Know the idioms

Even native speakers have problems with English idioms. A colleague told me of crossed signals from a misused idiom.

An organizer’s email message told a group planning to attend an event together to meet in a certain place “in the event of rain.” My colleague took that to mean if it were raining, the group would gather at the designated place. Otherwise, he thought, the group would meet at the event’s entrance. It wasn’t raining, so he and at least one other person went to the entrance, rather than the other designated spot.

When several members of the group finally showed up at the entrance, the organizer was puzzled that my colleague hadn’t been at the designated “rain” spot. My colleague explained that he didn’t go there because it wasn’t raining. But, it turns out, the organizer meant “in the event of rain” to convey “because of the possibility of rain.”

Of course, most people know that “in the event of” means “if something should happen.” My colleague and I couldn’t fathom why anyone would misconstrue it as this organizer did. But perhaps “in the event of” stuck in the organizer’s mind as a way of introducing an all-purpose contingency. The phrase often appears in notices about events: In the event of snow, check the school system’s website for closings. In the event of rain, the parade will be postponed until the following week.

Helping writers get idioms right is one way copy editors can help. One very young writer once turned in a story in which she had written “for all intensive purposes.” As her copy editor, I changed it to “for all intents and purposes.” I am not sure how many times I have changed “free reign” to “free rein,” “put through the ringer” to “put through the wringer” and “stepped foot” to “set foot.”

For years, I heard the phrase “stubbed my toe” as “stumped my toe,” and I wrote it that way in a column. My copy editor questioned it, and I told her that was the way it was said in my part of the country. (I was a North Carolinian living in Nebraska at the time.) It was years later that I realized that my poor hearing had led me to the wrong phrase.

The only way to learn idiomatic English is to be exposed to as much of it as possible — through reading and listening in formal settings such as the classroom or in less formal ways through television, pop culture and social gatherings. But even that is no guarantee of clear communication.

If you, like me, end up editing both American and British English, you might be best served if the writers keep idioms to a minimum. But then, we would miss out on some of the lovely nuttiness that is English.

Here are a couple of resources for common sayings.

 The Phrase Finder. Shakespeare, American, Proverbs, Bible and nautical

Expressions & Sayings Index