Idioms are the Bane of my ExistenceAuthor: Amanda Dreyer | Filed under: General, Language
Colorful writing style or source of endless frustration? Idioms, for writers, are a way to spice up a boring or dry topic. Idioms, for editors, are a pain in the behind.
When editing for technical or professional writing, people must be aware that there could be an audience outside of North America that may not understand their sports references or slang that is used in our everyday speech. It may be “less boring” when you include an idiom in a presentation, but for anyone reading it who doesn’t understand the reference, it is frustrating and may cause them to stop reading.
An idiom is defined, by Dictionary.com, as “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of the constituent elements,” or as “a language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people.” An idiom can be used in formal or informal language, but is commonly used in conversation; most people don’t even realize they are using idioms.
Coming from an English Literature background, and just regular American English, I am familiar with creative writing styles that toss around common idioms like “ducks in a row” and “don’t bite off more than you can chew.” Someone without a similar background could look at me like I’m crazy for lining up ducks in a row. I don’t come from a sports-oriented background and have trouble with things like “hand offs” and even “dropping the ball.” My difficulty comes when I have to figure out how to replace them in research projects.
I know what most idioms mean, such that I can understand what the other person means when they say them; but to try to explain the idiom to someone who has never heard it before is almost an impossible task.
In a Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) course I took a few years ago, a student asked me what “queue” meant. Now, as a Canadian, I don’t use the British word “queue” and I barely know what it means. I told the student it means “to line up,” which just happens to be another idiom. The student looked at me funny and the watching instructor told me it was an idiom; I had no idea. It took me more than five minutes to try to figure out how to explain what “lined up” meant. I’m still not sure if I was successful.
Starting as an editor, I was told that the writers were given a style guide and knew to follow it. The style guide specifically says no idioms. This means no overused or clichéd idioms because we can’t completely remove idioms from the English language because they are just too prevalent. I’m talking about idioms like, “Think outside the box,” “Get the ball rolling,” and “Get your ducks in a row.” Yes, they are all useful to paint a picture, and yes, most people learning English as a foreign language learn these, but it’s still bad writing because they are overused and have become trite and meaningless.
I was shocked that in the first research project I was asked to edit I came across several of the “Do Not Use” idioms in some of the first three slides. I counted over ten idioms in four slides. These included at least five that were in the style guide as specific ones not to use. It took considerable time using Google and discussing with the other editors to properly change these idioms to something more acceptable. When I informed the author of these changes, she said it was a boring topic and idioms added interest. I politely responded that I only care about following the style guide and making the project readable for anyone who might read it, regardless of their background.
A great work-around to idioms is to create your own idiom that you use throughout the project. An example is in a recent Info-Tech solution set, Reintroduce the Information Life Cycle to the Content Management Strategy. The author used the image of a firework to explain content management strategy. He introduced the image right at the beginning of the set and he continued the reference throughout. This was well integrated into the set and explained in such a way that anyone would be able to follow along.
Yes, there are idioms that can be used in a business setting, such as “front runner,” “reality check,” and “at a premium.” Most business people know what these mean and they are common enough that they are accepted, but not overused. They are also often taught in ESL Business classes. The ones to watch out for are the non-business idioms, the clichéd idioms, and the ones that are put in a project just to spice things up and don’t add any value to the topic.
Be aware of idioms when you write: they will be found … and removed.