Goldstein’s Lecture on Subject Cliches


Most people with a shred of critical thinking skills and writing experience can recognize a cliche. Generic, trite, overused phrases such as every cloud has its silver lining or time will tell are cliches. But there are other kinds of cliches.

Every professor will hold her head and groan at the following academic cliches: Since the beginning of time, throughout history, in today’s society, because of technology. These phrases are overused and not specific enough to communicate meaning. Students everywhere, please banish these phrases from your vocabulary. Thank you.

Last night at work, a few seasoned tutors were reading a poem as part of one tutor’s writing project. It was a descriptive poem, and did not really bring anything new to the subject.

“Looks like someone needs a Goldstein lecture on subject cliches!” my colleague said. And he was right.

Subject cliches are words that are not generally considered cliches, but become so when applied to a subject. For example, bright as the sun is a solar cliche; cozy is a village cliche; tragedy is a death cliche; and apple pie is a mom cliche (but not for my mom, who really did make the best apple pie in the world, haha).

I once heard a poet describe the sun as yellow as a tulip. Think of the creative opportunities that could replace this subject cliche. The sun is a yellow dwarf star fueled by  hydrogen fusion. It contains hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, and iron. What color is helium? There are a thousand directions a poet armed with the Internet and a love of words can go.

A cliche is an opportunity to go into more detail. I say this frequently as a teacher, tutor, and editor. In fact it has become my very own cliche. I guess I should be proud.

(Photo credit: By Hinode JAXA/NASA – http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/solar-b/solar_017.html)


10 thoughts on “Goldstein’s Lecture on Subject Cliches”

    1. Errata: No, MY mom makes the best apple pie 🙂 (Although, honestly, her specialities are not so much apple as rhubarb or peanut butter cream pie … ) So I guess your claim stands 🙂


  1. Love this. I was just editing my detective story, the one where I’m up front about the cliches and playing with them in ways I hope are interesting to other people and not just me. Your advice reinforces my belief that the originality is in the exact words I use to say the thing that’s been said a million times.

    Now I have to be careful not to go on cringe-inducing tears. You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve been smart enough to delete. 🙂


    1. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve been smart enough to delete” is my favorite sentence today. And I definitely agree with you about originality. It’s all we’ve got.


  2. Well, my male stereotypically non-cooking Dad just came out as gay at age 71. Can I upend some cliches on my side? Thanks, Ellen, for an immensely helpful conversation!!!


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