Tag Archives: idiomatic expressions

Defying Mrs. Grundy.

Irony at its best.

I get a chuckle out of contemplating how writing gurus and publishing gatekeepers, by their sourpuss anathematizing of the adverb as an unnecessary part of speech, and by their stigmatizing proverbs, colloquialisms and idioms as “clichés” (all of which writers are told they must avoid using, or expunge from their writing), unwittingly transform themselves into poster children for the ultimate idiomatic expression: “Mrs. Grundy.”

If the Grundyists of the wordsmith world had their way, all writing would be as drab and unfocused as a week of winter rainstorms.

Proverbs, colloquialisms and idioms developed over millennia of communication. They paint pictures in the mind which are based on real human experience, thereby fostering reader empathy for fictional characters. In this way, they bring vibrant color to dialogue, in a manner which no amount of “turning the air blue” with profanity and obscenity can do.


No matter where their origins, or what language they speak, everyone comes up with these gems. I studied Hiberno-English usage when I wrote Irish Firebrands. Now, I’m  studying German idioms as part of the research for my work-in-progress, The Passions of Patriots, a prelude to my first novel (in which a character had discovered an ancestor’s involvement in the First World War). I’m impressed by the imaginative ways Germans have developed to express the experiences that occur in all people’s lives.

It’s not for nothing that the Bible admonishes, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). The familiar phrases that are used in every language are also like highly polished precious metals which can adorn our writing like beautifully wrought antique jewellery.

What are some of your favorite sayings?
Have you used proverbs, colloquialisms, and idioms in your writing?
If you write fantasy which has an imaginary language, does it have traditional sayings your characters use?


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The Elephant in the Room.

Somebody in the room said Dan Piraro drew this cartoon.

Idioms, and Why We Need Them.

Writing gurus commonly condemn idioms, and label them as clichés (cliché means “click”). In their haughty opinions, the use of any such well known expression constitutes old, tired, weak writing, and must be avoided or purged.

One reason why this attitude is not correct is that idioms occur in every language. Another reason is that not everyone has heard every idiom. For example, there may be no German idioms that correspond closely to many English idioms.

English idioms not found in German.

This does not mean that German people have no way of expressing the concepts that these particular idioms convey, but only that their cultural context is different. Undoubtedly there are many German idioms that don’t correspond exactly to any English expressions.

A great deal of fuss is made about our “increasingly global” community, but I believe that this is not the true state of affairs. Back in a more cosmopolitan time, people who were literate were usually expected to have learned more languages than their mother tongue. This means that many people had extensive access to the richness of other cultures, as expressed through their varied languages. These days, not only are fewer Anglophone people than ever learning other languages, but also the expert exemplars of language usage – writers – are being exhorted to abandon the most colorful parts of English speech: adjectives, adverbs, and idioms.

Real people use idioms in their speech every day, and we who write fiction about people in the Parallel Universe need to make fictional people’s lives read plausibly. If it’s not plausible for a real or a fictional life to proceed unwaveringly along a perfectly plotted path, it’s not plausible to purge traditional idioms from fictional people’s speech. If you write fiction, and are having some trouble with coming up with realistic dialogue, why not read some lists of idioms, and then write whatever snippets of conversation may come to mind? You may find the meat of many good scenes that way.

Idioms distill the human experience of millennia into brief, succinct statements that do, indeed “click” with their audience. Idioms are the germinating seeds of storytelling. The language of an idiom provides instant mental imagery, which reassures readers that they perfectly understand the text at that moment. Text that cannot paint a picture in the mind is only a collection of marks on a page. Mental imagery is the lifeblood of writing. Writing that lacks mental imagery is dull, hollow, and dead.

Drain your writing of its lifeblood language at your risk!


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