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Idiom – avoid it, er, like the plague

‘Idiom’ is the use of language in a way that is not literal. The English language is full of idioms. Unfortunately, they are not even universal around the English-speaking world. For people who speak English as a second language, idiom is even harder to understand.

We use idiom all the time without realizing. Here are some really obvious ones:

Do you think that second-language speakers would understand these.

There are many other idioms we use which are not so obvious. If you say, 'the coffee ran out' to a second-language speaker, it sounds as if the coffee has run away through the door! If you say, 'We have no coffee,' or 'There is no coffee left', your meaning is much clearer. Here are some more:

Look through any magazine page – you will be surprised how many idioms are used!

The plus side of idiom is that it can give colorful imagery to your writing. So there is a balance to be found!

It also helps second-language speakers if we mainly avoid phrasal verbs. There is often a single word which can replace them. Or it may be safer to remove the second word completely. For example, come back/return, go away/leave, visit with/visit, and many more.

It is important to make our pages accessible to the maximum number of people. You may not know that a deliberate policy of Readers Digest is to target their style of writing to the reading level of the average 13-year-old. There are also other aspects of writing style that we can learn from Readers Digest.

Avoid local usage

Try also to avoid idiom and colloquiasm and word use which are unique to your part of the English-speaking world. Outside US, people don't understand ‘home run’. Outside UK, cricket or football idioms may not be recognized. Local variations: ‘outwith’ is Scottish English, not used elsewhere, and 'somewhen' is a charming but regional UK usage. There are many usages of American English which are not always clear to English speakers elsewhere despite the universal popularity of American films – for example ‘starting over’, which in the rest of the world is ‘starting again’.

The use of place names without qualification by region or country can also be confusing. You can define or explain words using an annotation popup – these are to do by including words of definition within a span or acronym tags. Example: “I went to visit my sister in Wichita.” Ask a friend in a different part of the English-speaking world to help you revise your pages to take into account the needs of international readers. If your site visitors include those from countries other than your own, and especially second-language speakers, you must help them as much as possible. English is a wonderful language for expressing shades of meaning. However, subtle use of the language may confuse second-language speakers. For instance, they may not understand a double negative: e.g. “She was not unattractive,” or “I was not indifferent to the idea.”

More on idiom

Writing simply

Simple clear writing with short sentences and active verbs helps everyone - not only second-language English speakers. Anaylyze your writing with tools such as those contained in MS Word for sentence length and readability on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Or try the very useful Textalyser which tells you word count, syllables, number of different words and sentences used, sentence length, and average words per sentence, plus the Gunning-Fog Index of readability.

See 10 Tips for writing effective web copy.

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