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Category : Writing Tips

Even More Idioms

Once again, more idioms. Idioms are a great way to spice up your writing with expressions that are commonly used by native speakers. (Note that “spice up” is an idiom; it means “to make more exciting or livelier”, just as adding spices to a dish makes the dish taste more “exciting” or “lively”.)

  • Paula was excited when she found a piece of pottery, until Jim explained that archaeological artifacts were a dime a dozen in that area.

Paula thinks the piece of pottery she finds is rare – a real treasure – until Jim explains that such artifacts are actually commonplace and easy to come by and, therefore, not so valuable. Items that are “a dime are dozen” are relatively cheap and easy to buy in large quantities, since a dime is only ten cents – or one tenth of a dollar.

  • Clara’s conversation with her boss was strictly off the record, since her boss didn’t want to be known for revealing that the company was laying off employees.

In official records of events, people’s names may be provided with descriptions of their actions or comments. Records of court proceedings, for example, include witnesses’ names with their testimonies. Newspaper articles include informants’ or interviewees’ names with their quotes. Both court proceedings and newspapers are “records”, in that they provide an official and (ostensibly) verifiable account of what was said and happened. Clara’s boss doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s the person who told her that the company is laying off employees. In other words, he doesn’t want his name to be associated with bad news. He wants their conversation to be “off the record”.

  • Victor’s colleagues agreed that his habit of dressing in polka-dotted suits and big clown shoes was over the top.

Victor’s choice of clothes goes way beyond what’s normal. In a sense, it overflows or over-steps the bounds of normality, as a substance might overflow its container; his dress is, therefore, “over the top”.

  • Treating others as you want to be treated is a good rule of thumb.

Measuring something with one’s thumb is an easy and generally reliable way of taking a measurement (“rule”, in this sense, is used in the sense of “rulers”). If something is a “rule of thumb” or is done “as a rule of thumb”, it is considered a generally reliable way of accomplishing a specified end or, even more broadly, of conducting oneself. Treating others as you want to be treated (often called “the golden rule”) is generally a good way to act.

  • Johnny tolerated many of Bonny’s irresponsible behaviors, but when Bonny borrowed Johnny’s car and crashed it into a tree, that was the last straw.

Johnny has been willing to overlook the fact that Bonny is irresponsible. When she borrows his car and crashes it, though, he’s had enough. Think of Bonny’s many little slights as straws (plastic straws or hay, both of which are light). Piled up, they could be heavy enough to break or crush whatever they’re on. The last straw is the straw that makes the pile come crashing down. Another expression heard less often is “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. Think of a camel carrying a bale of hay. The last straw is the piece of hay that makes the bale so heavy that the camel’s back breaks.

  • Dorothy laughed when Greg told her that he had been promoted, since not by any stretch of the imagination could she imagine him in a management position.

Dorothy might have a pretty big or broad imagination, capable of seeing many scenarios as plausible. However, her imagination isn’t big enough to see Greg as a manager. Even if she tries to stretch her imagination to accommodate the idea, she still finds it improbable. So, “not by any stretch of the imagination” can Dorothy see Greg in a management position.

  • Although Jeff was concerned about his ability to do well in his new job, he learned the ropes quite quickly and was promoted within a week.

Good sailors have to learn to handle the ropes that tie the sheets on ships to masts – i.e. they have to learn how ships work. Likewise, new employees have to learn the rules that govern how their new workplaces operate. They, too, have to “learn the ropes”.

More Idioms

I recently shared a very popular post on idioms. Here, some more expressions, with examples and explanations:

  • Instead of going pro, Clair took an athletic scholarship from the University of Michigan because she wanted the best of both worlds – to be an athlete and a scholar.

(While most people can only live in one world, those who get “the best of both” find a way to live in two. Their situations are ideal. Claire, an excellent student athlete, can either “go pro” – enter the professional sports arena – or go to university and continue to play on a team. She chooses the latter because it lets her live in two metaphorical “worlds” – the athletic world and the academic world.)

  • Pierre never forgave his brother for not having paid him back, but at family reunions, he acted like it was all water under the bridge.

(Pierre has hard feelings against his brother but pretends that he has moved on, just like water under a bridge, which is in constant motion.)

  • When Whitney realized her position was out of line with the company’s, she did an abrupt about-face.

