A while ago, I received an email from my “Our Generation’s” editor, Adrienne McGee Sterrett, who sent some information on the latest Associated Press style on sports writing.
Under the category “clichés,” there was the following admonition: “A team losing a game is not ‘a disaster.’ Homeruns are homers, not ‘jacks’ or ‘bombs.’ A player scored 10 straight points, not 10 ‘unanswered’ points. If a football team scored two touchdowns and the opponent never came back, say it ‘never trailed,’ rather than ‘never looked back.’ In short, avoid hackneyed words and phrases, redundancies and extra exaggerations.”
As I read the warning, I had to chuckle, thinking of my classroom days teaching writing. Of course, I preached in similar fashion to my youthful charges that to create a recipe for memorable writing, they should leave out overused phrasing, known as clichés, which we so very often use when we talk to one another.
Don’t believe me? Count the number of times someone tells you this summer that it’s not the heat but the humidity or next winter when they tell you it’s not the frigid temperature but the wind!
The fact of the matter is that clichéd phrasing has become the comfortable crutch in our language. We toss such expressions out casually as filler, temporary respites from all those times when we actually have to think before we speak. After all, all that thinking gets tiresome!
Since verbal communication, I used to intone to my students, is spontaneous and fleeting, a certain tolerance for clichés has developed, but since writing is premeditated and appears on paper that scientists tell us will take hundreds of years to degrade, we must be more careful to rid ourselves of those pesky clichéd inhibitors of great prose, right?
However, at the risk of wearing a giant scarlet “H” on my chest for my hypocrisy, when it comes to sports writing, to be honest, I don’t find clichés all that offensive. As a matter of fact, I find them almost irresistible.
While, in reality, a canto is one of a series of principal divisions in a long poem, it’s almost impossible for me not to refer to quarters in a football or basketball game as cantos. Additionally, while I’ll admit that I’m fed up with the expression that someone “scored the basketball,” I also am fully on board with Steph Curry’s “scoring off the bounce” or LeBron’s “exploding” past his man for a “tomahawk jam.”
In horse racing, the Kentucky Derby will always be “The Run for the Roses” and that famous Indiana oval to our west where last month’s 500 was a Memorial Day happening for the 104th time, to me, will always be “The Brickyard.”
And, when it comes to my favorite sport, the sport of my youth, baseball, I know I could never fully rid myself of the clichés I’ve known my entire life. While once upon a time in the 1930s and ’40s, fans routinely read writers’ prose about a pitcher’s sore “hambone” or about their favorite teams that were trying to trade for an extra “outer gardener” when one of their outfielders was injured, I grew up with pitchers who “painted the corner,” after they, of course, “toed the slab” or “took the bump.” They were pitchers who hoped for a double play, as in a “twin killing,” because as all baseball fans know, that double play is a pitcher’s best friend.
Such expressions and so many more are as comfortable to me as those sneakers I can’t seem to throw away despite the holes in both toes and the partially detached soles.
In my sports literary musings, I honestly do try to avoid the clichéd redundancy, especially in football, the undisputed leader in such rhetorical blights. I cringe every time I hear an announcer say that a punt is a low line drive (aren’t all line drives low?), but when my topic is baseball, for me, my pitchers will always “toe the slab” and hitters scared of getting hit with the pitch, hitters that allow that front foot to stride toward third base rather than back at the pitcher, will in perpetuity be “stepping in the bucket.”
Nonetheless, I’ll try, Adrienne, honest I will. But, just remember how hard it is to teach old sports dogs new literary tricks!John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.