Writers hate clichés, probably more than we should. If I had held my nose and told my daughter, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” maybe she would email college soccer recruiters back quicker.
The other thing about clichés: They may be the only reality that Americans still agree upon. New Pew Research reveals that Francine thinks “cancel culture” is about holding people accountable, while Horace is sure it’s really about shutting down white males. But tell Francine and Horace it’s better to be safe than sorry, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and the grass is always greener on the other side, and you won’t get an argument from them.
In any case, writers should not despise all clichés equally.
I watched some of the PGA Championship over the weekend.
I don’t mind when a golfer says his strategy is just to “take it one shot at at time,” even though it’s the biggest cliché in golf and a version of the biggest cliché in sports history, “We’ve got to take it one game at a time.”
But one shot at a time is also true, though it’s easier to say than to do, and you can imagine a golfer actually telling himself or herself that before a round, or in the middle of one.
And honestly, what do you expect professional golfers to say in response to questions that are themselves clichés—some crazy T.S. Eliot shit, about a round of golf being measured in coffee spoons?
But if we’re going to be communicating with each other in automatic phrases like cliché-bots, let’s make the phrases efficient and effective.
Which brings me to my problem with the inevitable answer to the inevitable question: What does it take to win a major golf tournament?
Every golf fan knows what’s coming next.
“You’ve got to stay patient out there.” (Meaning, don’t get mad when things go wrong, don’t try to make up for a bad shot by attempting a miracle shot, don’t shoot at flags too close to the edge of the green.)
It’s good advice. But: Why stay patient?
Why not be patient?
If you are patient, you don’t need to specify staying patient. Unless you are contrasting your plan with that of a competitor who aims to be patient on the front nine, and then go completely berserk on the back.
But no golfer ever says, “You’ve got to be patient out there.”
If Rory McIlroy said in a press conference, “You’ve got to be patient out there,” the reporters would say, “Wait, Rory. Don’t you mean, stay patient?”
Clichés: We should accept the good ones, and reject the bad ones.
In other words, we should take them one cliché at a time.