Many people say idioms are intrinsically informal and they should be avoided in formal texts.

however, I have recently seen some idioms like "in spite of" or "to alter (something) beyond recognition" in formal texts.

My questions is: As I have not put enough time studying English formal language to distinguish formal idioms from informal ones by my self, how can I decide which ones I can use in my formal writings and what to avoid?

  • 3
    I don't think "in spite of" would generally be considered an idiom any more. Oct 4, 2015 at 5:19
  • It depends on what you mean by "formal". I don't think you'd want to use "in spite of" in a country's constitution, or in a treaty, but it would be fine in a court pleading.
    – TimR
    Oct 4, 2015 at 11:07
  • @TRomano I am studying to take an IELTS exam and by formal, I mean the ones being suitable for academic writing task 1 and 2 Oct 4, 2015 at 12:12
  • 2
    Such idioms are fine for use in much academic writing (literature, history, social sciences, philosophy, etc) and maybe even in a scientific paper: The germs survived on the stainless steel work surface in spite of its having been washed down liberally with betadine solution. Few if any speakers would regard the germs as surviving because they were motivated by spite to do so, though a particular editor might object to the phrase.
    – TimR
    Oct 4, 2015 at 12:22

1 Answer 1


In spite of is not an idiom but a prepositional phrase. To alter (something) beyond recognition is just one of usage of the verb alter. They shold not be classified as idioms because of the following reasons:

Idiom is defined in Merriam-Webster as:

  1. an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own

  2. a form of a language that is spoken in a particular area and that uses some of its own words, grammar, and pronunciations

  3. a style or form of expression that is characteristic of a particular person, type of art, etc.

Idiom is a very-well known word, but some people don't understand what it exactly means. According to the definitions above, those expressions/forms of language/styles and forms of expression should not be written in a formal statement.

However, when it comes to mean in a broader way:

a common word or phrase with a culturally understood meaning that differs from what its composite words' denotations would suggest.

It can be used in a formal statement. They are broadly used by many politicians and businessmen.

Here is a list of English idioms in Wikipedia. You will find many of them are very familiar to you and useful. And you will clearly see how the listed idioms are different from in spite of and to alter (something) beyond recognition.

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