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Cliches, Paradoxes & Equivocations: Definitions & Examples

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Instructor
Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

Expert Contributor
Amy Fredrickson

Amy has taught and tutored college-level English; she has a master's degree from Colorado State University in rhetoric and composition.

Cliches, paradoxes, and equivocations can be useful writing tools that strengthen documents when used appropriately. Learn the definitions of cliches, paradoxes, and equivocations, and explore examples of how to use them. Updated: 08/26/2021

Introduction

One of the many things that movies and TV get wrong about teaching is that in real life, teachers don't scrawl giant messages like 'See me!' and 'A++' in red pen on students' papers. Instead, we circle or underline passages and write encouraging notes to help students improve their writing: 'Cliché! Let's find another way to say this!' or 'This doesn't make sense!'

Three of the many writing traps we teachers urge our students to avoid are clichés, paradoxes, and equivocations. An overused phrase, or cliché, isn't as effective as a fresh one, just as the illogical or contradictory language of paradoxes and equivocations can be confusing and undermine an essay's overall argument.

While English teachers everywhere would want you to avoid illogical ideas or worn-out expressions in your essays, sometimes authors of poetry and fiction use these types of writing to their advantage. For example, a novelist might show a person is particularly boring or annoying because she only talks in clichés.

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  • 0:06 Introduction
  • 1:10 Cliches
  • 2:50 Paradoxes
  • 4:25 Equivocations
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Clichés

Clichés are elements of a literary work, from descriptions to plot points, which have lost their impact through overuse. You don't have to work hard to think of a cliché. Just recall any phrase often said about love or how the villain gives away his entire plan to the hero right before that very plan is thwarted. We know clichés because we've seen them a lot.

When a poet writes how a woman has hair like silk or skin like porcelain, we tend to think the poet isn't very creative or original. Haven't we heard that one a million times before? Same goes for overly familiar plots and characters. We readers can become frustrated when we feel like something is predictable.

Even Shakespeare acknowledged poetic clichés back in the Elizabethan era. Here are selected lines from one of his poems, a sonnet first published in 1609:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red...
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

The speaker starts out, in the nicest way possible, admitting that his mistress's eyes don't shine like the sun, nor are her lips red like coral. He also admits that music often sounds nicer than her voice. These are well worn clichés (even back then), and Shakespeare knows he can't use them. He even calls them 'false' comparisons when made by other poets. Instead, he acknowledges the clichés as uninventive and still manages to flatter her as only a great writer can.

Paradoxes

Another writing pitfall teachers would urge you to avoid are paradoxes. A paradox is a contradiction that at first glance appears to make sense, but which, upon further reflection, is seen as illogical.

One example of a paradox is from George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945): 'All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.'

Sure, all animals can be equal, but how can they be more equal? In this case, the paradox serves the plot of the novel. Animal Farm begins when the animals of Manor Farm rise up against their human masters and decide to form a new society based on equality. When the pigs grow in power over the other animals, they defend their privilege with the contradictory slogan, 'All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.' While the paradoxical argument wouldn't work in an essay, it powerfully underscores the message Orwell is trying to get across.

Probably the most well-known paradox from literature is a 'catch-22', from the novel of the same name by Joseph Heller. In Catch-22, a military doctor sees a lot of pilots who are mentally unfit to fly planes in a war. When asked why these pilots aren't grounded, he says that if a pilot asks to be grounded, the pilot is seen as mentally competent, because he is sane enough to ask to be grounded in the first place.

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Additional Activities

Clichés, Paradoxes, and Equivocations: Practice Activities

Identifying Clichés, Paradoxes, and Equivocations

In the sentences below, identify whether a cliché, paradox, or equivocation is presented. Then, for each sentence, consider what the overall effect of the cliché, paradox, or equivocation is (i.e. humor, emphasis, etc.)

  • When the stranger came to town, all he would say, when asked who he was, was, ''me? I'm nobody.''
  • The cellist in the local orchestra was a great musician, a diamond in the rough.
  • She always made such outrageous arguments. Last week, she argued that because Ryan had long fingers and pianists often haven long fingers, Ryan must be a pianist.

Answer Key: 1: paradox (''I'm nobody''), 2: cliché (''diamond in the rough''), 3: equivocation (''Ryan had long fingers and pianists often haven long fingers, Ryan must be a pianist'').

Writing Clichés, Paradoxes, and Equivocations

You have been asked by your local newspaper to write a review of your favorite movie. Your article, which should be at least 300 words, should include at least one cliché, one paradox, and one equivocation. After writing your article, underline each example of a cliché, paradox, and equivocation included. Then, consider what the effect these devices have on the audience, thinking about how the tone of the overall article may change if these devices were not included.

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