4 rules for using idioms in your writing

Follow these tips to avoid overloading on phrases that could confuse (or even repel) your audience.

An idiom is a group of words which, taken together, have a figurative meaning. The English language contains thousands of them, and they drive foreign speakers to despair: “Why would I watch my back, or keep my eyes peeled?” asks one student plaintively on UsingEnglish.com.

Regional idioms even flummox native speakers. “Happy as Larry,” “more front than Brighton” and “man on the Clapham omnibus” are three that stymie me.

Though it’s best to leave idioms out of business writing altogether, you may not even know you’re using them. Here are a few that have made their way into my recent emails:

  • Back burner (I am embarrassed to say I verbed this: “Let’s back burner the annual report until budgets are approved.”)
  • Bells and whistles
  • Bend over backwards (or the more colorful “bend over and kiss your ass goodbye”)
  • Between a rock and a hard place
  • Get down to brass tacks
  • Jump the shark
  • Loose cannon
  • Monday morning quarterback
  • No strings attached
  • Piece of cake
  • Pumped up
  • Reinvent the wheel
  • Start the ball rolling
  • Throw money at it

I’m also partial to our animal friends: dark horses, ugly ducklings, snakes in the grass, and pearls before swine. And let’s not forget the sports world, where team players huddle up before taking the ball and running with it.

Should we banish idioms from business writing altogether? Sometimes they add a welcome bit of humanity to emails or presentations. In business, as elsewhere, it’s nice to make people smile.

That said, too much reliance on idioms can label you as uncreative at best, boorish or provincial at worse. Here are some guidelines for business usage:

1. Avoid outright clichés

When a term is overused, people gloss over it (and you). Terms like “don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” “hit the nail on the head” and “look a gift horse in the mouth” are so familiar they no longer mean anything.

2. Some terms are better in writing

If you look me in the eye and tell me you’re a “self starter” or “good for the long haul,” I’m liable to laugh. But I’ll buy that language (so to speak) in correspondence.

3. Consider your audience

It goes without saying that idioms are confusing for non-English speakers. But British, Australian and American writers use widely different terms, as well. I’m still scratching my head over “gone pear-shaped,” “up sticks” and “one over the eight.” (Note: I also find many U.S. regional idioms confusing. What the heck is “chopping in tall cotton?”)

4. Don’t get personal

No matter how clever they may sound, you’re in line for a lawsuit if you use idioms to describe or criticize other professionals. Your boss may be “dumber than a bag of hair” or “crazy as a peach orchard boar,” but you need to keep those evaluations to yourself.

Finally, remember that one person’s idiom is another’s idiocy. I’m a fan of playful language, even in professional settings, so I will find it charming if you say a keynote speaker is “peeing on my leg, but it’s warm and it feels good.” Just keep it out of the company newsletter.

Deborah Gaines is a business writer and former law firm CMO who blogs as The Corporate Writer. This post first appeared on Ragan.com in April 2011.

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