The English language is full of idioms (over 15,000). Native speakers of English
use idioms all the time, often without realising that they are doing so. This means
that communication with native speakers of English can be quite a confusing experience.
What is an idiom?
An idiom is a group of words which, when used together, has a different meaning
from the one which the individual words have. For example:
- How do you know about John's illness?
- Oh, I heard it on the grapevine.
Of course, the second speaker does not mean he heard the news about John by putting
his ear to a grapevine! He is conveying the idea of information spreading around
a widespread network, visually similar to a grapevine.
We use idioms to express something that other words do not express as clearly or
as cleverly. We often use an image or symbol to describe something as clearly as
possible and thus make our point as effectively as possible. For example, "in a nutshell"
suggests the idea of having all the information contained within very few words.
Idioms tend to be informal and are best used in spoken rather than written English.
Idioms: the good news
Sometimes idioms are very easy for learners to understand because there are similar
expressions in the speakers' mother tongue. For example:
He always goes at things like a bull in a china shop!
(In German: ein Elefant in einem Porzellangeschäft.)
Sometimes you can guess the meaning of new idioms from context. For example, what
do you think these idioms mean?
Idioms: the bad news
However, idioms can often be very difficult to understand. You may be able
to guess the meaning from context but if not, it is not easy to know the meaning.
Many idioms, for instance, come from favourite traditional British activities such
as fighting, sailing, hunting and playing games. As well as being quite specialist
in meaning, some of the words in idioms were used two or three hundred years ago,
or longer, and can be a little obscure. Here are some examples:
How can I learn idioms?
It is best to learn idioms as you do vocabulary. In other words, select and actively
learn idioms which will be useful to you. Write the idiom in a relevant and practical
sentence so that you will be able to remember its meaning easily. If you can, record
the idioms in your file and on a card along with other words and idioms which have
There are many helpful dictionaries and workbooks to help you to understand and
practise using idioms. Ask your Linguarama teacher for information or
contact us at POSTSCRIPT.