Idioms – how to understand them

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Idioms – definition

idioms Idioms are fixed phrases which are only meaningful as a whole.

redbtn All languages contain idiomatic phrases.

redbtn Native speakers learn them and remember them as a complete item, rather than a collection of separate words.

a red herring a false trail
raining cats and dogs raining very hard
fly in the ointment spoiling the effect


redbtn Idioms often break semantic conventions and grammatical logic – as in I’ll eat my hat [I’ll be amazed if …].

redbtn The object of the verb ‘to eat’ is conventionally something edible, but as part of this idiom it is something definitely inedible.

redbtn Non-native speakers find the idiomatic side of any language difficult to grasp.

redbtn Native speakers of a language acquire idioms from a very early stage in their linguistic development.

redbtn NB! You’re getting this advice straight from the horse’s mouth.

redbtn Idioms are generally impossible to translate between languages, although some families of languages use idioms based on identical ideas.

redbtn In French, for example, the idiomatic phrase ‘mon vieux’ is parallel in its meaning with the English ‘old chap’.

redbtn Idioms very often contain metaphor, but not always. For example, ‘How do you do’ is an idiomatic greeting but it is not a metaphor.

redbtn Idioms are not always used or recognised by the whole of the language community. Sub-groups of speakers employ idioms peculiar to themselves.

redbtn Teenagers, occupational groups, leisure groups, and gender groups all employ idioms or special phrases. These will mean something within the context of the group and its communication.

Medicine I went to the GP for a check-up
Sport He was caught leg-before-wicket
Gender She was at her sister’s hen-party

redbtn Idiom also determines the way that certain combinations of words make meaningful statements, but not others.

redbtn For instance, we are ‘in a quandry’ but ‘at a loss’; we are ‘out of sorts’ but ‘in low spirits’; whereas the expressions ‘at a quandry’ or ‘in sorts’ would have no meaning in English.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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