(Updated September 3, 2009)  

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What is, "a hackneyed phrase"? (陈腐的短语)

A hackneyed phrase is a set expression that has become boring to hear or read. It has become boring as a result of overuse and sometimes, as a result of misuse.

But if one is not a native English-speaker, and therefore does not read or hear a lot of English, how does he or she know that an expression has become hackneyed? That's a difficult question, which I cannot answer right now. 

As for IELTS Writing test candidates, the best way to avoid hackneyed phrases is to be very careful when memorizing patches of English from 'model answers' of typical IELTS Writing questions. If an expression seems to be very frequently used in model answers that are written by Chinese English teachers, it is best to consider whether the expression is hackneyed or not before using it. Sometimes, it might be best to try to make your own expression for some of these commonly used expressions in model answers.

A good example of, (what I think is) a hackneyed phrase among IELTS Writing test candidates in China is, "Last but not least". If I read that in an essay, I either want to scream or I just yawn. I'm a middle-aged native English speaker from Australia who also lived in the U.S. once for three years. In my experience, the phrase, "Last but not least" is most often used in spoken English and is usually used in group settings, i.e., used when talking among at least three people. To me, the expression has a 'folksy' and 'friendly' feel about it - obviously it must be rather informal English. A typical situation when this expression might be used is this:  I'm the manager of a department in a company and this morning I will introduce four new employees to the other employees. I ask the four new employees to line up in front of the whole office staff. I begin by saying, "First, this is Mr. Wang. He's our new assistant accountant. Then we have Miss Li, who is a new receptionist , ........and, last but not least, we have Mr. Lin, who is our new website manager." Why did I say, "Last but not least"? Because I didn't want Mr. Lin to feel offended by being introduced last. (Even though it was he who chose to be at the end of the line!) 

Just write, "Last" or "Lastly" if you can't think of another way to introduce the last item! Don't try to 'impress' me with, "Last but not least" in an academic essay. 

What style of writing should an academic essay be? It's somewhere between normal spoken English, formal English and scientific, analytic English. Some candidates write in an unsuitably formal style and often this kind of candidate makes many mistakes because he or she is writing above their natural sentence-making ability. Task 2 should not be written in the highest level of formality because, after all, candidates are encouraged to include examples from their own experience. This element of "writing personally" cannot be done at a high level of formality because writing at a high level of formality is impersonal in style. Therefore, you should not attempt to write your essay at the very highest level of formality.

On the other hand, even though the IELTS Task 2 essay should not be highly formal, neither should it contain too many examples of expressions that are mostly used in spoken rather than written English. I believe, "Last but not least" is best used in spoken English situations and is not suitable for academic essays, even academic essays such as IELTS Task 2, which is not highly formal.

A similar hackneyed phrase is, "First and foremost". Avoid it in essays although it's not so bad for the Speaking test.

When I was an examiner (in the 2001-2003 period), the proverb, "Every coin has two sides" was very much overused in essays. We examiners, when grading the test papers together, used to mock this expression (proverb) and say to our colleagues, "I've found another one!" and laugh. But we didn't really think it was funny - it was rather annoying, boring and disappointing to read such unoriginal language. What was even worse were examples of people misquoting this proverb, such as "As a coin has two sides". Proverbs, which are more often used in spoken language than written language, are meant to be quoted word-for-word, exactly as they are normally spoken.

I'm not sure about this (since my Chinese language ability is rather elementary) but I think that the use of proverbs in Chinese writing is much more acceptable than in English. Chinese culture highly values tradition, including the way people write. But this is much less the case for English speakers – we highly value originality of thought and in the use of language. We prefer to read something new and interesting rather than read language that has been used many times before.

This leads me to another example that was overused when I was an examiner: "With the development of science and technology, ...". Chinese students writing that were directly translating from Chinese. This phrase is not wrong or bad English and there are topics where it is suitable to use. But it just became overused and misused. For example, I used to see situations where the topic was something such as, "Do you think students have too much homework?" and the first sentence the essay was, "With the development of science and technology, ...". Boring.

My general advice for avoiding hackneyed expressions and for writing better essays overall is to read as many materials that were written by native English speakers as you can. These materials are articles that are similar in some ways to the essays you are asked to write (especially Task 2), that is, articles expression your opinion, or discussing two opposing points of view. Many students in China don't do this. The only thing they do is study some model essays in textbooks written by Chinese English teachers. Some of these model answers are quite good but there are others that you should run away from as if they were SARS patients.

There are some hackneyed expressions that have become hackneyed by overuse when written by native English speakers and you, an IELTS candidate, will be forgiven to some extent for not knowing that these are hackneyed for English speakers. However, there are always some expressions that have become hackneyed in China, when used by IELTS candidates. I think these expressions might change a little over the years as different IELTS Writing textbooks come onto the market, resulting in some expressions becoming "popular" to use in essays. These are the expressions that you should try to avoid.

Overall, as I have written elsewhere, you should mostly try to communicate your original, personal feelings and opinions in the Task 2 essays, i.e., communicate your ideas to another person, and try to make sure that the other person can understand what you mean. It is a big mistake to focus mostly on impressing the examiner with your language and forget that you are communicating to another human being. Very many candidates in China write in language that is much too formal and write using language that is above their real knowledge of English, in an attempt to impress. The end result is that the examiner does not understand what you mean and this is the most important thing in an essay, to communicate what you mean. So, many candidates who could get a score of 5.5 or 6.0 (for example), get a score of 4.5 or 5.0 for Writing because of this mistake. Try to write a little closer to the way you would speak or the way you would express your opinions or discuss a topic in a long email (e.g., 250 words), not an essay, to an English speaker. Yes, there are certain differences between an email and an essay but don't focus too much or only on the points of style of essays, especially highly formal essays.

[When I find the time, I will read many model essays written IELTS Writing textbooks in China and form a list of hackneyed language to avoid.]


Some Internet links to, "Hackneyed Phrase" 

(The word on the next page that might not appear clearly is 'clichés'. The é is called 'the French acute e'. Some words in English borrowed from French have kept both their French pronunciation and spelling.) 

(I don't know anything about the next site. I'm just linking to this reference to, "hackneyed phrases".)

(I don't know anything about the next site. I'm just linking to this reference to, "hackneyed phrases".)



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