Content warning: This article references racial slurs and offensive language.

Have you ever asked for a “ballpark figure” when negotiating the price of something? Or maybe you’ve felt “down in the dumps” because you’re spending too much time and effort “weeding out” the overuse of clichés in your content?

The funny thing about clichés, is that they didn’t start as clichés. Once upon a time, they were colorful, inventive phrases that framed ideas in a new and interesting way. But over the years they’ve been overused to the point where they’ve become stale, unoriginal, and more likely to detract from a piece of writing than add to it. And some, as we’ll discover, are counterproductive to greater inclusion in the workplace

Not Just Outdated: Non-inclusive Clichés are Disrespectful

Clichés, overused words and phrases, and jargon can often annoy readers. But it goes deeper than that. Many clichés have a history of being non-inclusive to certain individuals or groups of people, and can be interpreted as demeaning, or downright discriminatory. Some examples include:




Sold down the river

If you say that someone “sells you down the river” you’re trying to say you’ve been betrayed or feel cheated. 

The original saying is deeply connected to a history of slavery in the US where disatisfied slave owners would sell slaves down the Mississippi river to much harsher conditions. 

Spirit animal

Saying something or someone is your “spiritual animal” is intended to mean you identify strongly with that object or person.

Some Native American tribes believe in “spirit animals” or “totems,” which serve to guide and protect them. When people who are not Native American use this word, it’s a form of cultural appropriation that disrespects the significance of cultural practices, rituals, or emblems.

Wearing the pants

Feeling/being in control, or powerful.

If you inquire or state who’s “wearing the pants,” know that this saying can be traced back to a time when pants were considered an article of clothing only for men. This saying perpetuates that it’s “manly” to be in a dominant or powerful position. Not to mention, it also wrongly assumes that all relationships have a male and female counterpart. 

“No can do” and “long time no see”

You can’t do something or you haven’t seen someone in a while. 

Both phrases are forms of mockery of poorly spoken English, often by those of Chinese origin.

Being “woke”

Being aware of issues of racial or social injustice or an activist for social justice. 

Woke began as African American slang for racial justice, later expanding to social justice. For example, it was used unironically by the Black Lives Matter movement. When used as a slur or a self-appointed label by white people, it can feel uncomfortable — privilege affords them the irony. This article is a great read on how non-Black people misuse African American Vernacular English (AAVE or BVE) for social capital

Clichés = A Poor Customer Content Experience 

Readers are more likely to disengage when they come across tiresome and unoriginal means of expression. And as a content creator, that’s the last thing you want to happen.

In content marketing, every word is important, so you need to make sure you choose the ones that have the most impact. That means ditching overused expressions! Usually, saying something in clear, plain language, in a conversational tone, is the best way to make yourself understood. 

*Yawn* 16 Clichés to Avoid in Your Content

The good news is that there are lots of ways to convey what you’re trying to say, without having to rely on clichés. Here are some of the most overused words in content writing and some alternatives you can use instead.

1. Giving 110%

Not only is this mathematically impossible, it’s an arbitrary figure. Giving it your all or going over and above is what is really meant here.

2. Out of left field

Unexpected, surprising, erratic, and peculiar are just a few of the many adjectives that are infinitely more thought-provoking than this old baseball term.

3. At the end of the day

Are you actually talking about the real end of the day? If it’s not taking place at 6 pm, then what you really mean is finally or ultimately.

4. Get your ducks in a row

The sight of a mother duck leading her ducklings into a lake might be a nice one, but it doesn’t really convey the need to get organized, prepare, and get every element in place, does it?

5. Content is king

Let’s be honest, we’ve all used this one, haven’t we? Content is an integral part of marketing, not a sovereign in and of itself. Think about what you’re actually trying to say about content, like how powerful messaging impacts customer behavior and use that instead.

6. Get granular

If you’re not engaged in some kind of science experiment, what you mean to say is that a person needs to focus in on the fine details.

7. Think outside the box

This is quite possibly one of the most irritating phrases used in business. It dates back to the 1970s and originally had nothing to do with a box. Use “expand your thinking,” “stretch your imagination,” or “examine from a different perspective” instead.

8. Synergize

One of the most overused buzzwords to come out of business, synergize is also one of the most stigmatized. If you mean work together, collaborate effectively, or cooperate, then go for one those options instead.

9. A no-brainer

It’s a no-brainer to change this tired word to “easy” or “simple” to avoid coming off as patronizing.

10. Hit the ground running

It sounds like someone’s being chased, rather than being encouraged to seize an opportunity and start a project prepared, and at full speed.

11. Get the ball rolling

Here’s another ball metaphor. It’s also a waste of a lot of words when you could simply say “get started” or better yet “begin.”

12. Keep your eye on the ball

Tired of this old sporting analogy? If you mean someone should focus or pay complete attention to a thing, then that’s what you should say.

13. On the same page

In an age of eBooks and online newspapers, people aren’t on the same page. Avoid this phrase by saying “working in harmony,” “having a shared understanding,” or “coming from the same perspective.”

14. Bandwidth

You should only use bandwidth if you’re referring to internet usage, otherwise “capacity” is perfectly acceptable.

15. Leverage

You’re using something to its maximum advantage, not exerting force using a lever. Overusing this one is a big pet peeve in business, so it’s definitely one to avoid.

16. Bang for your buck

This is the kind of cliché you’d expect to hear from a used car salesman. Stick to describing how you want to achieve a better result for the effort you’ve put in.

How to Avoid Using Clichés and Overused Phrases

  • Consider the cultural differences of your target audience. For example, not everyone will understand sporting clichés, and linguistically diverse audiences may miss key information among idioms, metaphors, and jargon.
  • Think about what the phrase or expression actually means and work your way back from there. Oxford Dictionaries has some helpful advice if you’re struggling to define the meaning. Look up the cliché in a dictionary and use the definition as a starting point to look up synonyms in a thesaurus.
  • Often, a cliché or over-used phrase can be directly replaced with one or two simple words. Plain language makes content cognitively accessible to a wider audience! For more information on how plain language works, download the Acrolinx Inclusive Language Guide
  • While you’re at it, also make sure you’re not reinforcing negative gender stereotypes. If you’d like more help on inclusive language for all genders, check out our blog on gender neutral language

Interested in developing or refining a brand tone of voice that avoids clichés? With Acrolinx you can define your enterprise content guidelines and then Acrolinx turns your guidelines into editorial assistance to help your writers create on-brand content across more than 50 authoring integrations

Download our second edition Tone of Voice eBook today if you want to get to work on defining your brand tone!