Author Topic: Learning the English idioms  (Read 18547 times)

Joe Carillo

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Learning the English idioms
« on: September 27, 2017, 09:24:31 PM »
As every nonnative English learner soon discovers upon acquiring an adequate grasp of the language, many common English expressions don’t have the same meanings as those of their individual words. For instance, the verbal phrase “to ask (someone) over” means to invite someone to come and not to ask that person a question, and the noun phrase “finding a needle in a haystack” means a very difficult task and has nothing to do with actual needles and haystacks.

In short, English is highly idiomatic—it doesn’t always literally mean exactly what it says—so it isn’t enough to simply learn how to string any of its estimated 625,000 words into grammatically and structurally correct sentences. The learner also needs to patiently find out the idioms or implicit meanings built by native English speakers into particular combinations of those words, then learn to use those particular idioms with confidence when the occasion calls for them.


Indeed, acquiring the estimated 20,000-25,000 words needed to be proficient in English is child’s play compared to learning its more than 24,000 idioms. To sound natural when speaking or writing, or to be able to read text well or to listen to spoken English with ease, the serious learner must know at least a sizable number of these idioms. Not to do so will make the learner forever an outsider to the language, no matter how extensive his or her vocabulary or sentence-making skill becomes.

Idioms are of two basic types: transparent idioms, those whose meanings can often be inferred from their constituent words, and opaque idioms, those whose meanings aren’t as easily apparent. For instance, the idiom “lend a hand (to someone)” is transparent because it’s easily understood to mean to help someone; “walking on thin ice,” which means acting dangerously, is similarly transparent because its imagery can be easily associated with danger. But the idiomatic expression “to be wet behind the ears” (inexperienced) is opaque because its motivation or origin isn’t apparent on its face. Some idioms may fall in-between transparent and opaque, such as “keep a straight face” (pretend to be innocent) and “blow off steam” (release pent-up emotions).


English idioms take any of four grammatical forms: adjective phrases, noun phrases, prepositional phrases, and verb phrases.

An adjective phrase idiom is any phrase that modifies a noun or pronoun in a nonliteral way, like “head over heels” (smitten) in the sentence “Paris fell head over heels with Helen, triggering a ruinous war,” and “on a roll” (having great success) in “The partners are on a roll in their franchised business.”

A noun phrase idiom is one whose lead word is a noun or pronoun that often comes with a set of modifiers. Typical examples are the idiom “a straw in the wind” (unlikely) in “His winning was a straw in the wind because his opponent had a stronger political machinery,” and the idiom “a square peg in a round hole” (misfit) in “As the feuding family’s arbiter, the veteran prosecutor was a square peg in a round hole.”

A prepositional idiom is one made up of a preposition, its object, and any modifier that comes after them, as the expressions “in the bag” (certain) and “in the nick of time” (a final critical moment).

Finally, a verb phrase idiom—also called a phrasal verb idiom—is an expression whose meaning differs from that of its verb, as “put off” (postpone) and the following three “face” idioms: “face off” (compete), “face up to” (admit responsibility), and “face the music” (deal with an unpleasant situation).

No matter what their grammatical form, idioms make their component words transcend their dictionary meanings, and every new idiom learned brings the learner in closer touch with the heart and sinew of the English language.

(Next week: The nature of true English idioms)   October 5, 2017



This essay appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Education Section of the September 28, 2017 issue (print edition only) of The Manila Times, © 2017 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: September 28, 2017, 05:53:50 PM by Joe Carillo »