(Whitney is moving in one metaphorical direction – toward a particular goal or end – but when she realizes that this is actually the wrong direction, she turns around, to face the other way. You may have heard “about-face” in a military context; troops marching in one direction are told to do an “about-face” and march in another direction.)

  • When the company unexpectedly went bankrupt, Dan was swept up in a tide of events that left him jobless.

(A major event occurs within Dan’s company that, like a tide, carries him along. He is swept up, off his feet, and unable to control events, finds himself without a job.)

  • Sarah meant to make a short speech but got carried away and spoke for an hour.

(Like “swept up in a/the tide of events”, “carried away” conveys the sense of being picked up, off one’s feet, and taken in a direction that one can’t control – and, perhaps, to a place that one didn’t want to go. Sarah intends to speak for not that long, but something overcomes her and “carries” her away. She goes “further” than she means to, speaking for an hour, rather than a few minutes.)

  • Having argued for a month, John and Bill decided to clear the air.

(John and Bill’s argument is dirtying the metaphorical air between them. They decide to resolve their issues, thereby cleaning things up.)

  • When Jennifer complained that she hadn’t been promoted, she was told by her superiors that everyone was in the same boat.

(Jennifer thinks her situation exceptional – and acts as if she is on her own. But her supervisors tell her that other employees share her plight. They are affected by the same winds and waters and will suffer the same fate, as do people in the same boat.)

Asking for a Job

Along with a solid resume, a well-written cover letter is the key to catching the eye of potential employers.

The common format for a job query looks something like the following:

Name of applicant

Applicant’s street address

Applicant’s city, State  ZIP


Name of person/department/company doing the hiring

Hirer’s street address

Hirer’s city, State  ZIP

Re: Job Title (ad number, if available)

Dear name of person/department/company doing the hiring:

Introductory statement.

Elaboration of experience.

Closing statement.



Typed name of applicant

Note that queries sent via email do not require the names and addresses of either applicants or hiring contacts/departments/companies. They also don’t require dates. Queries sent via email should begin with “Dear …”

A good introductory statement includes a brief summary of an applicant’s qualifications and/or interest in the hiring/company person. For example:

I am writing to express my interest in the position of Business Analyst (No. 40891). I have thirteen years experience as a business analyst at Company A, where I have evaluated entrepreneurial opportunities for clients as varied as Company B, Company C, and Company D. I am eager to join Company A’s dynamic team and believe I have the skills to advance your bottom line.

Warning: Do not begin an introductory statement with, “My name is … and I would like to work for you because …” More important than stating your name up front is grabbing the interest of your potential employer by describing why your skills and interests are a good fit with the companies’ needs. Describing your interests, however, does not mean going on at length about how great Company A is. Your letter should emphasize your interest in the company but, in general, spend more time on your proven intellectual or work abilities, which brings us to …

After your introductory statement, take one or two (short) paragraphs to describe your experience in greater detail. This is the place to cite specific examples of your accomplishments – projects on which you’ve worked, promotions/awards you’ve received, positive feedback you’ve been given by superiors. It’s also a good place to list your skills – proficiency in operating platforms, language ability, industry-specific skills. Be sure to mention areas important to the position being advertised or (if you’re submitting a query, rather than applying to a particular job) the industry you want to work in. If you know, for example, that a United Nations translator must have, say, five years of experience in a multilingual environment, note that you spent eight years working as a Chinese-English translator in Shanghai.

A good closing statement might include any or all of the following: A reminder of your skills and/or enthusiasm. A reminder that you can be reached at any time. A note that your resume is attached. A note that you look forward to scheduling an interview at the hiring contact’s earliest convenience. A note that you look forward to hearing from the hiring contact. A note that you plan to follow up shortly after sending your letter.

Warning: Stay away from statements such as, “Thus, I think it’s obvious that I’m the best choice for …” or “I would be an outstanding employee who delivers outstanding results …” or “Please consider me for this job, because I really think that I could do well at it …” or “This opportunity would mean a lot to me, and therefore I hope you consider me strongly.” It is up to your potential employer to decide whether you, the applicant, are “the best choice”, and whether you would really be an outstanding employee remains to be seen. It is evident that you think you could do well at the job, else you wouldn’t be applying, and it is obvious you want to be considered, else you wouldn’t have written a letter. Try to conclude with something more along the lines of:

Thank you for your consideration. Attached, is my resume. I look forward to hearing from you soon and hopefully scheduling an interview.

Good luck with your search!