After a blog post on Five Grammar “Rules” That Beg To Be Broken, a reader took me to task for using an idiom. I had written: “First off, what’s an infinitive?” The reader asked: “Is first off appropriate in print? I am of the opinion that it shouldn’t even be used in conversation—it sounds flip.”
Frankly, I was taken aback by the question. Using idioms—commonly used words or phrases whose meaning can’t be derived from the individual words—is second nature. There are so many idioms and they are so common that it is hard not to use them. I’ve found that when I rewrite something to avoid an idiom, I often end up substituting another idiom for the one I’m trying to avoid.
So, is it okay to use idioms in your writing? It depends on what you are writing, your audience—and the idiom. If your writing is conversational and informal, as are most blog posts, websites, and marketing materials, idioms are probably fine. In fact, idioms can make writing concise and reader-friendly.
This idiom-heavy sentence would be appropriate in a blog post.
At the eleventh hour, the government decided to bail out the banks to keep the economy from nose-diving.
But this idiom-free sentence would be more appropriate in a more formal document, such as a report from the Federal Reserve.
The government waited until the economic collapse was imminent before deciding to maintain stability in the economy by providing financial assistance to the insolvent banks.
We often judge fluency in a second-language by the speaker’s ability to understand and use idioms correctly. Mangling an idiom is a common mistake ofnon-native English-speakers.
- His desk was so messy that finding his calendar was like looking for a needle in a pile of straw. (Correct idiom: needle in a haystack.)
On the other hand, idioms can be incomprehensible to non-native English- speakers, especially those idioms that are culturally sensitive (caught off guard, out of left field, Catch 22, New York minute).
Imagine a non-native English speaker trying to parse this paragraph:
We apologize for running out of the camera we advertised as being on sale. We normally bend over backwards to make sure sale items are on hand. But the cameras have been flying off the shelves, so we were caught off guard by the demand.
If you enjoy thinking about idioms, you’ll love the Idioms by Kids website, which includes this drawing of the idiom Cry your eyes out.
— Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)