What are idioms in writing? They are phrases that are a figure of speech and a cornerstone of everyday English, adding a unique flavor to our conversations and writing.
Idioms are entrenched in history or cultural references and carry a symbolic meaning beyond the literal interpretation of the individual words.
For instance, when we say raining cats and dogs, we don’t mean animals are falling from the sky. We use the expression to describe extremely heavy rain.
Idioms are not linguistic curiosities. They are vital in enriching our language and conveying nuanced emotions. They can add humor, emphasis, or specificity to our expressions, allowing us to paint vivid pictures with words.
Idioms in writing
Idiomatic expressions are a part of everyday language. But there can be a slight difference between some American and British English idioms.
Generally, though, the individual words that combine to create an idiom are understood by native speakers, so the symbolic meaning is easy to grasp.
For writers who are using US, UK, Canadian, or Australian English, there is usually no problem in using popular idioms that are specific to your country or region.
But, as with similes and metaphors, a little goes a long way in good writing. If you are writing fiction, you should limit your idiomatic usage.
Perhaps keep it to only the dialogue of one or two of your main characters.
In your narrative, however, you should keep idioms to a minimum. They are seasoning and not one of the main ingredients.
Another word of caution.
Idioms are always fixed expressions.
You should always check to make sure that you are using the correct and exact wording.
Here are some classic idiom examples, followed by perhaps some lesser-known rhyming idioms.
Common idiom examples
Break a leg! A theatrical expression that is used to wish someone good luck.
Don’t beat around the bush. Get to the point of what you want to say. Don’t approach something indirectly.
Every cloud has a silver lining. Similar to a blessing in disguise. Whenever something bad seems to happen, there is usually a positive side.
He drives me up the wall. No car is involved here. It means that someone annoys or exasperates you.
He kicked the bucket. A euphemistic or slang term meaning to die.
I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. No bridge to see. But it means to worry or take action about something when the time comes and not before.
It’s no use crying over spilled milk. There is no point in having regret for something that has happened and cannot be changed.
It was a piece of cake. When something is completed or accomplished with ease. It was very easy.
It was a blessing in disguise. When something unlucky or unfortunate happens, but later, the result is positive or fortuitous.
Bite one’s tongue. Not saying something you want to say.
Heard it on the grapevine. To hear rumors or gossip about someone or something.
Cost an arm and a leg. Very expensive.
You can’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t make up your mind from outward appearances.
Use familiar idioms sparingly
I am sure you can think of a lot more of these idioms we use in everyday conversation.
For example, a big deal, speak of the devil, let the cat out of the bag, like a fish out of water, and actions speak louder than words.
But be careful when you use them. Because they are everyday expressions, they are extremely common, and because of that, they are often overused.
It’s better to use them once in a blue moon. (A blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month.)
Next time you want to write, feeling under the weather, add fuel to the fire, given the cold shoulder, vent your spleen, straight from the horse’s mouth, or curiosity killed the cat, think about it.
Perhaps you could look for a better expression or a more unique word collocation.
Rhyming idiom examples
Here is a fun list of idioms that all use a rhyme.
A des res. A very attractive house or a desirable residence.
Argy-bargy. A process involving arguments.
Bee’s knees. Something to admire or is by far the absolute best.
Bigwigs. Very important or powerful people.
Brain drain. When highly educated people leave to work for a better salary in another country.
Cheerful earful. Some very good news.
Double trouble. A situation involving two problems at the same time.
Dream team. Perfect partners, but often used in reference to a team in sport or business.
Even steven. To draw or tie fairly.
Fat cat. A very wealthy business person who may also be greedy.
Fuddy-duddy. Someone who is very old-fashioned, conservative, and a conformist.
Harum-scarum. When things happen in a disorganized manner.
Helter-skelter. All over the place at great speed, often in disorder or in a panic.
Heyday. A time in the past when someone was at their most successful period. Sometimes, for only a short time.
Higgledy-piggledy. All over the place in different directions. Untidy with no sense of any order.
Hobnob. To socialize, particularly with the rich and famous.
Hocus-pocus. A nonsense or a sham, perhaps to deceive.
Hoity-toity. Being supercilious or behaving or looking as though one is superior to everyone else.
Hotshot. An exceptionally able person at a profession or activity.
Hubbub. A lot of loud noise and activity.
Humdrum. An activity or person who is boring.
Hurlyburly. The busy daily life, particularly in a city.
Kowtow. To accept authority without question or to bow to someone’s wishes without question.
Mumbo jumbo. Talk that means nothing or is rubbish.
Okie Dokie. All right or okay.
Pell-mell. Confused, rushed, disorderly, or in confusion.
Powwows. Conversations or discussions, particularly in meetings.
Ragbag or Hotchpotch. A muddled or miscellaneous collection.
Teenie weenie. Extremely small.
Tittle-tattle. To gossip or tell tales.
Wham Bam. Extremely quickly.
Wheeler-dealer. Someone who does business in an underhand or dishonest fashion.
How to use idioms in writing?
Sparingly is the correct answer. Standard and perhaps hackneyed idioms should be used if and only when absolutely necessary. Don’t rain idioms.
However, rhyming idioms have a small yet distinct advantage.
Many rhyming idioms can be used as adjectives, which makes them a little more versatile.
For example, a hotshot businessman, a humdrum job, or a hotchpotch bunch of garden flowers.
In either case, be careful. The overuse of idioms is a common fault in writing. It is far better to look for word combinations that are unique and inventive.
Think here about how Tom Waits created his own extremely unique figurative expressions. There was amnesia in her kiss. Or, her lips were cut like razor blades.
It is not a matter of inventing new idioms. It is about bringing inventiveness to your writing.
I suppose this article should be interpreted as a warning about using clichés and trite idioms. And that would be close to correct.
If you use idioms, get them right.
But it is far better to be an inventive writer. Try to find your own words to create your figurative and implied meanings.
I bet you are champing at the bit to have fun with your idioms in writing, and oh, break a leg!
Related reading: Foreign Phrases In Your Novel – Never Use Google Translate