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4 Things to Keep in Mind When Using Idioms

by Marianne Stenger
Posted: October 06, 2015

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An idiom is an expression or phrase that has a figurative rather than a literal meaning. Some idioms like “no strings attached” or “give the benefit of the doubt” are so common that we use them without even realising it, while others, like “dog in the manger” or “cut an unusual figure” aren’t as widely known and may therefore make more of an impact.


Knowing how and when to use idioms can greatly improve the quality of your writing, so here are a few things to keep in mind when using these expressions.

Don’t overuse them

A well-placed idiom can enrich and add colour to your writing, but if you’re working one into every other sentence it will soon become tiresome. Before using an idiom to make a point, ask yourself if it would make more of an impact to leave it out and say what you really mean instead. For example, instead of saying “He missed the boat,” just say “He missed his chance.”

Avoid clichés

Some idioms are used so often in our everyday speech that they have become clichés and will probably have your readers rolling their eyes in annoyance. Expressions like “dress to impress,” “bang for your buck,” and “think outside the box,” are now so common they have become meaningless.

Whenever possible, see if you can replace an overused idiom with a less common one that means the same thing. For instance, you could replace “rock the boat” with “make waves” or “stir things up.”

Use them correctly

Before using an idiom to make a point, always double check that you understand what it means and will be using it correctly to avoid any misunderstandings.

You might know the right idiom to use for a particular situation, but if you word it incorrectly you could be changing its meaning. For instance, if you inadvertently change “first come, first served” to “first come, first serve” it may be taken to mean that the first person to arrive must serve anyone who arrives after him.

Consider your audience

Idioms can sometimes help you get your point across faster than explaining something literally, but you do need to keep your audience in mind when using them. For instance, if your readership is primarily Australian, you’d want to avoid using American idioms like “chopping in tall cotton” or “jumping the shark” because few people would know what you mean.


Marianne Stenger

Marianne is a London-based freelance Writer and Journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central.

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