Using idioms - Good, OK or bad?


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Thread: Using idioms - Good, OK or bad?

  1. #1

    Using idioms - Good, OK or bad?

    Sometimes I feel the urge to use a good idiom. Like having 'cold feet'. It's such a great description, and everyone knows what it means. What's a better way to say it that has more impact?

    And now, I'm writing a period piece, set in 1999-2002. There were so many popular phrases coined at that time. I want to use them because they are authentic. For example, when two people show up to a meeting wearing a similar ensemble or the same colour, like both are in red shirts and cream pants. Someone says, "I see you got the memo." When a few cool people used to say it back in the late nineties, early noughties, it was funny, but now it's so mainstream. I want to use it to make my office scene realistic, but then, I wonder if my audience will just groan and think It's outdated.

    What are your thoughts on idioms?

    Are there any in particular that you like to use? Or avoid?

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  2. #2
    Maybe it would focus the subject to think of idioms as a subclass of cliché. Then you can apply the rules for clichés.

    Use them sparingly.

    I once debated the use of clichés with my teacher in senior English, taking the position that if communication is for the purpose of being understood, then clichés, which mean the same thing to everyone, should provide clarity. Of course, I made that argument before I'd written anything but term papers. However, there is a kernel of validity to the notion. If it fits and you would have to take unnatural measures to write around it, write the cliché or the idiom.

    In dialogue, you get more leeway, if not an open license. This is why these discussions digress, because now we get to the subject of writing effective dialogue.

    I found a truly great blog about clichés, which toward the bottom touches on a thought I've had about them. Every cliché was original, once. The blog says try to "create clichés". So their notion advises to try to create a phrase so memorable that people will wish to repeat it.

    https://thejohnfox.com/2016/06/avoid...es-in-writing/
    Last edited by vranger; January 24th, 2021 at 05:09 AM.

  3. #3
    This is one of those situations were I feel the answer is... it depends.

    It depends on the character and time period -- and mostly that it works well in your story. For now, maybe just write and get the story down. Afterward let the MS rest for a bit, then read through it and edit.

  4. #4
    I wouldn't give it too much thought. It's a matter of being authentic to the time and if there are idioms they used, just use them.
    Craft / Draft / Graft And Write To Entertain.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Taylor View Post
    Sometimes I feel the urge to use a good idiom. Like having 'cold feet'. It's such a great description, and everyone knows what it means. What's a better way to say it that has more impact?
    By showing it. Idioms encourage telling, which is ok, but it is kind of a filtering device rather than a narrative, this-actually-happened one. When the person gets cold feet, let's say, what do they do? How do they act, what do they say?


    Quote Originally Posted by Taylor View Post
    What are your thoughts on idioms?

    Are there any in particular that you like to use? Or avoid?

    I don't mind them. Some are quite overused, but I find them quite linguistically interesting. I quite like inventing new ones. In a shameless plug, I have invented a few for my fantasy novel.

    "By the Black Sword!" - an expression of dismay.
    "Work willing" - a labour-themed take on "God willing" for theologically uncertain times.
    "Pick the rug up" - get moving.

    EDIT: I like the word quite, don't I?


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  6. #6
    I like @vranger's reasoning: If it fits and you would have to take unnatural measures to write around it, then write the cliché or the idiom - if it advances the communication and provides clarity.

    When I was in primary school, there was a girl who'd been told 'true artists never wash their paint brushes, they lick them clean' - so to show what a good artist she was, she always licked her brushes.

    In early high school, another girl read in a book of graphology that small handwriting denotes intelligence; consequently her handwriting went microscopic.

    The pattern was clear: following arbitrary rules like 'don't lick your paint brush', 'make your handwriting tiny', 'avoid cliches in your writing' doesn't make you a good artist/ intelligent person/ writing giant. It just makes you a slave to rules!

    I think I read elsewhere on this forum someone saying: learn the rules, then break them. I think that applies to cliches and idioms: it's probably better if you're using them consciously than unconsciously.

  7. #7
    "I see you got the memo", never heard it before, but I haven't worked in an office since about 1965.

    On the whole I enjoy things that fit and remind me of a time, not just idioms, bits of shared 'wisdom' too.
    A new story

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  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Taylor View Post
    Sometimes I feel the urge to use a good idiom. Like having 'cold feet'. It's such a great description, and everyone knows what it means. What's a better way to say it that has more impact?

    And now, I'm writing a period piece, set in 1999-2002. There were so many popular phrases coined at that time. I want to use them because they are authentic. For example, when two people show up to a meeting wearing a similar ensemble or the same colour, like both are in red shirts and cream pants. Someone says, "I see you got the memo." When a few cool people used to say it back in the late nineties, early noughties, it was funny, but now it's so mainstream. I want to use it to make my office scene realistic, but then, I wonder if my audience will just groan and think It's outdated.

    What are your thoughts on idioms?

    Are there any in particular that you like to use? Or avoid?

    imho:
    you have indicated a fairly tight, specific time frame.
    idioms as tone/voice device within dialogue should enhance, not distract, from telling the tale.
    perhaps, minimize within narrative bits.
    slap on a small appendix.
    title it with your take on a pop culture cliff/spark notes type resource.
    but
    i remain unqualified in all ways.
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  9. #9
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    Generally, in everyday situations, on the news, the internet, some chap linking ‘at the end of the day it’s a game of two halves is my two penneth going forward...’ is the classic Belisha beacon - indicative of a moron at large, and not suitable for creative writer persona/club companions

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