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What is an Idiomatic Expression?

How can you learn idioms easily when an idiom or idiomatic expression is a group of words that have different meanings depending on the context. The words have a specific meaning in the grouping of the words and not in each individual word. For example, you cannot substitute words in the following common English expression: “this is a piece of cake” for “this is a slice of cake”. The first idiom means, in context, that something is very easy, the second phrase means a literal slice of cake that you can eat.

Idioms can also change depending on culture.

This is why it is important to learn the context, rather than just the meaning of the expression because in the UK it may have a different meaning compared to South Africa, Australia or even America and Canada. Sometimes an idiomatic expression only has a specific meaning in the context of one country and not in another English-speaking country. For example: British will use the expression “tuppence worth” and Americans use “two cents worth”. These both mean an opinion offered on a topic of discussion. 

Why do I need to Learn Idioms?

Idiomatic expressions are a part of every language and most native speakers use and learn idioms spontaneously without thinking of the figurative or metaphorical meaning of the expression. It is natural for non-native English speakers to find idioms difficult to learn as they do not always understand what the image of the expression is based on.

For example, if a non-native hears the expression “to show someone the ropes.”

How would you know that this means to teach someone how something is done?

If you are told that this expression is based on a sailing image, where experienced sailors teach novice sailors to use the ropes on a boat. This may help you to understand and realize it’s meaning based on the historical context and the image you see when using this expression.

It is estimated that the English language has at least 25 000 (twenty-five thousand) idiomatic expressions and they are used in both formal and informal communication. It may not ‘be a piece of cake’ to learn all these idioms and use them spontaneously in conversation, but it is an essential part of speaking English with native and non-native speakers. 

These expressions are part of social, business, media and everyday life in both written and spoken form. Thus, non-natives should learn these expressions to communicate effectively and sound more natural when speaking.

Learning idioms will enable you  to become more knowledgeable and better aware of the English culture and customs. If you want to learn idioms easily book a free 30 minute session to see how we can help you.

The importance of idiomatic expressions also lies in the fact that it is an everyday routine of the native English speakers’ language. Learning idiomatic expressions by non-natives leads you to better English proficiency, helps your second or foreign language seem more native-like, and
more creative.

While some idiomatic expressions share similar cultural and historical context, there are many which do not in the English language, such as “neck and neck” meaning it is hard to say who will win; “win hands down” meaning to win easily; and “go off the rails” meaning to go wrong or out of control. These three idioms came from horse racing due to the popularity of horse racing as a sport in England.

Idioms are everywhere in English, but memorizing them all seems like an impossible task! It is easy to memorize and learn a few idioms, their meaning and when to use them. Then try to use them as often as possible in conversations.

However, how do you then deal with new idiomatic expressions?

The first thing to realize is that anything that does not have a literal, physical meaning is an idiom.

For example:

  • “He is hitting the books tonight to prepare for his exam tomorrow.”
  • “I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t get that job. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”
  • “You have a great appetite for knowledge and I appreciate that.”

These sentences all contain idioms, because hitting books will not help you to study better or crossing a bridge will not help you make a decision or the feeling you want to eat food has nothing to do with a desire to learn a lot of things or to gain a lot of knowledge. Without these idioms English students tend to sound very formal in their speech, saying those idiomatic sentences in the following way:

  • “He is studying very hard tonight to prepare for his exam tomorrow.”
  • “I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t get the job. I will deal with that problem when it arises.”
  • “You have a great desire or yearning for knowledge and I appreciate that.”

How do we learn these idiomatic expressions?

Well, there is a basic logic behind these idioms and their usage. It follows a pattern and if you understand this pattern, you will understand what people are saying or writing about and how they feel about it in context. This will help you to make a good guess about the meaning and interpretation of the new idiomatic expression that you haven’t heard before.

There is a group of basic ideas that help us manage the way we create, use and interpret idioms. This is not an exhaustive list of the various groups, but
here are a few ways to group these idioms to help you to get started:

     1.       Life is a journey:

      When we go on physical walks or hikes which require paths or roads. These pathways can be straight or winding and sometimes lead to a dead end. This is the same for our figurative journeys, such as our projects, careers and lives. There are a lot of idioms that refer to processes as a journey, either the movement or the path that it takes. 

      As English language learners you have “specific milestones to reach to become fluent” and “it may be a winding road” to achieve your fluency goals, but always remember to “take one step at a time” and you will be successful. 

2. Knowledge (or information) is food or water

Information exists in the outside world and must get inside our brain so that we can learn and understand it. This is the same process as bringing food from the outside world inside our bodies.

 You may “hear a tasty bit of gossip” or “devour a book” or “chew over a difficult subject” and then “digest information”. In plain English you will hear gossip that is very interesting. Or to read a book very quickly and not want to put it down. Or to think about a very difficult subject and try to understand it and then process the information in order to understand it.

