War on cliches

Why do we dredge out the same dull cliches every day when there are one million words in the English language to choose from? Anna Murphy takes a look at the state of language in today's world and offers some practical advice to aspiring wordsmiths hoping to make inroads into the business of language and writing.

By Anna Murphy

We all use them—they bounce off the keyboard so conveniently and God forbid that we should write anything original—it’s just not done anymore, is it? Clichés have become our time savers and so we end up reading and hearing the same words all day long from different sources.

Anyone in the storytelling industry, whether in print, broadcasting or the arts, should pay more attention to the currency of the language they use. It’s less about how qualified or experienced you are and more about the number of people who buy into your message, and enjoy the manner in which it was communicated to them. They don’t want the same old chestnut.

The media inflicts us with so much lazy language that even clichés, by comparison, read like Shakespeare. Those who’ve suffered at the hands of good, old-fashioned English teachers feel an acute sense of outrage at having to endure mediocrity in the newspapers, on the radio, and in-your-face billboards announcing a “crips (sic) new fragrance” or other product that, having seen the ads, you resolve never to buy no matter how much they “rest assure” you of its efficacy.

It’s all becoming too puerile for words. Movie dialogue is so predictable that you’d think it was written by a ten-year-old. New songs are so bereft of creativity that the banal rhymes leave you cringing. Perhaps songwriters start out with a rhyming dictionary and fill in the blanks as they go along, but then surely that would mean that they would occasionally get the spelling or grammar right, which they don’t.

The authors we once looked to for exciting language now churn out English light—so light you could water plants with it. Sentences are shorter—to match the short attention spans, which results in staccato images rather than the evocative landscapes that good writers used to paint with words. I find myself rereading the classics for snappy language, the slap of a good insult, or a setting so marvelously constructed from mere sentences that you could become lost in it for days and remember it for years.

In Singapore, the English language is not valued as an art form, the premise apparently being that we only need to know ‘enough’ for doing business with. Many schools don’t even offer English Literature as a subject; woe betide the child who is more art than science-oriented because the only option left is a private tutor. As parents, you will come across teachers who have such a poor grasp of the language that they will have your children in tears when their work is returned with grammatically wrong ‘corrections’ by the teacher. Our English teacher in the heartlands thinks greasy and grizzly are the same animal, and insists on saying “proacher” for poacher. That we now have our ministers ticking us off for using bad English is gob-smacking irony. Or pure effrontery.

Working professionals read too many business books and not enough fiction or conventional literature. They tend to write and speak in the same barren style, frequently copying one another and devoid of any original interpretation, an indication of a lack of genuine empathy for the subject matter. Stringing together clichés and buzzwords isn’t writing—that’s called faking, and an insult to your audience. Never underestimate your audience because even the most poorly educated is not unintelligent. People recognise insincerity and are easily put off if they feel they’re being somehow patronised.

After a few years in the industry, you tend to start thinking that no one can teach you anything new about your craft. However, all languages live, and evolve with time. New words are adopted and old words fall out of fashion. People who use archaic language seem out of touch, but peppering your work with pedestrian lingo can destroy your credibility. Negotiating this gauntlet requires careful selection of words, punctuation and delivery, hence the need to hone and nurture the tool of your trade daily. You should be continually grooming your proficiency.

One of the pitfalls of being around Singlish-speakers is that you become accustomed to the vernacular to the point where you don’t even notice when you start adopting its strange and addictive ways. You might even start thinking that the Singlish version is correct! The solution is to take a refresher course conducted by a reputable university that has a good track record for its English courses. Your ego takes a beating when you have to learn from mistakes you’ve been making throughout your life, but you will emerge with a clearer sense of your own genius (or lack thereof).

Spend more time with people who speak well, listen to the BBC and watch television shows and movies with exceptional dialogue. British productions are still your best bet. Unless you want to sound like a cross between Bart Simpson and Phua Chu Kang, avoid sitcoms or drama made in Singapore or America (with the exception of Frasier and The White House). Take yourself out to the theatre regularly to refresh your vocabulary and pronunciation.

Expand your vocabulary. The Merriam Webster website will send you a new word every day with a detailed description of its meaning and origins. Buy a really good dictionary and thesaurus—believe me, you will use them for life. You cannot trust your computer to check anything accurately. Pay attention to grammar, spelling and punctuation—you have to deliver quality product if you want your audience to buy your message.

Invest in books. Read widely to flush vernacular and business jargon out of your head. Stop regurgitating and let the language come out to play. Read across genres and seek to understand how others relate to the world. Get out and meet new people and listen to their stories because it is true that real life is stranger than fiction. You will be confronted with a multitude of ideas and revelations that will force you to draw your own conclusions, add greater depth to your work, and find your own voice. There are many ways of saying something when you finally have something to say.

True wordsmiths have long, challenging and highly rewarding careers. The media industry is an ongoing study of self and the world we relate to. As the interpreter, your story must strive to lead your audience towards understanding the role they play in any scene. We all want to know how and where we fit in and we want a fresh take every day—not a remake. We don’t want to be clichéd.

ANNA MURPHY has more than 20 years of writing experience. She is the editorial consultant for Worklife Asia Pte Ltd, leading career guidance practitioners in the region. The company champions corporate career coaching as a key strategy for sustainable organic growth for the organisation as well as the individual. Worklife’s client list includes government agencies, educational institutions and private companies. For more information, visit www.worklifeasia.com.

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