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    A Quagmire of Idioms

    Thursday, May 30, 2013

    Business has gone global, so your writing may as likely be read by someone in Tokyo or Berlin as in New York or Chicago. Keep that in mind when you write and edit documents, and strive for the clearest, most direct language possible. One particular pitfall to avoid is the use of idioms.

    Idioms are figurative language, colorful and descriptive but easily confusing if taken literally. The trouble is that they are so common we don’t even think about using “ballpark figure” or “making a cold call” until we receive a confused response from a client or customer in another country.

    Imagine you are communicating with a partner for whom English is a second language. You send the following idiom-packed email. Think about the literal translation.

    We asked our bean counter to crunch the numbers, and we believe that if we keep our noses to the grindstone, we can get the ball rolling on production within a month. Then, with the right backing, we should be able to float a loan, and with social media’s word-of-mouth to plug the product, we’re confident it will take off and sell like hotcakes. Our bottom line should be in the black within six months. We know you’ve been through the wringer with this project, but if you stick it out you’ll rake in a substantial bang for your buck. So please don’t throw cold water on the deal by pulling out before we can break even.

    Even between colleagues whose first language is English, idioms like those above are too casual for formal business correspondence. The following rewrite conveys the same ideas with more clarity.

    We asked our accountant to go over the financial figures, and we believe that with some hard work we can be ready to begin production within a month. Then, with help from investors, we should be able to obtain a loan and begin using social media to advertise. This will provide a sales boost resulting in a solid profit within six months. We realize this project has been difficult, but your participation is critical to our success, and if you stay with us you should see a good return on your investment.

    Of course some idioms have become such a part of language that it’s difficult to entirely avoid them, and others are pretty clear in themselves. The best rule is to use precise language and keep your possible readers in mind. Do that, and your message will hit a home run.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by Phillie Casablanca