Idioms: To Use or Not To Use? That is the Question

By: | June 23, 2015 | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
Cultural Idioms

Writers should use cultural idioms when they write.

My apologies to William Shakespeare.

I stole a quote from his famous play Hamlet and tweaked it in my headline.

Would someone unfamiliar with his play understand the quote?

Would people unfamiliar with the colloquialisms of each other’s culture understand their blog posts?

Should you use idioms because as a strong writer you should have a “voice,” or should you veer away from them out of fear your readers won’t understand the expressions native to your country?

I have read these phrases since I started blogging:

Great job! Can you hear my hollers!

More grease to you.

six degrees of separation

dodgy internet airwaves

across the pond

Your clanger post

Is this the start of the blog rot?

Ta Helen (used when saying goodbye)

You all know how much I witter on

…blogroll sounds a bit like bog roll. Is that only funny if you’re British?

Hey Janice, I’ve been flat out (seemingly used as a synonym for busy)

And am guessing by her title ‘Dowager Marchioness’ she was not short of a bob (money) or two.  (If the writer had not explained what a “bob” was I would not have known.)

I assure to never cony-catch
Whether it’s- gold, silver or tatters (Poem excerpt)

The heart of the blighter
wants the woman to cling. (Poem excerpt)

These expressions are not common to me where I am from in the United States.  The question begs should these writers have anticipated their readers’ misunderstandings due to geographical differences and avoided using those expressions?

A cultural idiom is a set of words and/or phrases which a given cultural group uses, and which people outside the group may not entirely understand.

Should we as writers avoid using idioms out of concern they will confuse our readers?

This post will take a pro/con approach, and then end by taking and supporting a position.

Yes, We Should Avoid Using Idioms

1. According to one blogger,

Being sensitive to your audience’s needs is you seeing their pain points and wants through their eyes.  Find the challenges you can solve for your audience…  Then you’ll also be getting to the bottom of a possible challenge of your own.

We can make our writing understandable for our readers.  We do have it in our power to consciously choose not to use cultural idioms.

2. Teachers are told not to use cultural idioms, so their English Language Learners understand their instruction.  Why should our readers be treated differently?

3. According to TEDBlog, there are certain idioms that can not be translated literally.  “A piece of cake” is an example.  If you were explaining something to a reader using the idiom “it’s a piece of cake,” they would have no way of knowing the idiom means “it’s easy”.

No, We Should Keep Using Idioms

1. According to blogger Kevin Duncan,

Finding your voice as a blogger is important because the alternative is depriving the world of something special, precious, and unique…

 You.

2. According to blogger Jeff Goins, There is no rationale for people to not hear your voice except that you won’t use it. Maybe you’re scared or still don’t believe that you have something to say, so let me encourage you with a simple thought: Tell your story. Only you can do that in your own way.  

Both of these mean use the cultural idioms you are accustomed to using.  It is the only way your voice, your unique personality, will come through when you write.

My Opinion

The importance of writers bringing their voice to the table has several purposes.

1. It sets you out from the crowd of writers in the blogosphere.  You should sound unique.

2. One of the two purposes of blogs is to entertain.  The writer breaks the monotony of the words by bringing personality, by bringing voice.

3. Writers should experience joy when blogging or writing.  Their fun will be diminished if they have to correct themselves each time they use an idiom of their culture.

4. I understand blogging isn’t all about the writer, it’s about the reader too.  Readers can use context clues to figure out the meaning of the idioms of foreign cultures when they read.  In response to TedBlog, I understand certain idioms like “piece of cake” can’t be translated literally, but the context in which the idiom was made should clue the reader into the meaning.

5. Sites exist that will enable bloggers to look up the meaning of the idioms if the context clues don’t suffice.

In conclusion, we can only do our best given the knowledge we have.

Jargon changes with profession.  If we as bloggers make a conscious choice not to use idioms for fear people in geographic locations won’t understand them, are we to worry about people in different professions not understanding either?  Where will we draw the line?

Blogging is fun, so… have fun.  Feel the joy and let your personality shine, even if that means using idioms.

Readers, if you feel others would be interested in this topic, please share.

Do you feel that we should use idioms when we write, or do you believe we should avoid them in our blogs?  What are your experiences with cultural idioms?  Do you run across them when you read?  I look forward to your views.

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  1. chhaya17

    i’m pleased that you added an excerpt from my poem. i always try to use idioms. they spice up the mainstream writings.
    Thank you for sharing!

  2. Janice Wald

    Hi! Thank you for the compliment and your funny comment. Nice to see you.
    Janice

  3. john doe

    I think idioms made the post more interesting and they show your personality through your writing. I also like learning from reading other people’s writing and especially idioms.

