An idiom is a group of words which, taken together, have a figurative meaning. The English language contains thousands of them, and they drive foreign speakers to despair: “Why would I watch my back, or keep my eyes peeled?” asks one student plaintively on UsingEnglish.com.
Regional idioms even flummox native speakers. “Happy as Larry,” “more front than Brighton” and “man on the Clapham omnibus” are three that stymie me.
You may not even know you’re using them until it’s too late. Here are a few that have made their way into my recent emails:
Back burner (I am embarrassed to say I verbed this: “Let’s back burner the annual report until budgets are approved.”)
Bells and whistles
Bend over backwards (or the more colorful “bend over and kiss your ass goodbye”)
Between a rock and a hard place
Get down to brass tacks
Monday morning quarterback
No strings attached
Piece of cake
Reinvent the wheel
Start the ball rolling
Throw money at it
I’m also partial to our animal friends: dark horses, ugly ducklings, snakes in the grass, and pearls before swine. And let’s not forget the sports world, where team players huddle up before taking the ball and running with it.
Should we banish idioms from business writing? Sometimes they add a welcome bit of humanity to emails or presentations. In business, as elsewhere, it’s nice to make people smile.
That said, too much reliance on idioms can label you as uncreative at best, boorish or provincial at worse. Here are some guidelines for business usage:
Avoid outright clichés. When a term is overused, people gloss over it (and you). Terms like “don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” “hit the nail on the head” and “look a gift horse in the mouth” are so familiar they no longer mean anything.
Some terms are better in writing. If you look me in the eye and tell me you’re a “self starter” or “good for the long haul,” I’m liable to laugh. But I’ll buy that language (so to speak) in correspondence.
Consider your audience. It goes without saying that idioms are confusing for non-English speakers. But British, Australian and American writers use widely different terms, as well. I’m still scratching my head over “gone pear-shaped,” “up sticks” and “one over the eight.” (Note: I also find many U.S. regional idioms confusing. What the heck is “chopping in tall cotton?”)
Don’t get personal. No matter how clever they may sound, you’re in line for a lawsuit if you use idioms to describe or criticize other professionals. Your boss may be “dumber than a bag of hair” or “crazy as a peach orchard boar,” but you need to keep those evaluations to yourself.
Finally, remember that one person’s idiom is another’s idiocy. I’m a fan of playful language, even in professional settings, so I will find it charming if you say a keynote speaker is “peeing on my leg, but it’s warm and it feels good.” Just keep it out of the company newsletter.
Here’s a difficult dichotomy: Sometimes grammatical errors make your writing better. And by “better,” I mean more powerful and compelling. The following rules are made to be broken:
Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. But why not? And who’s to stop me? For I am inspired by the flow of these sentences. Yet editors continue to challenge them. To which I say, “Phooey.”
Never end with a preposition. There are so many exceptions to this rule that I hereby declare it an ex-rule. From “What did you step in?” to “This idea makes me throw up,” prepositions are perfectly appropriate at the end of a sentence. That said, don’t use them if they’re redundant. “Where are you at?” is just wrong, and even “where it’s at” would be perfectly correct as “where it is.”
Don’t split infinitives. Even before Star Trek urged us “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” Robert Burns “dared to nobly stem tyrannic pride.” John Donne, Benjamin Franklin, George Eliot and William Wordsworth were also fans of this “error.”
Don’t use “data” as a singular. I know it’s a Latinate word, but guess what? So is “agenda.” Have you ever heard anyone ask for the agendum? Somehow we manage to use the Latin plural as a singular and not sound like idiots. Similarly, “The data—not the datum—on this disk is—not are—corrupt.”
Avoid one-sentence paragraphs. My 10-year-old has been taught that all paragraphs must contain a minimum of three sentences: topic, supporting and closing. To which I say: What a load of horse manure.
Don’t use sentence fragments. While too many of these can make your writing sound disjointed, judicious usage adds some welcome “pop.” Even in business writing. In my humble opinion.
Shun contractions. I can’t think of any document—except maybe a wedding invitation or legal writ—so formal that it requires the use of “cannot” instead of “can’t,” “would not” instead of “won’t,” or “I am” instead of “I’m.” However, it’s fine to use the longer form for emphasis, as in “I cannot believe you wore that to the office!”
Worship at the altar of Strunk & White. I don’t much know about Strunk (except that he was an English professor at Cornell back in the dark ages), but E.B. White was an amazing writer. He also broke his own rules. Pick up “Charlotte’s Web” or any of his New Yorker articles, and you’ll find clauses introduced by “Which” and sentences starting with “However.” “The Elements of Style” also rails against adjectives and adverbs: “Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs,” it instructs. Think White paid attention? Nu-uh. And neither should you.