worrying the writing is not professional without any cliche. You make me relieved from this confusion. It looks that how to express clearly with simplicity are more essential for our English learners. I have to say, I should put more effort into this. Thanks for your diligent work.

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