    • Janice Wald

      You are right. We could learn idioms from other cultures if we read articles by bloggers that use them.

  4. unrelentingmayhem

    English is not my first language, so I have no cultural idioms specific to my region to use. I do, however, tend to use idioms I’ve heard or come across. Most of the time I don’t know what their origin is but use them anyway.
    Surely I wouldn’t want to confuse my readers, but I do want to make my writing sound like me.

    • Janice Wald

      Hi,
      What region are you from? I didn’t know there were areas without idioms.
      I agree with your last sentence, as you saw in the post. It is a two-sided coin… double-edged sword….? Sorry, I couldn’t resist using idioms to respond to your comment. Thank you for indulging my attempt at levity.
      Janice

      • unrelentingmayhem

        I meant that we don’t speak English in the first place. We have idioms, but they’re Arabic. The English idioms I use are usually ones I read in books or hear in movies. I found your reply funny! 🙂
        I’m Lebanese, by the way.

  5. G. R. Hambley

    If you’re a believer in the possibility of a Global Village then idioms are a must! This falls under the knowing and understanding your neighbour.

    Something I was taught was to go look it up if I didn’t know what it meant. This generally applied to a word. At this point in my development, I’ve been asked a few times, “did you read a dictionary growing up”. No I didn’t but when I was in there looking up something I didn’t understand I’d usually read the definitions of some of the words around/near what I was looking up.

    I did have to explain to an individual I was living with what a “BIRD” was, UK slang for a woman. As she told to me a number of times, “I don’t speak English I speak American”. I’d tell her, “well there’s the problem”. This is an illustrator not a shot.

    We have the tools to for the most part get instant information on a word or slang or idiom or product and on and on and on.

    Should someone choose not to make use of those tools, then it is that individuals loss.

    • Janice Wald

      I agree with you Gary. However, as you point out with the term “bird”, if people aren’t sure what the expressions they use mean, they could get into trouble (hot water? I can’t resist the urge to use idioms in these responses).

      • Janice Wald

        If i weren’t absolutely positive I knew what an idiom meant, I’d avoid using out of fear of inadvertently offending someone if I didn’t have time to look it up.

      • G. R. Hambley

        Simple stuff. It really is. If you don’t know ask, look. You go blasting ahead without a modicum of decorum and you get your tail waxed…. hehehe

  6. TheLastWord

    I believe that you write in a way that is most comfortable for *you*. Otherwise you will eventually feel tired and will likely be seen as being “forced”.

    And thanks for the excerpt from my silly poem. I’d have preferred a link to it… 🙂

    As an aside: Blighter comes from the British slang for England / UK as “Blighty”. Blighty itself comes from the Hindi word “vilayati” meaning “foreigner”, which is how the Indians would have referred to the English during colonial times.

    • Janice Wald

      Hi,
      Someone where in my experience I learned what “blighter” meant or through context clues. We don’t use the term in America. I’ve lived in California almost all my life; I’ve never heard anyone use it here. Thank you for giving the history of the word. I am impressed that you know that. Thanks for writing. Interesting conversation.

      • TheLastWord

        Yup it’s a Brit thing. As a colony that gained independence in 1947 just a decade or so before I was born, we learned British Engliah in school.

    • Janice Wald

      As I said, I am impressed with the plethora of your knowledge in this area. Are you a teacher?

  7. Mom Sees All

    I’m going to write what I write and let the chips fall. My rule is ‘do no harm’ – which may be an idiom. Whether we write to inform, to entertain, or for fun, aren’t we looking to find our audience? Mine isn’t yours, isn’t hers, isn’t his…there’s enough blog space for each of us.

    Thanks for the article, Janice…you make me think!

    Nancy

    • amd4u2

      I TOTALLY AGREE

      What we right in not every ones cup of tea , but that is freedom of speech.

      • Janice Wald

        I love this! Here we are literally discussing the First Amendment! I had no idea when I wrote this the potential for discussion. Thank you!
        Janice

    • Janice Wald

      Hi Nancy,
      Thank you for writing me today. My rule is also “do no harm”. Therefore, even if I don’t have time to look up the meaning of the idiom, I just THINK I know what it means, I will avoid using it even if my own natural “voice” falls by the wayside (now I used an idiom)!

  8. A Well Styled Life

    Great point! If we aren’t having fun, using our own voice, we bore ourselves as well as our readers! Thanks.

    • Janice Wald

      Good point. I have written hundreds of articles about how to help our readers. This post is about helping both of us. Nice to see you! Thanks for reading what I wrote and commenting.
      Janice

  9. Anonymous

    What makes each blogger unique is their personality and so I don’t think we should be concerned about using idioms if that’s what defines our individual “voice.”

