Saturday, September 5, 2009

The misguided journalistic practice of fiddling with idioms

In my recent postings in My Media English Watch at Jose Carillo’s English Forum, I have called attention to the misguided practice of some newspaper reporters to fiddle with English idioms to put color to their stories. Take a look at some of their more flagrant idiom modifications: “people from all walks of life will paint the town yellow,” “people desperate to shore up their cash,” “it may look like a tit for tat,” and “for four years and running, the bank...”* Even worse, some reporters have a strong tendency to mix two or more metaphors in a single lead sentence, such as describing desperate people as becoming more likely “to fall prey to glib tongues” when “all kinds of scams rear their ugly heads.”

It really isn’t a linguistic crime to fashion a sentence with the help of an idiomatic expression that fits the idea to a T (“fits the idea to a T” is another idiom, by the way); after all, idioms are handy, off-the-shelf rhetorical devices that can quickly drive home a point that would otherwise take the writer so many more words to express. But to use two or more of them in the same clause or sentence is, to say the least, bad judgment on the part of the writer (and of the editor who tolerates the idiom overuse). And to fiddle with idioms and alter them to suit the writer’s literary whim or the exigencies of the moment is nothing less than a language atrocity. It’s a practice that I believe newspaper writers—and every writer for that matter—must stop if they are to remain role models for good English usage.

I wrote the essay below, “The Nature of True Idioms,” over two years ago in the face of what I saw as a growing tendency of some writers in the major Philippine broadsheets to misuse or overuse idioms. There has sadly been a resurgence of that practice in recent weeks, so I’m running the essay again in the hope of fostering a better appreciation and understanding of the need to curb or at least moderate that tendency.

*The original, correct phrasing of these idioms are as follows: “paint the town red,” “to shore up their finances,” “tit for tat” (without the article “a” before the idiom), and “for four years running” (without the “and”). The idiom “paint the town red” had actually been modified to “paint the town yellow” ad nauseam by so many print and broadcast media outlets in the wake of the death of former Philippine President Corazon Aquino.

The nature of true idioms

Idioms are collocations—the linguist’s term for certain common arrangements of words—that don’t translate. Every learner of a new language discovers this when he or she starts encountering its idioms. Whether a phrasal verb, an idiomatic expression, a proverb, or a euphemism, an idiom congeals into a fixed, indivisible form once established, and it loses both cogency and meaning when we attempt to express it in different terms or in a different language. For instance, the idiom “eat your heart out” (be jealous) disintegrates when we change, say, “eat” to “chew”(“chew your heart out”), “heart” to “aorta” (“eat your aorta out”), or “out” to “bits and pieces” (“eat your heart to bits and pieces”). Worse, it becomes nonsense when translated into another language, as what happens when we say it as “laklakin mo ang puso mo” in Tagalog.

These things happen because idioms are essentially metaphors that draw their communicative power from shared knowledge or experience between the speaker or writer and the audience. It’s either we know and accept an idiom or we don’t, and it would be foolhardy to use it—much less to fiddle with it—without being sure that the audience knows it, too. True idioms are embedded in the culture of most native speakers of the language, which is why nonnative speakers can’t really get proficient in another language unless they make an effort to learn its most common idioms.

We must beware, though, that not every collocation is a true idiom. For instance, the expression “spirits are up” may sound like an idiom but it really isn’t. We can actually replace its operative words—“spirits” and “up”—with other words and it would still hold and be meaningful in other ways: “spirits are down” or “spirits are low,” “energy is up” or “energy is down,” or “motivation is up” or “motivation is down.” In contrast, the phrasal verbs “turn in” (hand over), “turn out” (to prove to be), “turn off” (to cause a loss of interest), “turn over” (to overturn), and “turn down” (to reject) are true idioms, each change in preposition giving the collocation an entirely different meaning.

Indeed, the true idioms of a language share three common features that differentiate them from plain and simple collocations: (1) They are not compositional, (2) Their words are not substitutable, and (3) They are not modifiable.

An idiom is not compositional. We can’t compose or construct an idiom from the individual meanings of its component words. For instance, the idiom “take a lot of flak” (get strongly opposed or heavily criticized) draws its metaphorical power from the quandary of combat pilots whose aircraft are met by bursting shells (the “flak”) fired from anti-aircraft guns. In its current form, however, this collocation no longer has anything to do with combat pilots, flak, or aerial warfare; only the aspect of strong opposition is retained in its meaning and it has since been largely applied to serious intra-office or political disputes.

The words of an idiom are not substitutable. When a word in a true idiom is replaced with a related word or even a close synonym, the idiom collapses and loses its intended meaning. This is what happens to “take a lot of flak” when we change “take” to “sustain” and “flak” to “gunfire” to form “sustain a lot of gunfire”—a different but purely literal collocation.

An idiom is not modifiable. Changing the way the words of an idiom are put together or inflected alters its meaning or, worse, changes it beyond recognition. Imagine the semantic consequences when we modify “take a lot of flak” to, say, “get flakked a lot” or “take so much flakking”!

True idioms are meant to make ourselves quickly understood through the common knowledge and understanding we share with our audience, so it doesn’t really pay to monkey around with them.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, July 23, 2007 issue © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


  1. I'm not sure if it was from your first book, English Plain and Simple, that I learned to refrain adding idioms in a composition. That better yet, form a new idiomatic expression altogether for the writer to appear more emphatic.

  2. I have to say that this is a seriously mistaken notion about idioms. Definitely, my book "English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today's Global Language" doesn’t advise writers to refrain from using idioms in their compositions, so this idea of yours 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; even so, 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, as I emphasize in English Plain and Simple, 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.

  3. great article, i come across your blog because i am studying english and i need to improve my writing as well, it is really difficult to integrate idioms to an academic writing, how do you do it? its easy if your using an internet but when you need to write on the spot without using any other resources then its damn hard, hope to hear from you, thanks! -alfred