What Is an Idiom? Learn How to Use Idioms in Writing

Written by MasterClass

Jun 4, 2019 • 5 min read

Every language has its own unique collection of sayings and phrases. These expressions often contain meanings that may not be obvious by simply looking at the individual words contained therein. We call these expressions “idioms.”


What Is an Idiom?

An idiom is a widely used saying or expression that contains a figurative meaning that is different from the phrase’s literal meaning. For example, if you say you’re feeling “under the weather,” you don’t literally mean that you’re standing underneath the rain. “Under the weather” is an idiom that is universally understood to mean sick or ill.

Idioms often summarize or reflect a commonly held cultural experience, even if that experience is now out of date or antiquated. For instance, you might say that someone should “bite the bullet” when they need to do something undesirable. The phrase’s origin refers to wounded soldiers literally biting down on a bullet to avoid screaming during a wartime operation. That common occurrence from the past resulted in a phrase we still use today.

These phrases are also unique to their language of origin. In other words, English idioms are different from Spanish or French idioms.

What Is the Purpose of Idioms in Writing?

Idioms are a type of figurative language that can be used to add dynamism and character to otherwise stale writing. You can also use idioms to:

  • Express Complex Ideas in a Simple Way. Oftentimes, idioms can help express a large or abstract idea in a way that is succinct and easy to understand. For instance, you could say that two things are impossible to compare to one another, because they possess different traits or meanings. Or you could simply say that it’s like “comparing apples to oranges.” In this case, the use of an idiom helps to express the same idea in a much simpler way.
  • Add Humor To Your Writing. Idiomatic expressions can help transform flat description with the help of a funny turn-of-phrase. For instance, rather than describing someone as being not very smart, you could say that he is “not the sharpest tool in the shed” or “not the brightest star in the sky.” In addition to conveying that the subject in question is not intelligent, the inherent comparison of a person’s brain to a toolbox or a star is unexpected and humorous.
  • Keep Your Reader Stimulated. By inserting an idiomatic phrase into your writing, you force the reader to shift from thinking literally to abstractly. This can help keep the reader stay focused and excited, as they must activate a more conceptual part of their brain in order to comprehend the idiom’s meaning. By describing someone taking on a larger task than they may have been prepared for as “biting off more than they can chew,” you encourage the reader to conjure a visual image in their head, which can help keep them engaged in your writing.
  • Establish a Point of View. Since idioms are often used to express commonly shared or universal ideas, there are often dozens of idioms that apply to the same concept. However, depending on which idiom you choose, you can convey an entirely different attitude about the subject about which you are writing. For example, there many different idioms that express the concept of death. If you were to write that someone “passed away,” you are using an idiom to describe death in a graceful, delicate way. Alternatively, you could say that a person “kicked the bucket,” a much harsher and cruder way of describing the act of dying. Though both idioms ultimately mean the same thing, they convey completely different attitudes towards death.
  • Evoke a Specific Region. Certain idioms are unique to different areas of the world. For instance, “that dog won’t hunt” is a common idiom in the Southern United States that means that something doesn’t work or make sense. On the other hand, if someone were to refer to a mess or a debacle as a “dog’s dinner,” they are likely British. In fiction writing, the strategic employment of specific idioms can often add a regional flavor and authenticity to your characters.

Examples of idioms

Here are some common idiom examples:

Idiom: “You can’t judge a book by its cover”
Meaning: Don’t assume you know something based solely on its outward appearance.

Idiom: “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
Meaning: Good things come as a result of bad things.

Idiom: “Once in a blue moon”
Meaning: Very rarely

Idiom: “Back to the drawing board”
Meaning: Restart a process from the beginning

Idiom: “We'll cross that bridge when we come to it”
Meaning: We’ll worry about that problem when it arises.

Idiom: “A penny saved is a penny earned”
Meaning: It’s just as useful to save money as it is to make money.

Idiom: “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
Meaning: Don’t rely on something good happening until it has already happened.

Idiom: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”
Meaning: It’s better to have something that’s small but certain than the possibility of something greater that may never materialize.

Tips for Incorporating Idioms into Your Own Writing

  • Identify Repetitive Or Boring Descriptions. Read through your work with an eye for language that feels dry or monotonous. Look for instances where replacing a rote description with an idiom would add clarity or texture. Do you find yourself describing someone as being “angry” a lot? Maybe they’re “seeing red” or “up in arms” or “flying off the handle.”
  • Be careful not to overuse. Though a strategic use of idioms can add color to your writing, too many idioms in a piece of writing can feel stale or confusing. In other words, a little can go a long way.
  • Avoid cliché. Some idioms are used so commonly that they become a cliché. How many times have you heard the phrase “there are other fish in the sea”? Overreliance on common idioms can cause the reader to become bored with your writing.

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