Some might say idioms are amateurish but hear me out. Good writers use idioms more often than you think. Some might say I am playing the devil's advocate.
What is An Idiom?
An idiom is a commonly used expression to convey a figurative meaning, which is very different from the literal meaning of the phrase itself.
Oxford Learner's Dictionary defines an idiom as: "a group of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words".
The word idiom means "peculiar phraseology" from the Greek word 'idioma'.
Common Idiom Examples (and Their Meanings)
"I will cross that bridge when I come to it."
"Do not cry over spilt milk."
"Every cloud has a silver lining."
"Once in a blue moon."
"Pull a leg"
"Do not judge a book by its cover."
"Feeling under the weather."
"Be all and end all."
"I do not take a truck."
"Bite the bullet."
"Spill the beans."
"Drives me up a wall."
"A penny saved is a penny earned."
"It is a piece of cake walk."
"Heard in on a grapevine."
It cost me an arm and a leg."
"Taste of your own medicine."
"Hit two birds in one stone."
"Once in a blue moon."
"Dead as a doornail."
"Stop beating around the bush."
When to Use Idiomatic Expressions
A formal writing does not require idioms unless the writer wants to be real snide. If you are writing a serious article, try to avoid idioms in the opening paragraph. It is better to put them after giving context.
If you are writing a story, use them as per your creative needs. There is no hard and fast rule. If you are writing in humor genre, it is pretty much given that one will encounter several idioms.
Points to remember:
- An idiom is different from a proverb. An idiom is a short, crisp phrase, while a proverb is a sentence, which is advisory in nature.
- Idioms are different from colloquialisms; idioms are terse phrases while colloquialisms are a very native and informal way of expressing something.
- Idioms are also different from cliches. Idioms are effective when used, while cliches are overused phrases that seldom have any effect on the writing.
Why Use Idioms at All?
Idioms help bring a lot of spice into dull writing. A writer can use idioms for a number of reasons. English idioms are used by English native speakers and most idioms root from native cultural contexts. The most important function of an idiomatic phrase is to put on paper some complex ideas into simple terms.
Another reason why incorporating idioms can make your writing sound lively to the readers. It is because idioms add humor to the writing. Suppose a character in your story has lost all their money by being foolish. But due to that their fiance broke up with them. To sound ironic, one can say every cloud has a silver lining! Pretty dark humor though, I must say.
Idioms sparingly have only a literal meaning. They have literal and figurative meaning. This real meaning stems from old cultural context and gets around through the speech of native speakers and their writing. That is why it is very difficult to translate idioms. The writer must find a cultural equivalent of the real meaning of the idiom and adapt accordingly.
Idioms in Literature & Explanations
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
"Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”
The idiom 'dead as a doornail' means to be absolutely dead, that is, there is no chance that a person who is dead as a doornail could possibly be alive.
Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare
"MERCUTIO: Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase__, I am done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five."
A wild goose chase is an unsuccessful search for something - the search has been exhausting and a complete waste of time.
East of Eden, John Steinback
"Old Black Joe started crowing out in the henhouse. Then Mother’s rocking chair cricked for all the world like she was sitting in it. You know I don’t take truck with that but it set me minding backwards__, you know how you do sometimes."
In the above paragraph, 'for all the world' means to seem a certain type. For just one paragraph, it has too many idioms. The meaning of I don't take truck means not having a problem with anything. Set me minding backwards means remembering old things.
Macbeth, William Shakespeare
MACBETH: If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all.
Be all and end all means a very crucial situation. Macbeth says the assassination might be a turning event in the situation he is in.
Julius Caeser, William Shakespeare
CASCA: Nay, an I tell you that, Ill ne’er look you i’ the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me__.
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
He at the last appointed him on one,
And let all others from his hearte gon,
And chose her of his own authority;
For love is blind all day, and may not see.
This is a very common idiom which means people do not see follies in the ones they love. It makes them mentally blind.
The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare
PRINCE OF MOROCCO: All that glitters is not gold__;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
This is too one of the most common idioms. It means that things can be very attractive on the outward appearance but only when we go deeper we understand if that person or thing is really good. Many use this to denote money matters as well as people's nature.
Othello, William Shakespeare
IAGO: For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.
To wear a heart on one's sleeve is to express happiness, or bad things openly rather than keeping them hidden.
Let us recap. Idioms are phrases that make your writing creative, fun, and impactful. Idioms can be used in stories, speeches, conversational talk, or in any other content with artistic expression. Using idioms can be a piece of cake walk. Use of idioms can amplify the meaning you are trying to convey. Idioms are rich resources any language can provide, use them widely. Go bananas!