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I have written an essay with a couple of different phrases in it, the first I need help with is "shoot the shit". The second is "difference between their ass and a hole in the ground".

I recently had it pointed out to me that the people reading the essay would not read past these and would not get the point of the writing. Any suggestions on less offensive ways to say both that have the same meaning would be appreciated so that I can reach my audience.

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  • Those are not particularly offensive phrases by modern standards. By the way, it's a "hole in the ground" that is being compared to the derrière in question. Aug 29 '16 at 16:28
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    "Shoot the breeze" is a tamer equivalent to "shoot the shit." As for not knowing the difference between one's ass and a hole in the ground, usually the context involves one's not knowing that, and you might try "doesn't know beans about [some subject]." (A probably apocryphal story has an English instructor encountering a student's sentence, "The rabbit fled down his burro," and writing in the margin "You don't know your ass from a hole in the ground, do you?") Aug 29 '16 at 16:37
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    I would say that "shoot the breeze" is 100 times more common than "shoot the shit", at least in the circles I've run in. "Shoot the breeze" has been around since I was a kid (the 50s), and I suspect it's older than "shoot the shit".
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 29 '16 at 16:42
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    Is this an academic essay? If so and you're quoting people, it is important to reproduce (or at least indicate) what they actually said. But if you aren't quoting people, then your tone is probably too informal for academic writing, even if you substitute these phrases for other ones. You usually don't use idioms in formal writing unless they are so common as to be nearly invisible. Aug 29 '16 at 16:47
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Shoot the breeze is a common phrase synonymous with shoot the shit. Other similar phrases like chew the fat that come to mind are liable to come across as old fashioned.

Know the difference between shit and Shinola is similar in meaning to between their ass and a hole in the ground, but likely to offend the same people who would be bothered by your initial choices.

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    +1 for your first paragraph. Your second isn't helpful. Aug 29 '16 at 16:44
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    "Don't know shit from Shinola" was referenced in a very funny scene in the Steve Martin movie The Jerk. It is slightly less offensive than "difference between their ass and a hole in the ground", with essentially the same meaning.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 29 '16 at 16:48
  • Shit/Shinola expression was also referenced in "The Golden Girls". I'll bet only us old farts know what "Shinola" is! lol! Aug 29 '16 at 18:12
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You could say chew the fat or chew the rag in place of "shooting the shit".

For your second example you may be able to edit the saying "Can't tell your arse from your elbow" into the less informal "Can't tell your arm from your elbow", maybe even "Can't tell your eye from your elbow". I think the meaning would 100% remain and it sounds almost identical.

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Alternatives include: shoot the breeze or chew the fat/cud.

I recommend that you prefer your audience over your own favoured phrases. Always write for them, particularly where you're working in a professional field, or trying to build up your own brand.

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