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Author Topic: The need to know the English idioms  (Read 143 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: October 11, 2017, 08:18:44 PM »

Many people lament that English is so difficult to learn as a second or third language. They complain that although English forces learners to learn so many rules for its grammar, semantics, and structure, these rules are in practice often violated than followed. How come, they ask, that the verb “turn” (to move around an axis) can mean so many things when paired off with different prepositions, such as “turn on” (excite), “turn in” (submit), “turn over” (return or flip over), and “turn out” (happen)? And why do native English speakers say peculiar things that seem to have no logic or sense, like “We’re all ears about what happened to you and Veronica last night” or “The top city official made no bones about being a former number-games operator”?

English is hardly unique in being idiomatic. Like most of the world’s major languages, it unpredictably ignores its own grammar and semantics in actual usage. But the sheer richness and complexity of English idioms—or the way native English speakers actually communicate with one another—makes it much more difficult for nonnative speakers to learn English than most languages. With scant knowledge of the English idioms, nonnative speakers may be able to master the relatively simpler grammar, semantics, and structure of English yet sound like robots when speaking or writing in English.

There are five general categories of English idioms: the prepositional phrases, the prepositional idioms, common idiomatic expressions, figurative or metaphoric language, and euphemisms.

Prepositional phrase idiom. It consists of a verb or adverb form that ends in a preposition. The preposition used often doesn’t have a particular semantic significance or logic but had simply become entrenched through prolonged use, and the literal meaning of the verb or adverb isn’t changed by it. Some examples: “approve of” (not, say, “approve for” or “approve with”), “concerned with” (not “concerned of” or “concerned by”); “except for” (not “except of” or “except with”), and “charge with a crime” (not “charge of a crime” or “charge for a crime”).

Prepositional idiom. Also known as phrasal verb, it is an expression consisting of a verb whose meaning changes depending on the preposition that comes after it. As shown earlier, the verb “turn” can form so many prepositional idioms. Another verb that yields various idioms when paired off with different prepositions is “hand”: “hand in” (submit), “hand out” (to give for free), “hand over” (yield control of), and “hand down” (transmit in succession).

Common idiomatic expressions. They are concise, nonliteral language that native English speakers have grown accustomed to using for convenience. Some examples that also play on the verb “hand”: “to wash one’s hands” (to absolve oneself), “hand to mouth” (having nothing to spare beyond basic necessities), and “out of hand” (beyond control).

Figurative or metaphoric language. It is a form of idiom that compares two things in an evocative, nonliteral sense to suggest the likeness or similarity between them. It uses the so-called figures of speech, such as the simile and metaphor. An example is the expression “the face that launched a thousand ships”—a literary allusion to Helen of Troy—to mean a provocatively beautiful woman.

Euphemism. It is a polite expression that people customarily use for things that they find unpleasant, upsetting, or embarrassing, such as sex, death, bodily functions, and war. Some examples: “to pass away” (die), “to rightsize” (to lay off excess personnel), and “collateral damage” (civilian deaths).

Obviously, the thousands upon thousands of English idioms can only be learned through long and intensive exposure to English as spoken and written by its native speakers. Formal grammar, semantics, and structure can only lay the bare foundations for English proficiency. Only when we have become adequately conversant with its idioms can we really say that we know our English.

This essay appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Education Section of the October 12, 2017 issue (print edition only) of The Manila Times, © 2017 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: October 13, 2017, 01:38:20 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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