Friday, February 13, 2009

Watch Your Idioms!

We all use idiomatic expressions every day. We add to these slang, jargon, cliches and technical language to make our writing and speaking more colorful; but, we take for granted that everyone knows what we're saying. Idiomatic expressions can be especially confusing to non-English speakers.

What is an idiom? Simply put, it is an expression that can not be taken literally. If you say that you "hit the ground running" on a project, it doesn't mean exactly what it says. You didn't jump from a helicopter and begin to run across the client's office. When these idiomatic expressions are overused they cross over into cliches, that is, trite, hackneyed and overused expressions.

For instance, I'll never forget the first day I heard a colleague in the executive suite say that we had to "drill down into the data" so that we could have "more granular information." As an English major, I thought those were remarkable images, aptly describing a business need. Then I heard the expressions ten more times in that meeting and a couple thousand times in the months to follow. I quickly became sick of hearing them.

Expressions like those give rise to memos like this one:

The Idiomatic Company

To: Buddy Boy
From: Your Old Pal
Date: Today
Subject: The Project

I don’t mind telling you, Buddy Boy, I’ve been a basket case over this project. I want to impress the Big Cheese and I’ve been beating my brains out night and day, burning the candle at both ends, because I don’t want to end up in the doghouse over this. This is the kind of project that will separate the sheep from the goats. And, if it doesn’t get done right, I know some heads are going to roll.

Last week I got cold feet and almost opted out of the project, but I’m determined to bring home the bacon on this, not bite the dust like some others have. So, after rolling it around in my mind all night, I bit the bullet and decided not to quit.

Have you heard anything about the project? I feel like some people are playing cat and mouse with me. Can you keep your ear to the ground for me? Let me know what’s going on. I don’t need to see the writing on the wall before I change my game plan.

But, if you hear the worst, break the ice to me gently. I feel like I’m hanging on here by the skin of my teeth. I’m not pulling your leg on this. And, if I have to, I can turn over a new leaf. The last thing I want to do, however, is go off on some wild goose chase.

Look, I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, but I’m on pins and needles over this. If this isn’t done right, someone’s goose is going to cook. And, I’m only telling you, Buddy Boy, because I don’t want to tell anyone else and put my foot in my mouth. I really have no axe to grind; I just want this to hit on all cylinders. After that, you can bet I’ll let my hair down.

So, Buddy Boy, shoot me an e-mail when you have some information. Just ping me and I’ll tweet you!

Think twice before you pepper your writing or speaking with these kinds of expressions. Be colorful, but watch your idioms!

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