My fascination with idioms began at a Weight Watchers kickoff meeting 35 years ago. As I sat in a circle with a few other newcomers, we listened to each other’s weight stories. When my turn came, I explained that I’d had knee surgery and gained a few pounds during my recovery. Without hesitating, the facilitator asked, “Oh, so you saw the writing on the wall?” I paused briefly and looked toward the wall so I could read what she was referring to. Finding nothing, I turned my attention back to the group. I realized I had just bumped into an idiom.
From that first encounter at Weight Watchers, I became fixated on idioms. You see, I grew up speaking Spanish, and English is my second language. By the time I immigrated to the United States from Colombia, I was fluent in English and had a strong vocabulary, but idioms still tripped me up (caused me to hesitate) time and again. Every time I stumbled upon (found) a new one, I filed it in my head to use in a future conversation. It seemed that idioms had the power to convey a level of intimacy and comfort with a language that no other device could.
I still feel this way today, with a caveat: as an editor, I always flag idioms. In a multicultural, international society, familiarity with English-language idioms varies widely. These turns of phrase can cause confusion and, at worst, pose a danger in sensitive contexts. In particular, I would suggest that editors keep an eye out (remain alert) for idioms in these types of writing:
Over the years, I’ve collected examples of idioms some English speakers might find confusing. Here are a few:
I’m not advocating rigidity when it comes to idioms. But there is a time and a place for them. That said, I still hold that, when used effectively, idioms spice up language. For instance, I have come across passages where the author uses idioms and then explains them, a practice that reminds me of Lemony Snicket’s clever penchant for defining vocabulary words within his A Series of Unfortunate Events books. (I’ve done this a few times in this piece for effect.)
So, the next time you’re editing, take a walk in someone else’s shoes, especially someone who may not speak English as a first language. This way, we’ll all be on the same page.
Mind (be careful with) your idioms was originally published in Tracking Changes (Spring 2021 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.