Avoiding clichés

“Clichés should generally be used sparingly in any writing, but especially in legal writing”, writes Bryan Garner in Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. Similar warnings are given to Dutch writers.

Garner lists dozens of clichés in his legal style guides. Almost all English style guides have a section on the subject (including The Economist’s). The Oxford blog has a good article on it. Articles regularly appear in media sources, including prominent newspapers and the BBC, warning readers about the English words and phrases that have become worn (afgesleten), hackneyed (banaal) and commonplace (gemeenplaats). Thoughtful legal writers can take advantage of these guidelines to understand which phrases have outlived their usefulness.

A few English clichés to avoid

Looking at the five sources linked above (Garner, Economist, Oxford, Washington Post and the BBC), here are some of the phrases that Dutch lawyers may be surprised to find are considered cliché.

  • absolutely
  • at first glance
  • at the end of the day
  • at this moment in time
  • be that as it may
  • clean slate
  • fact of the matter
  • focus on the bottom line
  • going forward
  • if you will
  • in a nutshell
  • in the final analysis
  • level playing field
  • name and shame
  • needless to say
  • predawn raid [usually referred to as a “dawn raid” by Dutch lawyers]
  • responsibility
  • time is of the essence [when not used in a legal sense]
  • throw the baby out with the bathwater
  • to all intents and purposes
  • well reasoned
  • white-shoe law firm
  • with all due respect

It is not always possible or easy to avoid clichés like these because they can be rather useful and effective. In this list, what surprises me are “in a nutshell” and “well reasoned”, because these are phrases I find useful and still actively use. This is an issue for all of us.

Garner points out that “it is the habitual use of clichés that is stylistically objectionable”. The Economist adds, “The ones most to be avoided are the latest, the trendiest. Since they tend to appeal to people who do not have the energy to pick their own words, they are often found in the wooden prose of bureaucrats, academics and businessmen.” And lawyers, I might add.

Dutch clichés?

What about Dutch clichés? This is hard for me to assess because I don’t have an intimate understanding of what seems cliché in Dutch. I cannot say that I’ve noticed many Dutch clichés translated literally into English. I suppose Dutch lawyers are being extra careful when they write in English, so the literal translation of a Dutch cliché is unlikely to pass the first review.

There is one cliché that does come immediately to mind: “on the one hand…on the other hand”. Dutch lawyers use this construction too often. By the way, when this is used in English, the first part is unnecessary. Just use “on the other hand”.

An occasional problem

When a Dutch legal professional does use an English cliché, it can be rather obvious and even glaring. The clichés are presumably picked up from other lawyers, journalistic writing, business writing and so on. Understandably, it’s difficult to follow the development of an expression (Including its origin, associations or status as fad or cliché) when it is in a second language.

After working with Dutch lawyers for 20 years, my impression is that their English legal writing does not include many English clichés, of either the legal kind or otherwise. I haven’t seen any research on this, but I suspect that spouting clichés is something you really do well only in your own language. It may be that many Dutch lawyers have simply never learned the English clichés. Or perhaps it’s the case that a lawyer working in a second language picks his or her words too carefully for clichés to become a major style issue.

Cliché use is just one style problem. There are others, such as shifting into overly informal or formal language. Another is that certain English expressions are oddly overused by Dutch lawyers. I will deal with these in other posts.


To be honest, I’d prefer a Dutch lawyer to use an English cliché correctly rather than use a completely incorrect phrase. Avoiding outright language mistakes is more important than avoiding style errors (although ultimately the goal is to avoid both kinds of errors).

It seems that a Dutch legal writer not only has to learn these English phrases and use them correctly, but then also later be ready to avoid them when they become worn. Be alert to the issue that clichéd writing is held in low regard. There are many articles online about what is cliché. Style guides also often have comments on this. It’s worth googling this subject once in a while.

Greg Korbee (Originally published February 2014. Republished in February 2019.)

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