3. Where does the source of wisdom come from?

Most will use water to describe the source of information, for instance ‘the well of knowledge and wisdom’ is referred to in many stories. Water as a source of knowledge is a frequently used imagery of English idioms.

We speak about an “easy flow of information or communication” between people or we “tap into existing experience or knowledge”. 

In the news, we speak of “leaking information or sources” and “being flooded with allegations”. In other words, where information is told to people who should not have had such knowledge. Or to be overwhelmed with allegations or false claims. 

4.  Relationships can be hot or cold:

Heat or temperature is a metaphor of how close we are in relation to others. It describes how we feel in the relationship to other people. The hotter the closer the relationship, the colder the more distant and unfriendly the relationship is.

      If we say “I was greeted warmly by the teacher”. It means it was a friendly and welcoming greeting. However, if I said “She was very cold-hearted towards her colleague”, I am describing how unfriendly and unempathetic she was towards the colleague. Things can “heat up” in a romantic relationship, meaning it is becoming a passionate romance. We can ask others to “cool off” if they feel angry and need to calm down

      5.       Economics are like gardening:

      Many English expressions are related to what we do and use in gardening and in agriculture which we also use to describe economics and finances. If you think about the imagery in both situations of plants and finances, you want the same result.

      For example, we all want to see “growth in our finances” and “to reap the rewards” of our hard work, meaning to see an increased amount of money. We also want to receive all the good things (financially) after investing a lot of time and effort.

      However, some gardening phrases don’t transfer to economics, like “her garden is flourishing because she has green fingers”. To have ‘green fingers’ only applies to having great gardening skills. 

6.      Resources can be spent:

Benjamin Franklin wrote “time is money” in 1746. What he meant is that time is something that can be treated the same way as other resources, such as money. Resources can be saved, spent, invested or wasted and even run out of.

Thus, time and money can be used in the same way in the English language.

The following phrases can be substituted with time:

“I have wasted a lot of money on this project.”

“We made some changes at work to save money.”

“I invested a lot of money to learn this new skill.”

“They ran out of money and couldn’t complete the project.”.


7 Ways to Learn English Idioms Easier

Now that you know what an idiom is, the reasons to learn as many idioms as possible and a new way to group these idiomatic expressions to learn them; let’s look at a few things to help you understand new expressions much easier than before.

It is All about Context: Idioms are very unusual expression. So ask yourself the following questions: ‘Why is that person using this expression? What do they want to emphasize or exaggerate and which emotion are they trying to describe? Don’t forget to look at visual cues such as body language, gestures and facial expressions if it is not written.

Check your understanding: Ask the person questions to make sure you understand the emotion or the message in its context.

Ask them questions like: “What do you mean when you say____?” “Does this expression mean you are happy or upset about something?”

Be honest if you do not understand: Tell the other person you do not know what they mean. Rather than pretend to understand and embarrassing yourself by speaking about something that is not relevant to the conversation, let the other person explain the meaning of the idiom. This will help you learn and to remember the expression for the future because now you have context clues and an understanding.

Do not translate: Sometimes idioms from your native language may use similar imagery or concepts but they will rarely translate word for word into English. If you are unsure ask an English speaker or teacher what the correct idiom is for the translation you are able to offer.

Listen to native speakers: A lot of idioms in English text books are outdated and native speakers no longer use these expressions, for example we do not use “it’s raining cats and dogs” anymore – so why would you use this expression if it is not natural? By watching English series or movies and reading blogs or listening to podcasts you will also find the most commonly used idioms. Hearing them in context helps you to use them in similar contexts and situations in the future.

Write it down: Keep a notebook with your favourite idioms and phrases and write down all the new ones you come across. Write the expression and the meaning and imagery as you understand it in each context. Try to use them as soon as possible in the correct context to help memorize it.

Progress instead of perfection: It is normal to make mistakes and it is important to remember that we make progress each time we practice using new idiomatic expressions in the right situations as well as remembering the exact group of words that make up the idiom. There is no failure in progress, only learning. Keep trying and never give up!

A Final Thought...

Learning and understanding idiomatic expressions are a natural process of learning any language, especially English. Native speakers use it frequently in their day-to-day communication, without being aware of it. The best way to achieve your English fluency is to use these expressions as often as possible.

Make sure you understand and use each idiom in the correct context and take note when there are similar expressions in your native language, as this will make learning easier. By writing down all the new idioms and their meanings and imagery, it will help you to use them in future situations.

Focus on frequency, in other words, the frequent idioms you hear native speakers say, use those as often as possible. Using idioms may not feel natural and you may confuse the words in the beginning, but always remember progress instead of perfection!

If you are looking for information on How to Master the English Language, read this blog.