Sunday, January 29, 2017

Why Writers Need To Master The Use Of Idioms

For writers to communicate well, they will need to master the use of idioms.  In skimming a copy of Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms by Marvin Terban, I came across over 700 sayings and expressions. This book reaffirms the fact that we casually insert idioms into our everyday speech and thinking, perhaps to a point that we no longer pay attention to it. But let’s think a bit on the old phrases we bandy about without giving any deep thought to.

For instance, do you catch yourself saying things like:

“pull out all the stops”
“pulls no punches”
“hit the books”
“throw a curve”
“throw in the towel”
“pull the rug out from under you”
“tighten your belt”
“throw your hat into the ring”
“lose your shirt”
“eat your hat”
“put all your eggs into one basket”
“takes the cake”
“in a pickle”
“no cup of tea”
“apple of your eye”
“chew the fat”

Idioms are phrases with a meaning, but not a literal one.  No one is really a lame duck and no one is really sitting on a hot seat.  It never rains cats and dogs and no one burns the bridges behind them.

Newspapers, magazines, and books often use idioms or play off of them in their headlines or titles.  The book that I came across not only identified and explained hundreds of commonplace idioms, but it showed the derivation for how each one came to be.  Some of these phrases are easily centuries old and yet remain relevant and understandable today.

Idioms manage to express a kind of truism that is based on customs or events past, yet they ring true in today’s high-tech, global, selfish, fast-paced, terror-filled world.  Who would think that “putting the cart before the horse” could hold value in an era where horse-drawn carts have not existed for several generations?  But once you understand the concept of a horse pulling a cart you easily grasp and appreciate the idea that someone may prematurely be doing or thinking something when they reverse the natural order of things.

But idioms need updating.  I’m sure the current decade could create many idioms for future generations to quote and interject into everyday communications.

But as our society becomes more mechanized, science-dependent, and moves from nature to machinery, our language and idioms will likely follow suit.  Our words, even our conceptionalizations of the world, tend to stem from whatever is going on in the developing world.  The Internet is recreating our world, so why wouldn’t it also impact our idioms?

Idioms don’t just reflect language or the times we live in – they reflect a value or philosophical approach to things.  The reason a bird in hand is worth two in the bush is because it speaks about the value that one should not hold out in hopes of more when they could come away empty by waiting.  Don’t be greedy – take what you can easily get.  The same goes for waiting to kill two birds with one stone.  It’s all about efficiency.  If you can knock off two things from your to-do list with one act, why not?  If you can do one thing, but benefit twice from it, wouldn’t you do it?

But maybe these need a revamping.  Perhaps overthinking needs to be challenged or changed.  Why should we settle, out of fear, insecurity or desperation.  Hold out and you may get 10 birds instead of the one in hand. And instead of attacking stacking two problems with one action, maybe take your time to customize each problem with a different act – in hopes of permanently eradicating these issues.

How many idioms have an anti-idiom, or an equal but opposite answer?  We say what’s good for the goose is good for the gander or two can play at that game.  Maybe it’s best for the goose and gander not to do anything that potentially hurts the other.  What do you value – and how can you express it in an idiom?

Writers need to study idioms and use them when appropriate – or seek to come up with ones to counter or update them.  Language is valuable to writers, but idioms are one of the biggest prizes to authors.  Rethink the phrases you’ve heard since childhood and think about which ones still ring true to you.  Embrace idioms and help others understand life’s values by showcasing these phrases that have exhibited some real staying power.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2017©. Born and raised in Brooklyn, now resides in Westchester. Named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby 

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