What place do idioms have in scientific writing?

As someone versed in the humanities but working in science, I’m fascinated by the style of scientific texts. When I edit, although there are lots of disciplinary and ethical criteria that must be satisfied, I’m keen to maintain as much of the author’s voice as possible. Scientific writing does not have to be lifeless.

One means of retaining a human element is through the use of idioms. Language that is idiomatic has its meaning established through patterns of usage rather than the rules of grammar or logic. We understand idiomatic phrases through our familiarity with the context in which they’re normally used.

Due to their cultural specificity, idioms are particularly difficult to translate into other languages. When the phrase ‘comparing apples with oranges’ appeared in a medical article that I was copy-editing, for example, I had to challenge it: what would someone with English as a second language make of this phrase in an article on neurodevelopmental classifications?

Otto Jespersen

Otto Jespersen (1860-1943), Dutch linguist with an interest in idioms.

The linguist Otto Jespersen described idiom as ‘a tyrannical, capricious, utterly incalculable thing’. We must be wary of this lawlessness, particularly in scientific writing when clarity is so important. In a different article I worked on recently, the author used the phrase ‘thinking on their feet’, when the article’s subject was paraplegia; in another, the author used the construct, ‘On the one hand/on the other hand’, when the subject was hand use in children with spastic cerebral palsy. These idiomatic phrases, though used innocently in both examples, could be construed as deeply insensitive.

Despite warning of its dangers, Jespersen was not anti-idiom. He actually advocated language that is based on usage rather than linguistic rules. George Orwell went even further: he said that grammar and syntax ‘are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear’.

Such demotic gestures may be stirring, but they’re of limited relevance to scientific writing that needs to communicate across cultural borders. We end up with precisely the kind of tension between theory and practice that makes language interesting: science writers who want idiomatic expressions of personality must find idioms whose meanings are self-evident, even though that would appear to contradict their very essence!