    • Janice Wald

      Hi,
      Thanks for writing me today. As you saw in the post, I agree with you, but just to argue the flipside, you are not worried you will confuse, or worse, offend, your readers?

  10. batteredhope

    I personally don’t use idioms and if I run across them in a post, I ignore them – realizing they are cultural and not necessary for me to understand to get the gist of the post. So my question would be – why use them?

    • Janice Wald

      Thank you for writing Carol,
      You are the first person to support the flipside. How exciting. It occurred to me this might inspire opposing viewpoints.
      Thank you for writing. Good to hear from you.
      Janice

  11. The Gifted Gabber

    Personally, I love idioms – especially those which are culture-based. As an ESL teacher and a Spanish teacher, I am well aware with the struggle that those learning a new language have in recognizing and understanding idioms. However, I do believe that the way we each use our own language is a large part of who we are and should reflect in our writing as we wish. Great topic!

    • Janice Wald

      Hi!
      Thank you so much for your compliment on my topic! This is a great leap away for me from blogging advice. I wasn’t sure there would be interest. On the contrary, there seems to be great interest. I am so very pleased. Thank you for writing,
      Janice

  12. Helene Cohen Bludman

    I like the idea of using idioms if they are used infrequently and can be understood in the context of the piece.

    • Janice Wald

      Hi Helene,
      Nice to meeet you. We seem to be falling into three groups here. One groups says it’s fine, one person said it isn’t, and others are saying it is okay to use idioms in moderation. I love this! We are verging on a debate! I love debates!
      Thank you for reading what I wrote and writing me.
      Janice

  13. amd4u2

    Ism’s have been and are a bigger blight on mankind that idioms in my opinion. “In the bigger picture “.
    Commun ism, Race ism , Fash ism , Capital ism ,Catholis ism
    Fundermental ism , Nature ism , Isis ism , Alcohol ism ,
    Just a thought !

  14. Julio Sanchez

    Janice, I agree with most of the comments above. Personally, I love using idioms. If they’re use appropriately, they make expressions more fascinating. Just make sure to put it in the right context and don’t abuse its usage.

    As to the concern that readers from other geographies might not be able to understand them, I would say that the world has become smaller than ever before because of social media and the over-all internet technology. Readers are more culturally sensitive now because they have all the resources to look up the information they need to understand an unfamiliar word or idiom.

  15. lindasblogs

    I once had a instructor who insisted on idiom-free writing. Everything I wrote in her class read like an instruction manual. I choose to write in my own idiomatic voice. English is spoken worldwide, in a glorious variety of accents and with a multitude of references. Why remove all that in favor of boring “standard” English? Thanks, Janice, for bringing this up!

    • Janice Wald

      Hey Linda!
      Great to hear from you! Why did the teacher insist on that?
      I’m glad I wrote about it; it’s a topic everyone seems interested in. Thanks for writing.
      Janice

      • lindasblogs

        Enjoy your vacation, I bet you’ll return with a wealth of blog post ideas!

        • Janice Wald

          That’s my intent, and I want to take some interesting photos for future blog posts also. Thanks

  16. Eyeland Gurl

    I think idioms make language so colorful. I am originally from Jamaica where English is the official language but we have our own Patois (pronounced patwa) dialect that uses a whole range of idioms. These make the language very interesting and fun to use. It’s great sometimes to use the language and watch tourists have a hard time understanding what we mean when we use certain idioms. However, when it comes to blogging I think we have to be mindful of our readers and write in such a way that they understand. This is especially true if you have a global audience. Some readers get turned off when they don’t understand the expressions that we use and this is something that bloggers want to avoid doing. I have contemplated using idioms from the Patois dialect on my blog but have not done so because I know that the majority of readers would not understand what I am saying. Better to have readers understand and keep reading than to have readers not understand and never come back to my blog.

    • Janice Wald

      Hi,
      Thank you for supporting the flip side. I didn’t even know that was an idiom until my husband told me. Sometimes we use cultural idioms without realizing it because they are so engrainedin us. Thank you for reading what I wrote and commenting.
      Janice

  17. D.G.Kaye

    Moderation is probably the best use. I think a writer has the freedom to write as they see themselves best able to express their words. If their style of dialogue uses such idioms, I don’t think they should change to try and please the world. All writers will never be able to please all readers. Those who gravitate to a certain writer already appreciate that voice of the author. 🙂

    • Janice Wald

      Hi Debby,
      Here I am writing you from my European cruise. Where are you located?
      As far as your comments regarding using idioms: What did Abraham Lincoln say, you can’t please all of the people all of the time…? I agree with what you wrote, and it’s a good point. People are already attracted to the style of that certain blogger whether they use idioms or not. But, I have question. Then, why is moderation necessary?
      Thanks for writing. As you can see, I can’t stop blogging even while on a European vacation. =)
      Janice

