Grammar What Is an Idiom? (With Examples and Usage) |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

What Is an Idiom? (With Examples and Usage)

Idioms are a big part of language—as well as a common source of confusion, particularly for non-native speakers. Because idioms are used so often in communications from emails to text messages to daily conversations, understanding them is important to mastering American English.

In today’s post we’ll explain what idioms are and how they work, as well as look at some examples.

Idiom: Definition and Examples

An idiom is a common expression with a meaning that differs from a literal interpretation of the words it includes. Put another way, it’s a set of words you use when you actually mean something else.

If that sounds complicated, it should become less so once you are familiar with the concept. Remember that you likely use or hear idioms throughout the day. Here are just a few better-known idioms used in American English:

I wanted to walk to the park but it was raining cats and dogs. (There was heavy rainfall.)

The professor wouldn’t fall for Rebecca’s crocodile tears. (Rebecca was faking being sad.)

I guess we’ll bite the bullet and buy a new car. (We’ll make a difficult decision.)

My boss ran me through the ringer at our sales meeting. (The supervisor pressured me with tough questions.)

It’s great to be ambitious, but don’t bite off more than you can chew. (Don’t take on too many responsibilities.)

The deal fell through, so now Frank is back to square one. (Frank is starting over on his goal.)

My niece spilled the beans about the extra dessert I gave her. (She revealed a secret.)

You may recognize some or all of these expressions, especially if you are a native speaker. You can also see how if we were to interpret these expressions literally, they would probably make little sense. Our understanding of idiomatic usage allows us to identify the ideas within “rain cats and dogs” and “run through the ringer.”

When Should We Use Idioms?

Idioms are best used in writing and speaking when we’re communicating informally with an audience that we know is familiar with them. When applied with restraint, idioms can help us sound more conversational and even contemporary.

The tricky thing with idioms is that they can often have a limited shelf life: It doesn’t take long for them to turn into clichés. If we rely on them too much, beyond being trite, we can give our audience the impression that we lack our own thoughts in our own words, which our readers desire from us. We should aim to use idioms sparingly or not at all if they risk creating confusion or taking away from the point we are making.

In practice, this means you’ll typically aim to avoid idioms in academic or serious works unless you are directly quoting something. If you know or suspect your audience is less familiar with American English, you will likewise refrain from idioms in favor of language that is more forthright and clear.

Keep these thoughts in mind and you’ll be the kind of communicator who uses idioms with proper skill and restraint to make compelling statements rather than “beat around the bush.”*

*To stall or be evasive in addressing something.

Need More Grammar Advice?

Whether you’re seeking a specific answer or you just want to enhance your grammar knowledge, we can help. Look through our previous posts to find more helpful tips. You can also ask a question or suggest a topic in the comments below. We would welcome hearing from you!

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