When we think about the things that make a language unique, it’s usually the words, sounds, and grammar rules that come to mind first. But turns of phrase are just as notable, and it could be argued that you don’t really know a language until you can understand and appreciate its idioms.
An idiom is a common expression with a meaning that is obvious to native speakers but not to everyone else. In writing, idioms are used as a literary device to give context to characters, speech, and setting, and they can also help add some humor to a piece. But in order to be effective, you have to know how to use idioms correctly—and that requires a bit of background insight.
Here’s what to know about idioms, including some common examples of idioms and how to effectively use them in your writing.
What Is an Idiom?
The definition of an idiom is a commonly-used expression where the figurative meaning differs from the literal one. These types of expressions tend to be specific to particular languages, cultures, or regions, with a meaning that would be unclear to someone who hasn’t heard the phrase before (unlike metaphors and similes, which can usually be understood through context clues alone). An example from American English would be “it’s raining cats and dogs”—a phrase that native speakers know to mean that it’s raining heavily, but that non-native speakers would almost certainly be confused by.
As for where these phrases come from, many idioms actually do have literal roots. For instance, using the idiom “bite the bullet” when referring to dealing with an unpleasant situation is assumed to have originated in army hospitals in the time before anesthesia, when patients would be given a bullet to bite down on as a distraction from pain.
Idioms in writing serve a few different purposes beyond just situating your readers in a specific place and time. An idiom can be used in dialogue to give more insight into who a character is, such as someone who says “kicked the bucket” instead of “died.” It can also be used to simplify a more complex idea—for example, writing “he gave her the cold shoulder” instead of trying to detail a character’s unwelcoming behaviors.
7 Types of Idioms
If you want to learn how to use idioms, it helps to know what the seven different types are.
1. Pure Idioms
Idioms where the figurative meaning of the phrase is completely unknowable based on its literal meaning.
- “Let the cat out of the bag” (tell a secret)
- “Red herring” (a misleading clue)
- “A piece of cake” (easy)
2. Prepositional Idioms
Idiomatic phrases that contain a verb and a preposition, which together create a new meaning. These are used within sentences and cannot stand on their own.
- “In favor of” (pro)
- “On time” (punctual)
- “Get along” (be friendly with)
3. Partial Idioms
Idiomatic phrases made up of one literal part and one non-literal part. Often a shortened version of a longer expression
- “When in Rome” (follow the customs of where you are)
- “If the shoe fits” (to accept a truth)
- “If wishes were horses” (life would be easier if we could get the things we wish for)
4. Binomial Idioms
Idioms that derive meaning from a pair of words (usually joined by “and” or “or”).
- “Black and white thinking” (thinking in absolutes)
- “Going back and forth” (arguing without resolution)
- “More or less true” (true to a certain extent)
Idiomatic phrases that use non-harsh words to convey a harsh, unpleasant, or offensive idea.
- “She’s creative with the truth” (she’s a liar)
- “He’s between jobs” (he’s unemployed)
- “We’re letting you go” (we’re firing you)
An idiom that is considered to be unoriginal or trite since it is so overused.
- “There are many fish in the sea” (there are other people out there to date)
- “Cat got your tongue?” (are you at a loss for words?)
- “You can’t judge a book by its cover” (don’t make a first impression based on how something looks)
Idioms that are meant to convey universal truths.
- “Good things come to those who wait” (be patient)
- “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” (be kind to people helping you)
- “Fortune favors the bold” (taking risks can pay off)
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Popular Idiom Examples
Idioms are widely used in everyday speech, but you’ll find lots of examples of idioms in writing, too.
The use of idioms can enhance your experience of works written in your native tongue, though it can also make it difficult to pick up on nuances in poems and books from other languages and cultures. Are you familiar with these famous examples of idioms in poetry and literature?
Idioms in Literature
- We have Shakespeare to thank for quite a few English idioms, including “wear my heart upon my sleeve” (Othello), “there’s method in my madness” (Hamlet), and “the world is my oyster” (The Merry Wives of Windsor).
- Before it was the title of a Netflix reality dating show, “love is blind” was a phrase used by George Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.
- The idiom “pot calling the kettle black” comes from Cervantes’ Spanish novel Don Quixote, where it made reference to how the cast iron pots and kettles of the time would both get blackened by fire.
Idioms in Poetry
- The poem “Solitude” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox introduced the idiom “laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone” into the English language.
- “Every cloud has a silver lining” comes from “Comus” by John Milton.
- Saying “bottoms up” to refer to drinking can be traced back to “The Duck” by Ogden Nash.
Helpful Tips for Writing Idioms
If you’re feeling inspired by idioms in literature and poetry, then why not try using some yourself? Just be sure to follow these best practices for how to write idioms so that the expressions you use serve to improve your work instead of detract from it.
- Skip the clichés. By the time an idiom has become a cliché, it’s lost the ability to provide much of a punch. So just as you would get some eye rolls for starting a wedding speech with “Webster’s Dictionary defines love as…” you’ll lose your readers if you rely on stale and overused idioms in your essays and stories.
- Be judicious in your use. The occasional idiom is okay, but they shouldn’t be showing up in every other sentence. Using too many idioms will result in writing that doesn’t seem all that original—and that is liable to lose its readers’ interest pretty fast.
- Maintain the right tone. Idioms tend to be colloquial in nature, so they don’t have much utility in formal writing. If you’re working on something technical—or if it’s just imperative that your readers know exactly what you’re saying—skip the idioms and use more literal language instead.
- Create your own idioms. Making up idioms for your characters can be a fun world-building tool, particularly in works of science fiction or fantasy. Just be sure to give readers enough context to figure out what it is your characters are actually saying.
Now that you know how to write idioms (and how not to), play around with incorporating them into your work. And don’t worry if it takes a bit of “trial and error” to get it right, since you can always “go back to the drawing board” and try again.
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