What Are Idioms?

Idioms exist in every language and are one of the most magical (and maniacal) parts of learning a language. That is because idioms, also known as idiomatic expressions, are a type of formulaic language in which the exact meaning of the expression cannot be derived from direct translation. Other examples of formulaic language include greetings (e.g., “what’s up?”), phrasal verbs (e.g., “look up”), and sayings (e.g., “turn the other cheek”).

Though different in structure, all examples of formulaic language have a few things in common. All are fixed expressions that cannot be translated literally or significantly altered, and are often used in everyday speech by native speakers.

noun \ˈi-dē-əm\
an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own
Webster's Dictionary

Take, by way of example, the “what’s up?” referred to above. This is a popular way to say “how are you?” and it would incorrect to respond with “the ceiling” – too literal – or change the question to “what’s down” – malformed.

English idioms are best learned (and understood) as fixed expressions with hidden meanings. As frustrating as it may seem, that is where the magic comes in: because they have this hidden meaning, idioms are more than the sum of their parts and can actually be quite fun. Take the example of “it’s raining cats and dogs” as used in the following sentence:

As you can probably tell – and as interesting as it might be – no cats, dogs, or any other animals actually fell from this sky on Friday! That is because “raining cats and dogs” is being used in a non-literal way to describe, in a sort of word picture, the dramatically large amount of rain which fell on the day in question. These word pictures are part of the fun and, at times, can even be quite amusing to imagine!

Why Bother with Idioms?

Though they may seem confusing at times, English idioms are vital part of mastering a language for two important reasons:

  1. Idioms can teach you a lot about a culture. For example, we say something is “the real McCoy” when we want to explain that it is genuine (i.e., not fake). Why? Because more than a hundred years ago, a watch-maker who was tired of having his designs stolen decided to advertise with exactly that slogan and the rest, as they say, is history. The campaign was so catchy that with time the phrase was used to reinforce the quality of all sorts of things, and a culture-specific idiom was born.
  2. Idioms are extremely common in both formal and informal conversation. Native speakers use them without realizing it and often find it difficult to express certain idiomatically-expressed ideas in a different way. This means that the more idioms you know, the more casual conversations you will understand and the more you use the more authentic you will sound.

How To Improve

Unfortunately, because most English idioms are colloquial, they appear much more frequently in speech than in writing. Plus, even when they do, a regular (word-for-word) dictionary may not be very helpful.

Worse still, because idioms are so informal, they are constantly changing. This means that even custom-designed dictionaries and workbooks can quickly become obsolete. Even the best books cannot possibly contain all of the idioms you are likely to encounter in authentic English media. Fortunately, even though the challenge may seem overwhelming, we are here to help.

Between us and the world of English-language media – magazines, television, movies, and music are all great ways reinforce what you have learned — we can virtually guarantee that your persistence will pay off. Expert use is only a matter of time!

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