An idiom is a style or form of artistic expression that is characteristic of an individual, a period or a movement, or a medium or instrument. Another way to define idiom is as an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically (as no, it wasn’t me) or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (as Monday week for “the Monday a week after next Monday”). Idioms are often phrases we utter without even thinking about them.
People use idioms to establish rapport with another person and to increase their level of understanding and engagement with what another person is saying. However, understanding, engagement, and rapport can only be established when idioms are used correctly, in the right context, and at the right time.
You’ll probably use idioms every now and then in the workplace, whether it’s intentional or not. Idiomatic phrases are so commonly used, and there are so many of them, that you could easily let one slip out while you’re at lunch with a colleague, or when you quickly type and send an email to your boss. If you want to avoid any major faux pas when using idioms in the workplace, you should know some of the more common ones, how they’re spelled, and in what context they should be used.
First Come, First Served
Correct Usage: Office supplies were offered on a first-come, first-served basis.
This is used often to indicate that people will be dealt with in the order in which they arrive, get in line, or apply for something. Using “first come, first serve” is incorrect.
Fun Fact: NASA offered thermal tiles to schools and universities for $23.40 each, on a first-come, first-served basis when they prepared to retire the Space Shuttle program.
For all Intents and Purposes
Correct Usage: For all intents and purposes, the policy guidelines should still be followed.
Understanding when to use this phrase isn’t generally the issue, how to spell it is. A lot of times people will state, “for all intensive purposes” instead, which is incorrect.
Fun Fact: This phrase originates from English law dating back to the 1500s, which used the phrase "to all intents, constructions, and purposes" to mean "officially" or "effectively."
I Couldn’t Care Less
Correct Usage: I couldn’t care less about the new coffee pot in the breakroom.
It’s important to distinguish the above phrase from “I could care less,” which is used frequently (and incorrectly). If you say you could care less, you are saying that you care for something in at least some measurable amount. But if you say you couldn’t care less, you are implying that your care for something does not exist in even a very small amount.
Fun Fact: While “I could care less” is a grammatically correct idiom itself, and is used more often than “I couldn’t care less,” it is nevertheless incorrect.
Jump the Gun
Correct Usage: I don’t want to jump the gun, so I’ll wait to start the assignment until I get approval.
If you don’t want to jump the gun, then you don’t want to do or say something prematurely, before it’s the appropriate time to do so.
Fun Fact: This phrase is believed to come from foot racing, when a runner starts a race prematurely before the starter has a chance to fire his pistol to signify the beginning of the race.
Nip It in the Bud
Correct Usage: The idea for a new media strategy has been nipped in the bud.
Usually when you nip an idea or action in the bud, you stop it from happening while it’s still being considered, during its early stages of development. Be careful not to use “nip it in the butt” instead, which is comically incorrect and will mark you as a complete ignoramus.
Fun Fact: The roots of “to nip in the bud” are horticultural. A grower might “nip” (pinch or snip off) new buds on a plant to stop it from developing, often to force it to put its energies to more productive uses.
On the Same Page
Correct Usage: Let’s have a meeting tomorrow to get everyone on the same page.
When you want two or more individuals to be “on the same page,” you want to make sure they’re talking about the same topic, that they understand what is being considered or discussed.
Fun Fact: This idiom was first used to determine whether people who were reading the same document were literally on the same page at the same time that it was being read aloud.
Peace of Mind
Correct Usage: I’ll send you these financial documents, doubly encrypted for your peace of mind.
When you offer someone something that will give them “peace of mind,” you’re attempting to make them feel at ease and lessen their worries. “Piece of mind” is the incorrect phrase usually used.
Fun Fact: Using “piece of mind” would indicate divvying out sections of a person’s brain.
Correct Usage: Gina really piqued my interest with her new proposal.
If you pique someone’s interest, you have stimulated their interest in whatever it is you’re doing or saying. Oftentimes “peaked” is used in this idiom, which is incorrect.
Fun Fact: When “pique” is used as a noun, it indicates a feeling of irritation or annoyance. When it’s used as a verb in this idiom, it has a completely different meaning and connotation.
Grab the Bull by the Horns
Correct Usage: If Mary doesn’t grab the bull by the horns and complete her portion of the project, we’re going to miss the deadline.
When you grab the bull by the horns, you’re taking ownership of a responsibility and handling it in a direct way.
Fun Fact: This expression probably originated in the American West, where ranchers and cowhands wrestle with steers for work and sport.
Think Outside the Box
Correct Usage: He told the team to think outside the box for their next marketing project.
This idiom should be used when you want someone to approach something in a more creative or original way, if you want them to generate ideas outside of the normal systems and rules that your organization follows.
Fun fact: In Australia they say, “think outside the square.”
Correct Usage: Here’s a sneak peek at our new logos.
When you get a sneak peek at something, you’re provided the opportunity to see it before it’s officially available to the public or its intended audience. Be careful to not use “peak,” which indicates the top of a mountain ridge.
Fun Fact: “Sneak peek” was first documented as being used in books in the 1950s and wasn’t used in cinema, as in getting a “sneak peek” at a film (a preview), until the 1980s.
While you won’t want to include idioms in a legally binding document or let one slip during an important stakeholder meeting, it’s natural to use them in your everyday speech at work. But be sure to do your homework and use them in the right context, as highlighted above, to avoid any serious blunders.
What’s your experience with idioms in the workplace? Can you come up with (that’s an idiom!) other idiomatic expressions that are often misused? Share with us in the comments below.