Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Firestorm of pushback over war on clichés

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Pity the poor editor seeking to avoid clichés. It is a futile attempt that, for better or worse, only shines a spotlight on what has become the new normal.

Be that as it may, it is fun. During the past couple of years, I have joined with colleagues throughout The Washington Post, especially the inimitable Anne Kornblut, to collect clichéd words and phrases that journalists rely on too much -- indeed, at their peril. It was a little-noticed collection that has suddenly become oft-cited, perhaps even going viral.

After Jim Romenesko posted the list on his blog, I expected pushback from the powers that be, who might want to double-down on their use of such terms. Instead, we received support from a dizzying array of sources, in particular through a feeding frenzy of retweets and emails. Clearly, this hot-button issue struck a nerve.

We learned that picking winners was a favourite Washington parlour game. Indeed, the list became a Rorschach test, if you will, for how you perceive journalism in the 21st century, particularly with the rise of the 24-hour news cycle. Friends told me the list was being passed around in other newsrooms, making me feel like a most unlikely revolutionary. It was a paradigm shift -- at least for now.

To be sure, the list was incomplete. But rather than shutter it, we've added many more #bannedphrases sent from throughout the fourth estate, official Washington and beyond. Herewith, a dozen examples:



The (anything) community

Inside the Beltway


It's the (anything), stupid


That's just (person's name) being (person's name)

It is what it is

Political theatre

Part and parcel

Main Street vs. Wall Street

Critics say it can't be done. After all, page views are the coin of the realm, and efforting to write cliché-free prose on deadline is a fool's errand. Needless to say, even in the august pages of The Washington Post's Outlook section, this list is more honoured in the breach.

But ultimately, the list raises the question: If even this hastily convened national conversation can midwife a new way of writing -- call it Journalism 2.0 -- will the tightly knit community that is the mainstream media finally begin thinking outside the box? Just imagining fewer clichés gives me a palpable sense of relief and bolsters my faith that perhaps this beleaguered industry can avoid an ignominious end.

And here's the kicker -- things we do not say in the Outlook section of The Washington Post.

At first glance

As a society (or "as a nation")


Pundits say (or "critics say")

The American people (unless in a quote)

The narrative (unless referring to a style of writing)

Probe (as substitute for "investigation")

A rare window (unless we're talking about a real window that is in fact rare)

Begs the question (unless used properly -- and so rarely used properly that not worth it)

Be that as it may

It is important to note that

Needless to say

(Anything) 2.0 (or 3.0, or 4.0 . . .)

At a crossroads

Outside the box/Out of the box


Midwife (as a verb that does not involve childbirth)

Imagine (as the first word in a lede)

Palpable sense of relief

Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)

The Other

Effort (as a verb)


Little-noticed (that just means the writer hadn't noticed it)

The (anything) community

Hastily convened

Ignominious end

Tightly knit community

In the final analysis

At the end of the day

Ultimately (especially as first word of last graph)


Rise of the 24-hour news cycle (it rose a long time ago)

Remains to be seen

Feeding frenzy/feeding the frenzy

Double down


Dons the mantle of

Political theater

Hot-button issue

Face-saving compromise

The argument goes (or its cousin, "the thinking goes")

Shutter (as a verb)

Part and parcel


It is what it is

The new normal

Paradigm shift (in journalism, all paradigms are shifting)

Unlikely revolutionary (in journalism, all revolutionaries are unlikely)

Unlikely reformer (in journalism, all reformers are unlikely)

Grizzled veteran (in journalism, all veterans are grizzled -- unless they are "seasoned")

Manicured lawns (in journalism, all nice lawns are manicured)

Rose from obscurity (in journalism, all rises are from obscurity)

Dizzying array (in journalism, all arrays make one dizzy)

Withering criticism (in journalism, all criticism is withering)

Predawn raid (in journalism, all raids are predawn)

Sparked debate (or "raised questions")

Ironic Capitalizations Implying Unimportance of Things Others Consider Important

Provides fresh details

But reality/truth is more complicated (oversimplify, then criticize the oversimplification)

Scarred by war

Main Street vs. Wall Street

Shines a spotlight on (unless there is a real spotlight that really shines)

No silver bullet

Shifting dynamics

Situation is fluid (code for "I have no idea what is going on")

Partisans on both sides

Charm offensive


Going forward

Stinging rebuke

Fevered speculation



Growing body of evidence (in journalism, no bodies of evidence ever shrink)

Increasingly (unless we prove in the story that something is in fact increasing)

Tapped (as substitute for "selected" or "appointed")

Any "not un-" formulation (as in "not unsurprising")

There, I said it (more self-important than "voicey")

To be sure

--The Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 J11

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