All in a Turn of Phrase

header_dangerUsing a commonly understood phrase can feel like a great writing shortcut–packing a lot of meaning in a few words. But there’s danger out there, so proceed with caution.

First, not all phrases are as commonly understood as we many think. I recall a high school teacher who kept using “the handwriting was on the wall” and wondering what the words on the wall said. It took me several weeks to catch on.

In our increasingly multicultural world, our audiences have diverse cultural points of reference. We can’t count on common understanding of such phrases. Even those of us born and raised in the U.S. have differences by region; I still can get strange looks here in Virginia when I pull out some phrases from my New York upbringing. “Splurging” immediately comes to mind.

There’s also danger and potential embarrassment in getting a phrase wrong. I see this increasingly in writing. It seems that many of us are writing what we think we hear others saying, and a little too often we are getting it wrong. Inc recently published a list of “20 Embarrassing Phrases Even Smart People Misuse.” It’s worth a read.

I’d add to Inc’s excellent list:

  • First Annual. Sorry, just isn’t possible. If something is the first, it’s the first. It can’t be annual until it happens on a yearly basis, at least twice. You may intend for something to become an annual activity or event, but calling it “first annual” doesn’t make it so.
  • Champing/chomping at the bit. Bit” is a metal mouthpiece used for controlling a horse, and one definition of champ is to bite or chew noisily. These are the senses meant in champing at the bit, which refers to the tendency of some horses to chew on the bit when impatient or eager. However, “chomping at the bit” has become so pervasive many consider that phrase acceptable.

Bottom line is to make sure that the phrases you use for clarity aren’t obscuring your meaning or, worse, reducing your credibility.