Champing at the Bit over the Correct Use of Idioms: Its Just Good PR

All languages employ idioms, or phrases that have a figurative meaning that goes beyond the literal use of the words—and English is no different. In fact, the English language includes an estimated 25,000 idiomatic expressions such as “breath of fresh air” and “clean bill of health.”

We commonly use idioms in business—and in marketing and public relations—to emphasize a point or make it more memorable. Unfortunately, many idioms are often misused. So much so, that the incorrect usage of idioms in some cases has become more common than the correct use. As we know, though, impressions are everything when it comes to PR, so it’s important to get it right.

Here’s a refresher on commonly used—and misused—idioms that tend to come up frequently in PR:

  • Flesh out that idea or proposal, don’t flush it out. When you flesh something out, you’re giving it more substance and building out the details. Flushing out refers to clearing something out—like a sewer line—or getting it out of hiding.
  • Home in on your key messages, don’t hone in on them. To home in on something is to zero in on it, as a missile homes in on a target. Hone (which shouldn’t be used with in, in this way) means to sharpen. So you home in on your key messages, and then you hone them until they are razor sharp.
  • You’re champing at the bit to get started on a project, not chomping. If you’re eager to get a new initiative going, you’re champing at the bit—as a horse does when anxious to start a race. Although horses also chomp, or chew noisily, they do so when eating—not when anticipating something. (Note: This is one of those idiomatic expressions that is so commonly misused, some dictionaries include both versions of the expression. But the Associated Press Stylebook, the go-to style guide for major media outlets, has spoken—and AP still prefers the original usage of “champing.”)
  • It’s for all intents and purposes, not for all intensive purposes. For all intents and purposes means “in effect,” or “practically speaking”: “For all intents and purposes, we have completed our crisis communication plan.” All intensive purposes is a misuse of the original phrase, which comes from British legal terminology originating in the 1500s.

As with “for all intents and purposes,” a number of idioms have “eggcorns,” which means a similar-sounding word or words are substituted for the original due to mishearing or misinterpreting the correct term. The word eggcorn is thought to be a playful descriptor based on a theoretical mishearing of the word “acorn.”

Since eggcorns most often occur with homophones, or words that sound the same to the ear, these idiomatic faux pas occur most frequently when writing a phrase after hearing it spoken.

Here are a few common eggcorns to keep in mind:

  • You toe the line, you don’t tow it. Toeing the line means you conform; you do what you’re expected to do and follow the rules. This phrase comes from racers placing their toes at a start line before a race. You can use a line or cable to help tow something such as a boat, but the line does the towing—not vice versa.
  • You give people free rein, not free reign. When you give others free rein—as you might with a horse—you give them the freedom to do what they want. Reign refers to the act of a monarch ruling a nation or territory.
  • When someone is strongly favored in a competition, he or she is a shoo-in—not a shoe-in. This is another idiom related to horses… are you sensing a pattern? If you think about “shooing” a fly, it’s moving in the direction you want it to. The same is the case with the horse/candidate/whomever you want to win some kind of race—supporters cheer the candidate on, shooing him or her towards victory.
  • A creative idea piques your interest, it doesn’t peak it. If your interest is piqued, you are excited or curious about something. Peak refers to a pointed end or a hilltop or mountaintop.
  • It’s per se, not per say. Per se is Latin for “by itself”: “The correct use of idioms doesn’t make you a genius, per se, but it’s a point in your favor.” It’s surprising how often the incorrect “per say” appears in writing, and from some super-smart people. Likely a case of the error being repeated so often, it starts to look correct.
  • You wait with bated breath, not baited breath. The adjective bated means “with great suspense,” and this phrase refers to waiting for something anxiously or excitedly. When something is baited, on the other hand, a predator is attempting to lure its prey.

So now that we’ve homed in on the most common incorrect usage of idioms, I know you’re champing at the bit to toe the line when it comes to proper usage. (Yes, I had to do it.)

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