Idiom Examples That Break the Grammar Mold

Editors and clients sometimes quail at the sight of idiomatic phrases. If someone asks you to cool it with the old saws, you’ll probably want to listen up. Idiom examples can throw readers for a loop if they aren’t familiar with the sayings you’re using. Going nuts with figurative speech can also have a variety of other effects: distracting readers from what you’re trying to convey, making you sound uneducated, or, perish the thought, pushing you over into the realm of poetry.

On the other hand, you should probably take any grammar-based criticisms with a grain of salt. Look through the idiom examples I use at the bottom of this article and you’ll see that they’re all, by definition, irregular.

Either by design or by pedigree, these idiomatic phrases break the current rules of syntax and semantics. They’re also fun — they open up a whole heap of possibilities for connecting with your audience, linking your diction to your subject or just spicing things up.

Do Idioms Follow Grammar Rules?

Should popular idioms follow grammar rules? No, idioms do not need to follow standard grammar. Specifically, a literal reading of your sentence does not have to follow the rules.

Still on the fence about a certain usage? Replace the entire idiomatic phrase with a couple of alternative words. If those words are all grammatically correct, chances are your idiom is placed correctly.

Ending an Idiom With a Preposition

Did you notice that I ended a sentence with a preposition a couple of paragraphs ago? My sixth-grade English teacher would have whipped out the red pen to let me know I committed a grave error. No offense meant, Mrs. Star, if you’re reading this.

However, AP style editors tend to let this type of thing — and other types of unconventional constructions — slide. In the case of “spicing things up,” the function of “up” is not prepositional. There’s no literal spice and no literal direction involved in the sentence. With relative impunity, you should be able to end sentences with “carry on,” “give up,” “look around,” “put up with,” and “read on.”

Understanding Idiom Agreement Rules

Some popular idiom examples seem to break plural agreement when taken literally. Anyway, let’s change gears for a second. I have a confession to make.

Sometimes, I’m all thumbs. In other words: clumsy. I’m not actually all of the thumbs (I am only two of them, and then only by synecdoche), and “clumsy” is only one word. These idioms may not follow plural rules, but these statements make sense — and they’re true. I dropped an egg on the floor the other day during an attempt at making chilaquiles.

Following Case and Capitalization When Using Idioms

Special cases, such as AP title case, might require you to capitalize all important words in an idiomatic phrase. For example, you would want to capitalize the “on” in the idiomatic phrase “bank on” in the headline “Smart Money To Bank On Bear Market in 2024.” You’re just putting a figurative layer on top of the existing AP guideline: to capitalize prepositions if they’re part of a verb phrase.

In another example, “Newly Discovered Number Has Mathematicians at Sixes and Sevens,” I would not capitalize “at” or “and.” The idiom here is standing in for “confused,” an adjective. Therefore, the phrasal verb rule does not apply.

Knowing Grammar Versus Client Style When Using Idioms

Unfortunately, just because something is grammatically correct does not automatically qualify it to be appropriate for what you’re writing. There are rules and then there are rules.

By way of an example, I’d never end a sentence with a preposition if I were writing for legal, insurance or medical businesses — not even as part of a set phrase. I’d just recast or rewrite.

The reason: Most of those clients want formal writing. They usually even request that I avoid contractions — although idioms are one of the only ways you can sneak a “don’t” into otherwise stiff copy. By way of killing two birds with one stone, I usually tone it down with the figurative language in general when communicating with or writing for these types of professionals.

Using the Correct Idiomatic Phrase

Make sure you’re copying these idiomatic phrases over correctly. Many common idioms come into parlance from antiquated terms, foreign sayings or even quotes. For example, it’s “for all intents and purposes” and not “for all intensive purposes.” There’s nothing more embarrassing than making a mistake when even perfect execution could be considered unprofessional.

Owning Your Own Voice

My self-care rule of thumb is to use the language I love, darn the torpedoes and all that. However, I also make the changes my clients want and enthusiastically adapt to their styles. I don’t think they’re trying to stifle my creative flames — they probably just want to understand what in the blue blazes I’m saying.

I’m with John Ashbery on this subject: He said that clichés and idioms were a little holy, at least insofar as many people have used them to express something important. Did you catch yourself saying, “Holy cow!” at all of the idiom examples I threw your way today? Please let me know how many you found by leaving a note in the comments below. I counted 27, but then I revised.

40 Popular Idiom Examples and Their Meanings

And last, but not least, here is the promised list of idiom examples and their meanings. Sometimes, great writing (either for fun or for a client) starts with having the right expressions on hand.

Actions speak louder than wordsShow me, don’t tell me
Barking up the wrong treeAsking the wrong person
Bend over backwardsDo everything you can
Bite your tongueNot say something
Bottom of the barrelThe lowest-quality elements
Break a legGood luck
Broken recordRepeating something
Change your mindDecide to do something else
Dead lastThe very last of something
Don’t know the first thing about itHave no knowledge
down to earthPractical and unpretentious
Drag your feetDelay something or move slowly
Fall flat on your faceMake a mistake
Fend for yourselfTake care of yourself without outside help
Fight tooth and nailUse all of your strength and willpower
From the bottom of my heartFrom a place of complete truth and ability
Gathering dustUnused
Give a handHelp
Go behind someone’s backDo something someone doesn’t know about
Got cold feetBecame apprehensive or fearful about something
Have a blastHave a good time
Have deep pocketsRich
Have the final sayMake the final decision
Head over heelsMadly in love
I’ll cross that bridge when I come to itI’ll deal with the issue when I need to.
In over your headYou’re not capable of completing something
Lick your woundsRecover from a painful experience
Look out for number oneDo something for yourself without thinking of others
Off the beaten trackDifficult to find; remote
On the doubleQuickly
Penny for your thoughtsWhat are you thinking?
Point of no returnToo late to change your mind
Rack my brainRemember something
Raining cats and dogsRaining heavily
Roll out the red carpetTreat someone like a celebrity
Second natureEasy to do
Stand on ceremonyExpect a formal approach
Taking care of businessDoing what is required
The ball is in your courtIt’s your responsibility now.
Toot my own hornBrag about myself
Up in armsVigorously protesting

Do you have any other great idiomatic phrases you love? Are there other idiom examples that aren’t as widely used, but drive the point home? Leave them in the comments below!

Cara Secrist
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