February 23, 2015

"Things We Do Not Say:" 150 Journalism Cliches

"Identifying journalistic cliches has become a favorite Washington parlor game. But might it not also open a rare window onto the struggles of writers and editors trying to think outside the box?"

At first glance (or worse, “at first blush”)

As a nation (or worse, “as a society”)

Upon deeper reflection (why not reflect deeply from the start?)

Observers (unless referring to people actually sitting around watching something)

[Person] is not alone (from anecdote to generalization, we get it)

And [someone/something] is no exception

Pundits say

Critics say (or “critics are quick to point out”)

The American people (unless in a quote)

The narrative (unless referring to a style of writing)

Probe (an uncomfortable substitute for “investigation”)

Opens/offers a rare window (unless it is a real window that is in fact unusual)

Begs the question (unless used properly – and so rarely used properly that it’s not worth the trouble)

Be that as it may

If you will (actually, I won’t)

A cautionary tale

Cautiously optimistic (h/t @daviduberti)

Needless to say (then don’t say it)

Suffice it to say (if it suffices, then just say it)

This is not your father’s [anything]

[Anything] 2.0 (or 3.0, or 4.0…)

At a crossroads (unless referring to an actual intersection)

The powers that be

Outside the box (describes creative thinking — with a cliche)

A favorite Washington parlor game

Don’t get me wrong

Make no mistake

Yes, Virginia, there is a [something]

Christmas came early for [someone]

Chock full (“full” is just fine by itself)

Last-ditch effort (unless ditch-digging is involved)

Midwife (as a verb, unless involving childbirth)

Cue the [something]

Call it [something]

Pity the poor [something]

It’s the [something], stupid

Imagine (as the first word in your lede)

Time will tell if [something]

What a difference [a time period] makes (h/t @jasondhorowitz)

Palpable sense of relief (unless you can truly touch it)

Sigh of relief (h/t @geneweingarten)

Plenty of blame to go around

Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)

An object lesson h/t @markleibovich

Turned a blind eye


Cycle of violence (unless referring to a particularly vicious Schwinn)

Searing indictment

Broken system (or, “the [anything] system is broken”)

Famously (if readers know it, you don’t need to tell them it is famous; if they don’t know it, you just made them feel stupid)

The Other (or “otherize,” “otherization” and other variations)

Effort (as a verb)

Table (as a verb, as in “table the talks”)

Shutter (as a verb, as in “they shuttered the factory”)


Orwellian (unless discussing George Orwell)

Machiavellian (unless discussing Niccolo Machiavelli)

Gladwellian (never)

What happens in [somewhere] stays in [somewhere]



Closely watched

Hastily convened

Much ballyhooed


Shrouded in secrecy

Since time immemorial

Tipping point

Inflection point

Point of no return

The [anything] community

If history is any guide

If past is prologue

The devil is in the details

[Somebody] does not suffer fools gladly

A ragtag army (or ragtag militia) h/t @tomricks1

A tale of two [anything] h/t @dsorbara

Ignominious end

Tightly knit (unless referring to actual knitting)

In the final analysis (especially as beginning of a final sentence/paragraph)

Ultimately (same as above)

At the end of the day (same as above)

For all intents and purposes

Cooler heads prevailed

Victim of his/her own success (h/t @gregpmiller)

Who lost [insert country here]?




Chattering classes


Keen observer

Took to Twitter

Tongues wagging (h/t afterword to paperback of “This Town”)

White-shoe law firm

Well-heeled lobbyists

Skittish donors

Byzantine rules (unless referring to the empire in the Middle Ages)

Strange bedfellows

A mass of contradictions

A land of contradictions (please, foreign correspondents and travel writers)

Rise of the 24-hour news cycle (it’s been a while)

In the digital age (again, it’s been a while)

Not so fast

Not so much (I blame Jon Stewart for this one)

Remains to be seen

Tenuous at best

Woefully inadequate h/t @ParraV

Or so it seems

Depending on whom you ask h/t @jayrosen_nyu

Burst onto the national political scene

For now (especially at the end of a sentence set off by a dash; all it does is negate everything that came before)

Tectonic shifts or seismic shifts (unless real ones)

Optics (unless you’re discussing physics)

Feeding frenzy/feeding the frenzy

Double down


[Anything]-gate (especially if you’re writing in The Washington Post)

In the wake of [anything] h/t @fritinancy

How I learned to stop worrying and love the [anything]

Love [X] or hate [X]…

The [anything] we love to hate

Don the mantle of [anything]

Usher in an era of [anything]

A portrait emerges h/t @jialynnyang

In a nutshell

The social fabric (or “the very fabric of our democracy/nation/society”)

