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Rx from the Book Doctor: “All About Idioms”

January 27, 2014

By Bobbie Christmas

Welcome to my new monthly blog, Rx from the Book Doctor. I hope you will make a point of reading it every month.

Years ago I learned that the Rx on a prescription stands for “take this” in Latin. The explanation made sense and stuck with me. While I rarely remember numbers—the cost of things, the totals in my checkbooks, or the mileage on my car—I tend to remember all things related to words, word usage, word meanings, and spelling,. My affinity for the written language no doubt led to my becoming an editor, first for a newspaper, next for corporate communications, later for magazines, and finally for books. Yes, my entire career has centered on words.

Noticed I said my career centered on words, not centered around, which is incorrect. Things can revolve around something else, but they center on things. Oh, yes, idioms can be confusing. Confusion and misunderstanding, though, are two reasons why everyone needs an editor. We simply don’t know what we don’t know. Writers have no idea what they did wrong, because they thought it was right when they wrote it.

Let me mention a couple of other idioms that I’ve corrected in clients’ manuscripts.

Champ at the Bit

Horses, and therefore people, do not chomp (bite) at the bit; we champ at the bit. Champ means to grind, gnaw, and chew, in an indication of impatience. If we chomped at the bit, we would bite it and the action would be over, but champ, the stronger word, says volumes.

Couldn’t Care Less

Some writers and speakers say, “I could care less.” If you could care less, it means you do care some. If you could not care less, however, you do not care at all. Strong writers care more about getting the “couldn’t care less” idiom correct.

People speak in idioms, but strong writers use them only in dialogue. Idioms in narrative become clichés, and strong writers avoid clichés. In addition, idioms often require a reader to catch on to the meaning; in other words, they have to be familiar with the idiom to understand it.

Let’s take a closer look at the following idioms:

  • She has skeletons in her closet.
  • It’s raining cats and dogs.
  • Don’t beat around the bush.
  • She spilled the beans.
  • He was pulling my leg.
  • She was in over her head.
  • He kicked the bucket.
  • She dodged a bullet.

Most of us hope our books will be read by a wide variety of people, including those for whom English may not be a first language. Will every reader understand the true meaning of all the idioms I listed? Certainly not, because taken literally, those idioms either make no sense or mean something other than what they were intended to mean. One has to be knowledgeable in English to understand what those idioms mean.

In addition, sometimes the genre can make idioms even more confusing. In a horror novel, you would not want “She has skeletons in her closet,” because on first read, it might be taken literally. For the same reason, you would not want “He dodged a bullet” in a spy novel or a novel about the mob. Can you see how idioms can confuse readers, rather than entertain them?

As a book editor, I must spot things to remove or correct to make a book better, which is why I’m called a book doctor. As a writer and editor, I must always be learning and adding to my inventory of knowledge. As a blogger, I love teaching writers how to make their writing more virile. I’ve given you a prescription for stronger writing today. I hope you will take it and apply it to your writing.

b. christmas

About the Author: Bobbie Christmas, professional editor and award-winning writer, founded Zebra Communications in 1992 to help writers prepare books for publication. A lifetime member of FWA, she oversees the Editors Helping Writers service. Because she cures ailing manuscripts, people refer to her as a book doctor. Her website is www.zebraeditor.com, and her e-mail address is Bobbie@zebraeditor.com.

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3 Comments
  1. January 27, 2014 9:07 am

    Ah, Doc. As I chomped my Cheerios, I masticated your words of wisdom. Centered around. You’re right! Something can’t be centered if it’s not. The next time I read that the sun rises in the east, I’ll verify with a compass.

  2. January 27, 2014 10:08 am

    Hello Bobbie, I am highly agree with your this idea of Idioms, I am reader of English book, but my native language is other than English (Its Punjabi) and sometime readers like me got confused because of these idioms. Not just for English authors but your this idea is work for every other writer out there. And oh yeah, in a scary book, it would be scary to read “skeletons in closet” for readers like me.

    Thank you so much for such lovely guidance.
    Tejinder Singh, India.

    • Bobbie Christmas permalink
      February 14, 2014 5:40 pm

      Thank you, Tejinder Singh, for your comments. You definitely prove what I say about idioms. They make little sense to people who are learning English as a second language. All my best wishes go out to you. –Bobbie Christmas

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