Idiotic Idioms

on December 8, 2011 in Writing & Editing

While we all love a good colloquialism, there is most certainly too much of a good thing at times. Idioms, or those charming expressions that don’t make any sense to anyone outside of your area, can be overused. We’ve done a bit on the more offensive and odd slang in the (American) English language, but there are plenty of more polite, if occasionally idiotic, expressions that are horribly trite and make your work clash with readers. Need some examples of idioms to avoid in your work? Try these on for size:

“All hell breaks loose.” It’s not very hell-like if everyone is doing it. I’ve seen “all hell break loose” countless times in everything from children’s fiction to adult romance to spy and mystery novels. Enough already! If I have to read it one more time, all hell's gonna break loose! For the record, when “all hell breaks loose” it means things are about to get really bad, really fast.

“Batten down the hatches.” The only time I ever want to read this again is if you’re writing a story about a ship lost at sea, because that’s the only place this particular expression belongs. To “batten down the hatches” means you’re fastening things on a ship that may fly around during a storm. Normally, however, you see the expression used to indicate something bad is going to happen and one person is warning another to prepare for a jealous wife or an angry boss or something equally cliché.

“Between a rock and a hard place.” You have a tough decision to make and you’re being pressed from both sides. If you’re being squeezed between a rock and a hard place, you have two unfavorable decisions to choose between and usually you’re under pressure to pick the lesser of two evils. (Which means you’re supposed to pick the one that hurts the least.)

“Think outside of the box.” Once upon a time we were all boring, non-creative people who colored in the lines and didn’t have an original thought in our pretty heads. Then we were told to get creative and start “thinking outside of the box.” Apparently this was where all of the good ideas had gone while we weren’t thinking of them. Now that we’re all “thinking outside of the box”, which means getting away from the normal though pattern or way of doing business, we’re bringing back creativity every day. Unfortunately, all of this “out of the box thinking” has me wishing a few of us could just crawl back into the box again and get away from tired idioms for a while at least.

This is by no means an exhaustive list – just a few idioms that we’ve seen too often of late. What idioms make you want to crawl back into your box?


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Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.


  1. Lori December 8, 2011 Reply

    Fun list, Rebecca! I teach a Vietnamese woman English regularly, so we come across these all the time. Her name is Hang, so she was surprised when I said, “Let’s hang out.” She wasn’t sure what I was expecting of her!

    She wasn’t really sure what the whole nine yards were, or how one would scratch the surface of something. She really liked the lesser of two evils one! Try explaining that to a non-native English speaker!

  2. Angela MacIsaac December 8, 2011 Reply

    ‘When the dust settled’

  3. Crack someone up 🙂

  4. Deborah Ross December 9, 2011 Reply

    I plead guilty of overusing “window of opportunity,” as in, “I lost my window of opportunity to make a few bucks when I procrastinated in applying for that freelancing gig.” I have to admit, though, that many idioms come in handy in describing situations. I still love “deer in the headlights” whenever I’m describing my high school English classes as they react to receiving a major assignment.

    Nice post, by the way.

  5. Azra K December 12, 2011 Reply

    I like “spread too thin”, which was a fun one to explain to some co-workers from China… they loved it. They also loved using the word “bottleneck”, as in “What was the bottleneck in this project?” Little phrases we take for granted take on a new form when thoroughly examined. Fun article, thanks!

  6. Susan December 27, 2011 Reply

    At the end of the day… I don’t use it when I write, but I find myself saying it way too often!

  7. Ellen December 28, 2011 Reply

    Low-hanging fruit – meaning something easy to achieve. It makes me think of other, ruder things. I’ve actually started a blog to explain some idioms:

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