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Author Topic: Good writing avoids clichés, not idiomatic expressions  (Read 338 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: January 17, 2017, 08:00:16 AM »

Three days ago, a Filipina who works in the Middle East called my attention to the practice of some newspaper reporters of fiddling with idiomatic expressions to put color to their stories, in the process coming up with awful mixed metaphors like “people from all walks of life will paint the town yellow” and “to fall prey to glib tongues when all kinds of scams rear their ugly heads.” I pointed out that it really isn’t a linguistic crime to fashion a sentence with the use of an idiomatic expression; after all, I said, idioms are handy, off-the-shelf rhetorical devices that quickly drive home a point. But I said that to use two or more of them in the same clause or sentence constitutes bad writing.


Lucky Mae commented on a recent blog of mine about the usage of idiomatic expressions: “I’m not sure if it was from your first book, English Plain and Simple, that I learned to refrain from adding idioms in a composition. That better yet, for the writer to appear more emphatic, he or she should form a new idiomatic expression altogether.”

I am making this open rejoinder to correct this seriously mistaken notion about idioms that Lucky Mae supposes she might have gotten from my book. Definitely, English Plain and Simple doesn’t advise writers to refrain from using idioms in their compositions, so that idea must have come from elsewhere. Instead, what my book suggests is for writers to refrain from using clichés, not idioms and idiomatic expressions.

There’s a big difference between them. An idiom is the language peculiar to a people in a certain locality or to members of a particular group or occupation—it’s the way they normally speak to one another and get themselves understood. And an idiomatic expression is an expression whose meaning usually can’t be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up, but that expression is commonly used and clearly understood by a particular community or group.

In contrast, clichés are those commonplace, overused expressions that once might have been fresh and original, probably even written by a good writer sometime in the past. However, these expressions have been used so excessively over the years that they have become very unpleasant to hear, like “dead as a doorknob,” “smell like a rat,” and “stink like a dead mackerel.” And the problem, I emphasize in my book, is that “many of us drug our English insensible with an overdose of clichés.”

So our fight shouldn’t really be against idioms and idiomatic expressions but against clichés and, I might as well add, against mixed metaphors as well. For idioms and idiomatic expressions are essentially metaphors or short-hand language for shared knowledge or experience between the speaker or writer and the audience. They are not something we need to craft ourselves each time for emphasis. They are already embedded in the language, and to set out not to use them altogether is to make ourselves sound like strangers to the language. (2010, abridged)

This essay, 700th in the series, first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its July 24, 2010 issue © 2010 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

RELATED READINGS:
“The Lovely Clichés Worth Keeping”
“Fighting Back Against Clichés”
« Last Edit: January 17, 2017, 08:40:58 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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