Cliche and Idiom in the Teaching of English as an Additional Language Writing

“In the face of mounting pressure to gut or eliminate  the IRS, it continues to shoot itself in the foot by biting the hand that feeds them”

(Boston Globe, letter, as quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education).

That sentence would have never made it past my English teachers, who (quite rightly) trained students to cut cliche and mixed metaphor wherever possible. And yet I teach cliche.

How could I not? Imagine a learner of English trying to read the above quote: “shoot itself in the foot?” “Bite the hand that feeds them?” なに? Que?

A cliche is simply one kind of idiomatic expression, and many language learners are interested in learning idiomatic speech and writing. Idioms help students make meaning when reading and listening, and also help students who want to sound more “native-like” to do so. Thus, teaching writing to people who use English as an additional language means balancing two contradictory principles: idiomatic writing can be easy to understand; good writing avoids cliche.

On the surface, that seems simple enough, and some decisions are easy. In general, in a US context, it’s fairly obvious that “I’m interested ___ her” requires the preposition “in;” otherwise the writing will most likely be judged incorrect by most readers (at first glance, “interested in” may not seem idiomatic: however, think about the literal meaning of “in,” as in “in a box.” The meaning of “interested in” is thus a figurative and not literal meaning, and has little connection to the basic meaning, so language teachers call that an idiomatic usage). So, I teach my students to write “interested in,” unless there is a strong reason why they should choose a different grammatical construction. Writing centers and language classrooms are filled with such lists of dependent prepositions.

Mixed cliche metaphors are at the other extreme. For example, if my students were to write that Boston Globe letter I quoted above, I would advise that mixed metaphors are generally considered confusing an better avoided when clear communication is desired. Thus, pedagogic decisions about the simplest cases (idiomatic use of dependent prepositions on the one hand; mixed cliched metaphors on the other) are easy to make.

Cliche can subtract from an otherwise beautiful piece of writing. One of my students wrote the following in an essay about Bethany Hamilton‘s Soul Surfing:

 I gave up many things and followed my heart coming to America. Now, I seem like a baby. I have changed from intellectual to illiterate, from eloquent to speechless, from high-paid to low-paid. I had to start from scratch. This is precisely my soul surfing.

The expression “start from scratch” seems so out of place among the rest of this student’s description of her experiences, and the piece is much stronger with it removed. This Chronicle of Higher Education piece explains wonderfully how cliche can be tweaked and resuscitated when identified.  But how are my students to know if something is cliche and when something is simply a well-known idiom or common metaphor? And, of course, since all writing depends on audience, “cliche” depends on who the reader is. What is cliche to me may seem fresh and original to a Samoan reader, and vice-versa.

Even seemingly simple decisions need to be complicated once the realities of international communication are considered. As I’ve touched upon previously in this blog, English is now spoken by more people in countries like China, Japan, Korea, and Russia than in countries like the US, and this is changing the English language (and there is also significant variation within the US). One change is that when English is used as a language of International communication or as a lingua franca, the idioms that US Americans or Britons prefer may be obstacles to communication. I know this to be at least anecdotally true: I heard a group of international, multilingual scientists discussing a conference in Helsinki, with presenters from 30 or 40 different countries. They said the hardest presenters to understand were the Britons (which could just have easily been any of the other traditional “native speakers”) because they used so many idioms in their speech. On the other hand, in other contexts, English as a local language may incorporate expressions that are confusing or weird to American or British speakers (like shake legs or make merit).

Therefore, it would seem that for international or lingua franca communication, it may be preferable to understand common expressions and idioms of target varieties, but also to develop an awareness of what would be difficult for readers to understand.

Finally, I leave with a quote from Jack Kerouac, whose writing mixes metaphors like paint, always turning, turning, turning, towards freedom!

the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.