To Idiom or Not to Idiom

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An idiom is an expression that has a figurative meaning that is different from its literal meaning, of course. You can use idioms, also known as colloquialisms, to add color to your writing.

But should you?

It depends. Idioms are like an inside joke in that they can help you create a relationship with readers who have a similar cultural understanding. Unfortunately, idioms can cause confusion among readers who do not share that understanding.

You might be on the fence when it comes to using idioms. You can really shoot yourself in the foot if you do it wrong. Here’s some tips on when you should go bananas with idioms and  when you should avoid them like the plague.

When to Use Idioms

Idioms do serve a purpose – they communicate a specific and precise meaning for which no exact word exists. They can also help us say something with fewer words.

Use idioms when you are trying to make your writing more interesting, somewhat like putting lipstick on a pig.

Idioms are great for interjecting humor into your writing. “Chewing the fat” is a cuter than gossiping, for example, and saying a story has “more holes than Swiss cheese” is a lot funnier (and safer) than blatantly calling someone a liar.

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Opt for idioms when you want to lighten the tone of your writing. Instead of telling people that an event is over, try saying “Elvis has left the building.”

Use idioms to keep your reader stimulated. Idioms force the reader’s brain to shift from thinking literally to abstract thinking in ways that help the reader stay focused.

Add idioms to your writing if you want to sound like a native speaker. For example, it is more common for English speakers to say “heavy traffic” rather than “crowded traffic.”

When to Drop Idioms Like a Hot Potato

Avoid idioms when you are writing for an international audience. All languages have idioms, but these colloquialisms don’t always translate well into another language. For example, people in Sweden say “Det är ingen ko på isen,” which translates to “there is no cow on the ice.” It means there is no need to worry, but you would not know that unless you spoke fluent Swedish.

Don’t use idioms in academic writing. Because they lack precision, idioms have the potential to obstruct your intended meaning. Besides, idioms tend to be warm and fuzzy, whereas academic writing is supposed to be stiff as a board.

You should always make sure that your idioms fit the topic. You might want to avoid saying that a certain surgical procedure would “cost an arm and a leg,” for example, or that a laboratory worker was “caught between two stools.”

When you find that your writing is too full of idioms, or when you’ve added insult to injury by using an idiom, it may be helpful to go back to the drawing board and revise your work.

For more information on idioms, and when you should use them, contact WriterAccess. When it comes to great writing, the writers at WA hit the nail on the head every time.


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