Friday, January 16, 2015

Biting the Dust and Chewing the Fat: A Word About Idioms

By Sarah Reichert


My daughter is learning about idioms in school. With new eyes on them, these expressions and figures of speech can range from all-out ridiculous to so overused that we rarely notice them. Keep your eyes open, I’m about to idiom all over the place.

The conversation with my daughter got the ball rolling and made me think about the idioms that pepper my own writing.  Writing coaches and how-to books tell you constantly to avoid these little chunks of language, and with good reason.  They dull your dialogues.  The reader's eye skips over them because they are too common as fixtures of language and culture.  In other words, they’re time and space wasters.

Now, I don’t want to steal someone’s thunder or throw the baby out with the bathwater because sometimes idioms can be useful.  Occasionally a specific phrase used in dialogue can denote or solidify where your character comes from.

‘That dog won’t hunt’ or someone not knowing ‘shit from Shinola’ (oh, and please excuse my French) are phrases one expects from a certain region or even generation. But unless it is something your character is at home saying, something that paints them in more vibrant colors to the reader, avoid them like the plague.  After all, do we really need to swing a cat in a room to see if it’s big enough to do so?

It’s hard to cull the herd of idioms in our language; to make our work more precise and original, but it is part of fighting the good fight.  When editing, ask yourself if the line is as concise as possible.  Ask if it’s the best possible way to say what you mean.  If it’s an obvious idiom, what could you use instead?  Does it contribute to the scene and charm of the moment, or distract from it?

So don’t beat around the bush or cry over spilt milk.  When the ball is in your court and your back to the drawing board, remember; although idioms can be a cloud with a rare silver lining, it is always better to hit the nail on the head and kick those overused phrases to the curb.

Now, if I can get the use of the Oxford comma right and stop double spacing after periods I may just level the playing field.  If its not one thing…its another.

What are some of your common (or favorite) over-used expressions?

Bonus question: How many idioms can you find in this blog?

2 comments:

RichardK said...

I got the idea for the book Thinking Inside My Box when my co-author's daughter said it instead of the proper way. An idiotic idiom, if you were going to put it into context.

RichardK said...

BTW, excellent picture of a laptop keyboard, circa 1995. Now that's thinking outside the box.

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