Misuse of Idioms in Academic Writing

I won’t beat around the bush; idioms shouldn’t be used in academic writing. I don’t mean to big note myself, but this article will explain why idioms are inappropriate in formal contexts. If you’re sitting on the fence about it, let me tell you that academics wouldn’t be caught dead peppering their writing with idiomatic expressions (like I have done in this opening paragraph).

What is an idiom?

An idiom is a figurative expression, often unique to a particular cultural or language group. Idioms are part of informal, conversational or colloquial language usage.

According to Snooks & Co.’s Style Manual: For Authors, Editors and Printers, ‘The casual nature of the informal register is achieved at some cost to other aspects of communication’. This is because idioms are a double-edged sword: they create a familiar relationship between a writer and reader who share a cultural understanding, but at the same time they actively exclude people who are unfamiliar with the cultural reference.

As sport is a major part of Australian culture, the following sayings are a part of our national vernacular: ‘the ball’s in your court’ (it’s your move or turn to act), ‘come out of left field’ (to take someone by surprise) and ‘to have a good innings’ (to have had a good life or to have enjoyed a long period of success).

Those with limited understanding of sports struggle to decode the intended meaning of these sayings.

Why should I avoid colloquialisms in academic writing?

An idiom’s message differs greatly from the literal meaning of the words. In the earlier example of ‘sitting on a fence’, an Australian audience would understand that this conveys the speaker is struggling to make up their mind. It has nothing to do with a literal fence.

You can imagine the confusion that people from LOTE (language other than English) backgrounds experience when they encounter these mystifying sayings that are deeply embedded in Australian vernacular.

Another issue is that some idioms misappropriate cultural experiences. For example, the idiom ‘gone walkabout’ is an Australian expression for something that has been lost. A walkabout is actually an important Indigenous coming of age ritual for adolescent males.

These examples demonstrate why idioms should be avoided in academic writing: they lack precision and have the potential to obstruct the writer’s intended meaning, unfairly disadvantaging readers from linguistic or cultural backgrounds different to those of the author.

So, there you have it! When you think about it, it’s a piece of cake. Avoid idioms! Your lecturers and markers will be over the moon if you do.

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