Words Matter: Don’t be an idiom idiot

As a marketer, you are by default a communicator. That means, when it comes to getting a message across, you’re expected to know what to say and how to say it. Your writing needs to be as clear as humanly possible. So if you’re mixing up your idioms, how can your audience expect to trust you?

Idioms can be a tricky business. Especially for non-English speakers, since they carry a different meaning than the definition of each individual word. Idioms are typically defined as expressions that mean something other than what the dictionary defines each word in the expression.

In marketing, idioms can help or hinder your message. In other words, you should use them carefully. When used correctly, they can help you illustrate a point and strengthen what you’re trying to say. But if you use them incorrectly, well, all bets are off.

Formal or informal?

Idioms are generally considered informal language and business writing doesn’t usually encourage informal writing. Marketing writing, however, is different. Depending on the subject matter, it can be more conversational and playful, even outlandish. The important thing is that you use idioms correctly, whether what you’re writing is adventurous or conservative.

Here is a list of commonly misused idioms and phrases. Scan the list and make sure your idiom use is on point. 

“Champing at the bit” vs. “Chomping at the bit” 

Using this idiom might cause you to bite off more than you can chew. If you are chomping at the bit, you are being impatient and restless. The word “champ” comes from the way horses bite, or champ, their bits over and over, and it’s believed this idiom originated using champ. Some groups like the AP agree champ at the bit is technically more correct, though chomp at the bit is more widely used.

  • The Winner: Both are accepted these days, but we like “champ” for its historical origins 

“For all intents and purposes” vs. “For all intensive purposes

This phrase means in every practical or functional sense, or virtually. For example: The party was, for all intents and purposes, just a way for him to meet his neighbor, Rachel. If you write for all intensive purposes, you’ll add ‘intense’ drama but confuse the message.

  • The Winner: For all intents and purposes

“Moot point” vs. “Mute point” 

If a point is moot, it is unworthy of further discussion — a matter of no importance. If the point is mute, it is way more silent than it should be.

  • The Winner: Moot point

“Scot free” vs. “Scotch free” 

If you get off scot free, you are completely free of obligation or harm. If you get off scotch free, well, too bad you missed out on the whiskey. According to Robert Hendrickson’s The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, a “scot” was a tax in 12th-century England. So if someone got off scot free, they didn’t have to pay their taxes.

  • The Winner: Scot free

“A blessing in disguise” vs. “A blessing in the skies” 

A blessing in disguise is something that seems bad at first but is actually good. On the other hand, a blessing in the skies is simply something good that happens miles above the earth.

  • The Winner: A blessing in disguise

“Piqued my interest” vs. “Peaked my interest” 

If your interest is piqued, it is excited or stimulated. For example: The article about cloning piqued my interest in science. If your interest has peaked, on the other hand, it’s on its way down and not very stimulated at all.

  • The Winner: Piqued my interest

“Nip it in the bud” vs. “Nip it in the butt” 

If you nip something in the bud, you stop it immediately. If you nip something in the butt, you are stopping it in the, ahem, derriere region. This phrase is actually a metaphor for frost that kills flower buds and was first written in a Beaumont and Fletcher play around 1607.

  • The Winner: Nip it in the bud

 “Case in point” vs. “Case and point” 

This phrase means a relevant example of something, often referring to what has just been discussed. For example: It’s not hard to get an A in high school. Case in point, my nephew who doesn’t do his homework aced his English class. If you say case and point, you’re only adding a conjunction that will confuse your reader.

  • The Winner: Case in point

“Statute of limitations” vs. “Statue of limitations” 

Merriam-Webster defines statute of limitations as a statute (law) assigning a certain time after which rights cannot be enforced by legal action or offenses cannot be punished. A statue of limitations, on the other hand, would be a limitation that pigeons like to poop on.

  • The Winner: Statute of limitations

“At your beck and call” vs. “At your beckon call” 

If you are at someone’s beck and call, you are always ready to serve them. If you’re at their beckon call, you’re only willing to help when waved over, or beckoned. Interestingly, the word “beck” dates to the 14th century and is a shortened form of the word beckon. The first recorded use of “beck and call” was in Aemilia Lanyer’s set of poems “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” in 1611.

  • The Winner: At your beck and call

“Just as soon” vs. “Just assume”

If you’d just as soon do something, you would prefer to do it over something else. For example: I’d just as soon go out tonight, I’m getting cabin fever being home all day. On the other hand, if you say “just assume,” you’re making assumptions about what is going to happen. 

  • The Winner: Just as soon