      • D.G.Kaye

        Wow Janice. . GET OFF THE COMPUTER! Lol. Take a technical break, I hear it’s all the rage! 🙂 Thanks for reading on your beautiful trip. And, as far as moderation – too much of anything isn’t a good thing. 🙂 Overkill. I’m still home in Toronto. Can’t wait to get away next weekend! Enjoyyyyyyyyyy! 🙂

  18. purpleslobinrecovery

    You were all up in my kool-aid, talking about not using those “idiot” thangs.
    haha Couldn’t resist!
    Personally, I like to use them. If I read someone else’s work, and can’t figure something out, I usually ask. Shy, I’m not!
    Great article as always, Janice. And a very lively one!

    • Janice Wald

      Hi Melinda,
      Here I am writing you from my European cruise! Where are you located? I don’t even know. At any rate, yes, lively! I wouldn’t have predicted it, but of course I am thrilled. I think for me the highlight came when the issue of free speech was brought in. It went beyond debate on idioms to an issue of our liberties. Wow! I didn’t see it coming. So exciting!
      Up in your Kool-Aid–too funny. Thanks for your compliments on my article.
      Janice

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  20. Quintana Pearce

    I don’t think it matters on blogs, because people read blogs on the internet and if there’s something they don’t understand another tab with Google is a click away.

    When writing stories it’s a bit different – it depends on what you think your audience is, and how tolerant they are of strange phrases. The most important part is authenticity – if I write an American character they have to talk like an American, so I have to get an Actual American to read my story and point out things that an American simply wouldn’t say.

    • Janice Wald

      Hi,
      Thank you so much for reading what I wrote and commenting. You bring up a different perspective–that of the writer as opposed to that of the blogger. I agree with what you wrote, and I said remarks along the same lines in my article. I ended by supporting the “pro” side–idioms should be used. While I understand cultural idioms can be confusing for readers not from that culture, they can look up the meaning of the idiom. However, you raise a context where that might not be possible. I had not thought about the burden of the fictional writer in contrast to the blogger. I have many writers of the literary genre following my blog, so I am glad you pointed it out. Thank you and nice to meet you.
      Janice, Reflections

  21. Gilly Maddison

    Ok so as I sit here, across the pond, I’m thinking that idioms are just fine and help exercise the thinking muscles. And if they are too obscure to be figured out from the context of use, then the research muscles can always join the party. At the end of the day, (how about a post on cliches? 🙂 ), if we worried about writing for a global audience, our writing would become so restricted we would say nothing. When I first returned to Britain after 10 years living in Toronto, I was using Canadian and Americanisms that were not familiar to my family and friends. However, things have now changed so much with US TV shows being more ‘in yer face’ over here, many expressions that were once thought of as American are now common here. So things do change as various cultures freely use their quirky ways regardless of who will or will not ‘get’ them. I am all for adding cultural idioms to the melting pot – I see my readers as being intelligent people who don’t need to be spoon fed.

    • Janice Wald

      Hi Gilly,
      Great to hear from you. How fun to be discussing a relatively old article. I have not had thought about these concepts in a while. Fun to revisit.
      I don’t think I realized you were from “across the pond,” of course, an idiom. You are not the first person from the UK to use that idiom when writing me. I must confess, initally, I thought, “What pond? Do they mean the Atlantic Ocean?” I am a very literal person.
      On topic, I have an anecdote: I learned a British expression I just love. It’s “spot on”. Of course, it means accurate. I don’t know why it has such appeal for me, but it does. I really wanted to say it in my (American) classroom when speaking with my 7th graders. I feared they wouldn’t understand me. Then, one day, I said it, and I’ve been using it since. Everyone understands me just fine!
      If it sounds like I am contradicting myself, I am. That’s what makes this a great topic– both sides can be supported! Thanks for letting me have some Janice fun and discussing it with me today.
      Nice to see you. May I ask how you found a relatively old article? My archives? My Twitter plug-in Revive Old Posts? I like to know what methods work for me. Thanks!
      Take care,
      Janice

  22. Gilly Maddison

    Hi Janice, yes, the link to this was from Twitter. I am recovering from some surgery I just had and have a bit if time to surf the net – a luxury! Your reply made me smile – it was spot on! I do love your blog with all its brilliant information and don’t visit anywhere near often enough.

    • Janice Wald

      Hi Gilly,
      I haven’t gotten to Twitter yet to thank you for sharing my Idiom post. I loved what you wrote though and wanted to tell you– the post was a “hot potato”! Quite the idiom! Too funny!
      Janice

  23. AlmasMahfooz

    In my opinion idioms must be used when they are needed, and when they are needed they naturally come in written words. Nice post!

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