Using Idioms, or Not

by Jill amadio

When we write “stabbed in the back” we may not necessarily be referring to murder. How about “I stubbed my nose yesterday, enjoyed a drop in the teacup, and beat around the flowers while protesters were a penny a dozen.”

Clock flyingOf course, the correct common usage idioms are “stubbed my toe, a drop in the bucket, beat around the bush, and a dime a dozen.” The last two are alliterative, yes, but why, I wonder, are toes the only part of our anatomy ever stubbed? And why drops only drip into a bucket instead of any other container? My favorite, though, is “a short/long week – or year, or hour.” What do they actually mean? Six days instead of seven? 11 months instead of 12? Sure, it’s easy to explain that an hour can drag on seemingly forever and a short week can mean time flies by, so why don’t we write that?

Happily, most writers are imaginative enough to come up with their own original phrases rather than rely on the over-used, and yet “stubbed my toe” is so perfect you can almost feel the pain.

rule-of-thumb-idiomI have a book, “The Describer’s Dictionary” that contains oodles of such hackneyed idioms but they do inspire me to create my own if possible. The book is tremendously helpful when trying to find a way to describe, for example, low-elevation clouds. One description offered is “a cloud mass like a formless gray horizontal sheet.”  Would you honestly use that? However, I have found the book invaluable for character physiques, architecture, locales, settings, and surfaces and textures. There is an entire chapter on Necks. Granted, it’s only half a page but it encourages the mind to explore other possibilities.

Chandler’s description of a building in ‘The Long Goodbye” was “The entrance had double stone pillars on each side but the cream of the joint…”Can’t mistake his signature style.

How about Edith Wharton’s “…its front [of the house was] so veiled in the showering  gold-green foliage…” in her novel, “Hudson River Bracketed.”

In Wallace Stegner’s “All the Little Things” he writes about an old house with its sides and roof “weathered silvery as an old rock…” and “…the way three big live oaks twisted like seaweed above the roof…”

What’s your pet peeve when it comes to using idioms?


JillAmadioHeadJill Amadio is from Cornwall, UK, but unlike her amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, she is far less grumpy. Jill began her career as a reporter in London (UK), then Madrid (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, and New York. She is the ghostwriter of 14 memoirs, and wrote the Rudy Valle biography, “My Vagabond Lover,” with his wife, Ellie. Jill writes a column for a British mystery magazine, and is an audio book narrator. She is the author of the award-winning mystery, “Digging Too Deep.” The second book in the series, “Digging Up the Dead,” was released this year. The books are based in Newport



This article was posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)



Author: Jackie Houchin

First, I am a believer in Jesus Christ, so my views and opinions are filtered through what God's Word says and I believe. I'm a wife, a mom, a grandma and now a great grandma. I write articles and reviews, and I dabble in short fiction. I enjoy living near the ocean, doing gardening (for beauty and food) and traveling - in other countries, if possible. My heart is for Christian missions, and I'm compiling a collections of Missionary Kids' stories to publish. (I also like kittens and cats and reading mysteries.)

9 thoughts on “Using Idioms, or Not”

  1. I have been reading books written over a hundred years ago and they will have many expressions that we know today and might even consider hackneyed. But then I thought: these were probably the first times these phrases were ever written and they endured through a century. Now it’s our turn to come up with our own terms that will last another hundred years.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Like Gayle, When I read books written decades ago the idioms might sound hackneyed in today’s writing – but they remind me and show me the ‘voice’ of that era. Some of it charming and some make one cringe. But it’s also very useful when you’re writing about life 100 years ago. But what a fascinating book you bought on this subject! Food for thought, Jill. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When I first started to read books in English, expressions like “long in the tooth” and “pulling one’s leg” baffled me. Then later, when living in the US, I tended to mix things up in speech. For instance, “a beast of habit,” and “a creature of burden.” I’ve come a long way since then but still try to stay away from idioms in my writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is funny, Alice! I still have a problem with “I need to hit the sack.” (Go to bed.) I keep saying, “I need to hit the rack.” Not sure how that got mixed up for me. Haha.


  4. A little birdie told me there’d be a good post this week. You can say that again. Will my post next week be as good? Your guess is as good as mine, so we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
    In other words, Jill, very interesting and entertaining.


  5. Loved your post, Jill! Never thought about creating my own idioms, though I do like using metaphors. The writing teacher wisdom, is not to use idioms–however, I’m very fond of idioms, including their history, so, alas, use a lot. (hubby likes kicking around what and where when it comes to idioms, fun!)


  6. Hello, all you wonderful writers who responded. sorry I am not thanking you individually, I am still “all of a tizzwozz” getting settled in here, much more traumatic than I had imagined and admittedly a bit depressing not to be in CA. The only person I know here is daughter Janet, who comes by with scones, grapes, new bedsheets and other gifts to make me feel welcome. I had a small piece published in the local town wag’s daily newsletter about a clever way to keep walkers along the river entertained, very clever. Friends I knew way back when I first lived here are no longer around and with semi-quarantine I won’t be meeting any fellow writers, at least not any time soon, it seems.
    thanks again for your comments,
    love you all,


  7. I love the idiom “a stone’s throw,” but it’s over-overused so I avoid it. Although I could use it in dialogue. Best wishes for a happy adjustment, Jill.


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