Writer’s Toolbox

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Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

Language

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Aren't clichés actually dead metaphors or similes? "He was tall, dark and handsome" is, to be sure, hackneyed language but it's not a cliché; An individual may, literally, be tall, dark and handsome.

Dead metaphors may be clichés, but not all clichés are dead metaphors. Let me explain.

Dead metaphors are metaphors that have been so overused that they’ve lost their figurative qualities. For example:

When he returned from vacation, memos, documents and vouchers were strewn across his desk. He took off his coat and dove in.

This metaphor—to dive in—was once fresh, but has become so common that readers don’t think of the imagery of water and a diver so much as the meaning of the phrase—to immerse fully in a task. Dead metaphors are easy to come by; you’ll often hear them in daily language:

step up to the plate

the ball is in your court

a clean slate

Clichés, on the other hand, rely on overly familiar language, whether figurative or literal. They’re strings of words that have been overused. Dead metaphors fall into this category, as do literal phrases like “dark and stormy night,” “back in the old days,” and yes, “tall, dark and handsome.”