One of the most frequently encountered difficulties with teaching composition is how to deal with cliches in student writing. Traditional handbook approaches to cliches suffer from definitional problems. Traditional definitions which characterize cliches as “trite, overused words or phrases” fail to distinguish cliches from other commonly used words and phrases, such as transitions, which students are encouraged to use. Finally, traditional handbooks fail to acknowledge the three legitimate uses for cliches that Don Nilsen identified: basic communication, developing the unknown in terms of the known, and mnemonic devices.
The primary source of difficulty with traditional handbook approaches to cliches springs from the lack of an evaluative system which will identify the legitimate uses of cliches and distinguish them from cliches which interfere with the primary purpose of the discourse. Richard Fulkerson has shown that most traditional approaches to cliche evaluation can be categorized depending on which dimension of the reader/writer/text matrix, features involved in any written communication, that they value most highly. I argue here that Fulkerson’s mimetic evaluative perspective (or contextual approach), which traditional handbooks rarely pursue, offers an effective method for evaluating the legitimate uses of cliches in written discourse.
This dissertation develops a method for performing a contextual evaluation of cliches by integrating H. P. Grice’s theory of implicature with Dell Hymes’ checklist of contextual features. Grice’s Cooperative Principle and associated Maxims describe the system of presuppositions, intentions and background information used in successful communication. Hymes has developed a set of contextual features that focus on ethnographic features of communicative events. By specifying various contextual features such as message-form, setting, or addressor, it is possible to see context as constraining the range of possible interpretations of cliches and thus enabling one to evaluate their legitimacy. Because Hymes’ checklist offers a set of specific contextual features, it is ideally suited for expanding Grice’s explanation of “working out” conversational implicatures and for forming a contextual evaluative framework. By using this contextual approach, I determine whether any of Nilsen’s legitimate functions are served by cliches in four types of discourse. (Abstract shortened with permission of author.)