Hot-button issue

Hotly contested

Perfect storm

Face-saving compromise


The argument goes

The thinking goes

Contrary to popular belief


The new normal

The new face of [anything] (unless discussing plastic surgery)

The talk of the town (unless referring to the New Yorker section)

It couple (or “power couple”)

Paradigm shift (in journalism, all paradigms are shifting)

Unlikely revolutionary (in journalism, all revolutionaries are unlikely)

Unlikely reformer (in journalism, all reformers are unlikely, too)

Grizzled veteran (in journalism, all veterans are either grizzled or “seasoned”)

Manicured lawns (in journalism, all lawns are manicured)

Wide-ranging interview (in journalism, all interviews range widely, even if they don’t)

Rose from obscurity (in journalism, all rises are from obscurity)

Dizzying array (in journalism, all arrays make one dizzy)

Withering criticism (in journalism, all criticism is withering)

Predawn raid (in journalism, all raids take place in the predawn hours)

Nondescript office building (in journalism, all office buildings are nondescript)

Unsung hero (in journalism, all heroes lack music)

Sparked debate

Raised questions

Raises more questions than answers

Raise the specter of [anything]

More often than not


Ironic Capitalization Implying the Unimportance of Things Others Consider Important

But reality/truth is more complicated (in journalism, we oversimplify, then criticize the oversimplification)

Scarred by war (unless referring to real scars)


War of words (worse if followed by “is heating up”)

Trading barbs

Shines a spotlight on [something] (unless there is a real spotlight that is shining)

[Something] is no panacea

[Something] is no silver bullet

Political football

Political theater

More than you think (how do you know what I think?)

Less than you think (how do you know what I think?)

Not as much as you think (how do you know what I think?)

You guessed it (how do you know what I guessed?) h/t @jfdulac

Shifting dynamics (code for “don’t hold me to this”)

The situation is fluid (code for “I have no idea what is going on”)

Partisans on both sides

Charm offensive

Fallen on hard times

On thin ice

A crisis waiting to happen

Poster child

Going forward

Creature of Washington

Official Washington

A modest proposal (this was written once, very well, and has been written terribly ever since)

Stinging rebuke

Mr. [Anyone] goes to Washington (unless a reference to the actual movie)

The proverbial [something] (Tacking this in front of a cliche doesn’t excuse it, just admits you used it knowingly)

Fevered speculation

Hope filled the air

[Anything] is all the rage (h/t @jayrosen_nyu)


How did we get here? (code for “here comes the b-matter”)

But first, some background (code for “I know more than you do”)

Growing body of evidence

[Anything] on steroids (unless you cover professional sports) h/t @crowleyTIME

Resists easy classification/categorization

Increasingly (unless story proves something is in fact increasing)

Tapped (as substitute for “selected” or “appointed)

Any “not-un” formulation (as in “not unsurprising that you’d use that cliche”)

Wait for it

Wait, what?

There, I said it

And here’s the kicker

See what I did there?

== 150 journalism cliches — and counting

Posted by gerardvanderleun at February 23, 2015 9:16 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Needless to say, the narrative offers a rare window for observers of the American people to probe what pundits say.

Posted by: chuck at February 23, 2015 10:43 AM

How can they talk without all of that?

Posted by: pbird at February 23, 2015 12:31 PM

Controversial (opposition to hard left orthodoxy)

Posted by: Trialdog at February 23, 2015 12:58 PM

If the inverse of a statement is silly or ridiculous, then the original should never have been uttered. ("future history" is my favorite.)

Posted by: leelu at February 23, 2015 1:12 PM

In a world where people could care less, this would decimate journalism as we know it.

Posted by: Joan of Argghh! at February 23, 2015 3:47 PM

Needless to say, going forward, these Things We Do Not Say are a stinging rebuke to grizzled veteran journalists. When going forward they will be on thin ice when relying on their proverbial, handy-dandy old clichés. Partisans on both sides believe the situation is fluid and the dynamics may be shifting as the War On Cliches sparks fevered debate and nervous hand-wringing. If history is our guide, this is no silver bullet. It may, in fact, raise more questions than answers. This hot-button issue is bound to be hotly contested until a new era of clichés 2.0 becomes a Game Changer that puts it to rest.

Posted by: Jimmy J. at February 23, 2015 7:53 PM

It is truly a dark and stormy night when you can't cram all of those into a sentence.

Posted by: Jewel at February 24, 2015 10:20 AM

How could you miss: Wake up Call

Posted by: jay at February 28, 2015 3:53 AM

"An abundance of caution"

Posted by: John Reddy at February 28, 2015 4:39 AM