Webster defines the word “idiom” as “the usual way in which the words of a particular language are joined together to express thoughts.” Sometimes your professor will write “idiom” in the margins to refer to how you have constructed a group of words within a sentence.

For example, if you misplace an adverb or an adjective this means that you don’t understand the function of both an adverb and an adjective. If you can phrase a sentence better, then sometimes moving one word and putting it in front of another is the best method. The effectiveness of the sentence depends upon what you have chosen as a word or collection of words and what function you need it or them to serve.

In another instance, it is tempting to project onto something what it is not. In Figure 11, the student takes certain words from a quote, highlighting them as “idioms” when they are in fact just words. The words do not represent a collection because they belong to individual sentences.

In essence, the student is highlighting verbs that figuratively “jump off the page.” The words are so strong in value that you can visualize the image as each word is used in a different context.  However, the point to make here is that do not write a paper to impress your professor. It is more important to write simply and get your point across than to write complex and don’t understand the meaning you are trying to convey.

Let’s examine the excerpt. What follows are rhetorical assessments of the sample. The purpose of asking questions is to help you generate answers.

Sample Excerpt

Where Frieda adores her “. . . blue-and-white Shirley Temple cup” (Morrison 12), Claudia dislikes this perception of beauty.  Both Frieda and Pecola give in to the blue-eyed white doll that they so desire to be like.  They even refer to Claudia’s distates as “. . . incomprehensible” (Morrison 12).  This concept of beauty to Frieda and Pecola is “ugliness” to Claudia. The . . . dolls, which were supposed to bring me great pleasure, succeeded in doing quite the opposite.  When I took it to bed, its hard unyielding limbs resisted my flesh—the tapered fingertips on those dimpled hands scratched.  If, in sleep, I turned, the bone-cold head collided with my own.  It was a most uncomfortable, patently aggressive sleeping companion. . . . I had only one desire:  to dismember it.  To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me. . . . I destroyed white baby dolls.  But the dismembering of dolls was not the true horror.  The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls.  The indifference with which I could have axed them was shaken only by my desire to do so.  (Morrison 13-15) The idioms supposed, unyielding, resisted, collided, uncomfortable, dismember, and indifference within the quote are all somewhat complementary.  Claudia is “supposed” to agree to this standard of beauty so accepted by her sister and her mother, for her mother is the one who gives Claudia a white baby doll every Christmas.

Figure 11: Essay Excerpt on Frieda and Claudia, The Bluest Eye


1) Why does Frieda “adore” her Shirley Temple cup?

2) What is significant about the colors blue and white?

3) What connection does the blue and white cup have to the blue-eyed white doll?

4) Who perceives the cup as beauty?

5) What causes Claudia to exhibit distaste for the doll?

6) In what sense are they idioms?


The words, as individually defined, are not idioms in any sense. Instead, they are just words. The student uses the author’s words to define them in terms of a category. However, within the context the student writes, these words just serve as mere adjectives. Only the quote itself ironically represents an idiom, meaning that the quote is collectively a “group of words that have a special meaning very different from the ordinary meaning of the separate words” (Longman Dictionary).

Revision Considerations

It is always important to examine the words the author uses within the context of the work as a whole. Here is a revision of the student’s analysis. The revision represents the most appropriate use of the author’s words.

Similar to the doll, Claudia is also supposed to love this thing of beauty, but she is unyielding. She resists the adoration. Her views collide with those of Pecola and Frieda.  Their views make Claudia feel uncomfortable. In the same way that Claudia wants to “dismember” the doll to see of what it is made, Claudia’s “distastes” is a form of her personally dismembering Pecola and Frieda to see also of what they are made. Claudia’s indifference toward little white girls and her desire to want to axe them is the same indifference and desire toward Pecola and Frieda, although they are little black girls.

Copyright 2011 Regina Y. Favors. All Rights Reserved.

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