Themes > Technology >Idioms

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?

1. He was on the carpet last week for being late for work three times.
2. She made a marvellous speech to the conference. She took the delegates by storm.
3. It was an extremely long report. It took me three hours to wade through.
4. I believe we should talk openly and frankly about the project - warts and all.
5. Let's call it a day. I am very tired and we have covered the main points of the meeting I think.

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:

1. Now that the Prime Minister has been elected there will be a lot of jockeying for position to get the key posts in his administration.
2. I finally ran the book to earth in a second-hand bookshop in Wales. I had been searching for it for three years.
3. They took her ideas on board and decided to increase the budget.
4. You should fall in with our arrangements; we can't make alternative plans for you.
5. We saw the boss at the bar but we gave him a wide berth. We did not want to talk to him then.

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 similar meanings.

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.


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