When Language Goes Wild: Unruly Idiom Examples That Break the Grammar Mold

by | Apr 24, 2019 | GrammarSpot | 0 comments

When Language Goes Wild: Unruly Idiom Examples That Break the Grammar Mold

by | Apr 24, 2019 | GrammarSpot | 0 comments

Editors and clients sometimes quail at the sight of idiomatic phrases. If someone asks you to cool it with the old saws, you’ll probably want to listen up. Idiom examples can throw readers for a loop if they aren’t familiar with the sayings you’re using. Going nuts with figurative speech can also have a variety of other effects: distracting readers from what you’re trying to convey, making you sound uneducated, or, perish the thought, pushing you over into the realm of poetry.

On the other hand, you should probably take any grammar-based criticisms with a grain of salt. Look through the idiom examples I use in this article and you’ll see that they’re all, by definition, irregular.

Either by design or by pedigree, these phrases break the current rules of syntax and semantics. They’re also fun — they open up a whole heap of possibilities for connecting with your audience, linking your diction to your subject or just spicing things up.

Following Grammar Rules

Should idioms follow grammar rules? No, idioms do not need to follow standard grammar. Specifically, a literal reading of your sentence does not have to follow the rules.

garden fence with grammar rules caption

Still on the fence about a certain usage? Replace the entire phrase with a couple of alternative words. If those words are all grammatically correct, chances are your idiom is placed correctly.

Ending a Sentence With a Preposition

Did you notice that I ended a sentence with a preposition a couple of paragraphs ago? My sixth-grade English teacher would have whipped out the red pen to let me know I committed a grave error. No offense meant, Mrs. Star, if you’re reading this.

However, AP style editors tend to let this type of thing — and other types of unconventional constructions — slide. In the case of “spicing things up,” the function of “up” is not prepositional. There’s no literal spice and no literal direction involved in the sentence. With relative impunity, you should be able to end sentences with “carry on,” “give up,” “look around,” “put up with,” and “read on.”

Understanding Agreement Rules

Some popular idioms seem to break plural agreement when taken literally. Anyway, let’s change gears for a second. I have a confession to make.

gesture and body parts concept - human hands showing thumbs up

Sometimes, I’m all thumbs. In other words: clumsy. I’m not actually all of the thumbs (I am only two of them, and then only by synecdoche), and “clumsy” is only one word. These idioms may not follow plural rules, but these statements make sense — and they’re true. I dropped an egg on the floor the other day during an attempt at making chilaquiles.

Following Case and Capitalization

Special cases, such as AP title case, might require you to capitalize all important words. For example, you would want to capitalize the “on” in the idiomatic phrase “bank on” in the headline “Smart Money To Bank On Bear Market in 2024.” You’re just putting a figurative layer on top of the existing AP guideline: to capitalize prepositions if they’re part of a verb phrase.

In another example, “Newly Discovered Number Has Mathematicians at Sixes and Sevens,” I would not capitalize “at” or “and.” The idiom here is standing in for “confused,” an adjective. Therefore, the phrasal verb rule does not apply.

Knowing Grammar Versus Client Style

Unfortunately, just because something is grammatically correct does not automatically qualify it to be appropriate for what you’re writing. There are rules and then there are rules.

Young handsome business man, confused student, holding book in each hand, thinking hard, deciding which one to choose, way to go, isolated orange background. Face expression, perception. Social media

By way of an example, I’d never end a sentence with a preposition if I were writing for legal, insurance or medical businesses — not even as part of a set phrase. I’d just recast or rewrite.

The reason: Most of those clients want formal writing. They usually even request that I avoid contractions — although idioms are one of the only ways you can sneak a “don’t” into otherwise stiff copy. By way of killing two birds with one stone, I usually tone it down with the figurative language in general when communicating with or writing for these types of professionals.

Using the Correct Phrase

Make sure you’re copying these phrases over correctly. Many common idioms come into parlance from antiquated terms, foreign sayings or even quotes. For example, it’s “for all intents and purposes” and not “for all intensive purposes.” There’s nothing more embarrassing than making a mistake when even perfect execution could be considered unprofessional.

Owning Your Own Voice

My self-care rule of thumb is to use the language I love, darn the torpedoes and all that. However, I also make the changes my clients want and enthusiastically adapt to their styles. I don’t think they’re trying to stifle my creative flames — they probably just want to understand what in the blue blazes I’m saying.

I’m with John Ashbery on this subject: He said that clichés and idioms were a little holy, at least insofar as many people have used them to express something important. Did you catch yourself saying, “Holy cow!” at all of the idiom examples I threw your way today? Please let me know how many you found by leaving a note in the comments below. I counted 27, but then I revised. Thanks so much for reading!

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John Bishop

John Bishop is a poet and a marketing writer for the legal and real estate professions.
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