Re: idiom usage (re: Bill Burns)

Subject: Re: idiom usage (re: Bill Burns)
From: Bill Burns <WBURNS -at- VAX -dot- MICRON -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 19 Jul 1995 08:47:27 MDT

J.P. writes:

>After the just completed thread on multilingual documentation I feel it should
>be clear that as technical communicators we must avoid using idioms at all
>costs.

I agree that idioms should be avoided when their meanings can be
misinterpreted. For example, the idiom "keep tabs on" could be interpreted
a number of different ways, primarily because its meaning as an idiom is
figurative, not literal. However, other idioms are simply irregular
grammatical constructions (e.g., such as). In addition, idioms so pervade our
language that we often don't recognize them as such. (This last word is NOT
an idiomatic usage according to AHD. ;-)

Consider the final phrase in the quoted passage above: "at all costs." (This
is not meant as a put down but as an example of common idiomatic expressions.)
We understand the meaning of this idiom because we commonly refer to things in
terms of money (the time-is-money metaphor). Literally speaking, does
it really cost anything to avoid an idiom? (I guess if you are paying for a
classified ad, it does.)

Consider the following idioms:

meet the qualifications
follow the road
raise the money
take a right at ___ street
live on the street (or _in_ the street in Britain)
run for office

Granted, many of these examples can be rewritten. However, how many of us
identify such common phrases as idioms? Many idioms are so common that the
distinction between the literal and figurative meanings have become
effectively bridged.

Our language has many different levels of idiomatic and metaphorical usage, as
do most languages. Some idioms are so far removed from a reader's cultural
mindset that they cause confusion. Other idioms are so grammatically technical
that the meanings have to be learned as distinct definitions. If you look at
most bilingual dictionaries, many of the definitions include extensive lists
of common idioms. The issue, IMO, is not whether we should exclude idioms
completely but whether we can distinguish between different levels of
idiomatic usage enough to determine when a nonnative English reader (or a
speaker of a different standard dialect) could possibly misinterpret an idiom.
(Here's one reason I specify in procurement documents that manuals must be
written American standard written English.)

The _Handbook of Technical Writing_ has some good information about idiomatic
usage. I didn't notice it until after I responded to the first posting in this
thread. (Sorry.)

Bill Burns *
Assm. Technical Writer/Editor * LIBERTY, n. One of imagination's most
Micron Technology, Inc. * precious possessions.
Boise, ID *
WBURNS -at- VAX -dot- MICRON -dot- COM * Ambrose Bierce


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