Idioms: Should You Bend Over Backwards to Avoid Them?

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)

Comments

If you or any of your readers would be interested in performing a comedy sketch on jargon and gobbledygook, I've posted a free script on my blog - but you'll have to substitute someone more topical and local then the Archbishop of Canterbury for the finale: http://maxatkinson.blogspot.com/2009/03/jargon-and-gobbledygook-comedy-sketch.html I'd also be interested to know if native speakers of non-British English are comfortable with the ever increasing substitution by our media of 'ahead of' when they mean 'before' - for more on which, see http://maxatkinson.blogspot.com/2009/07/are-you-ahead-of-reading-this-post.html

Posted by: Max Atkinson | October 3, 2009 at 07:01:11am

Thanks for an interesting post. I help senior executives write their speeches and presentations, and I agree with you that idioms make a speech, or piece of writing, much more informal and conversational. I believe this is important because the way our words make a listener - or reader - feel is as is important as the content of what we say. If our words engender negative feelings, the result can often be an audience that stops listening, or a reader who stops reading. As the author of a book on phrasal verbs, I would also question the conventional wisdom of the view that idioms "are commonly used words or phrases whose meaning can't be derived from the individual words." The distinction you make between native and non-native English speakers is crucial here. As you show in your piece, many idioms that a native English speaker takes for granted would be confusing, and even meaningless, to a non-native English speaker. But the important thing to remember is that for the native English speaker idioms represent a treasure trove of phrases that contain language that's concrete, vivid, and visual - in other words, language that brings a message to life. When I'm told that someone is prepared to 'bend over backwards' to help me, I'm not simply responding intellectually to a piece of information. Instead, I'm experiencing the message emotionally and physically - the excruciating effort of a body stretching itself to its limits, powerfully expresses the degree of commitment I can expect. Just as in your example, when I read that the economy is 'nose-diving' I hear the engines of a doomed plane screeching as it plummets helplessly towards the ground. However, your accurate, but idiom-free, version of the same information, doesn't encapsulate the same degree of urgency and leaves me unmoved! Martin Shovel http://www.creativityworks.net

Posted by: Martin Shovel | October 3, 2009 at 11:32:25am

Thanks for the interesting post. Idioms add a dash of colour and personality as well as informality. Years ago the Chairman of my then employer insisted on saying that we would achieve the lion's share of business in the markets in which we chose to compete. That caused some interesting discussions when it had to be translated into fourteen languages.

Posted by: Dorothea Stuart | October 3, 2009 at 12:23:18pm

After selling fifteen thousand copies of my novel I was told by two individuals who's primary language was Spanish, that my book was easy to read. When I asked them to explain, both said (and I paraphrase) I knew what you said. I could understand everything. I came to the conclusion that my book had been written with few, if any, idioms. Someone else said that my writing was like Dickens and Henry James. I have written a great deal because I would rather write than not write. I have always challenged my self to create my composition in a new and fresh way that would be clear in its meaning yet evoke a strong feeling of power and beauty. Some one said, "You paint a story with words and I like to stop and contemplate for a moment." Once I realized that my style of writing was void of idioms, I knew the reason why I avoided them. Since I have always stretched my imagination to create new and fresh ways of writing, I didn't want to rely on idioms to tell my story. I have always felt that this huge collection of idioms stored in my brain were groups of sentences to convey a meaning that were of not my creation and in many ways were memorized, over-used and demanded no talent from a writer to use them. Stuart Wisong, author of Angel Come Home, Founder of Angel Legacy for Animal Welfare.

Posted by: stuart wisong | January 4, 2013 at 01:27:20pm

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Posted by: The Inescapable Idiom – The Publishing Culture | April 22, 2015 at 07:44:54pm

I agree idioms are often cultural cliches that are lazy ways of speaking and writing

Posted by: Ceri Williams | November 16, 2015 at 02:12:35pm

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