ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Are Idioms Important?

Updated on February 13, 2016
These are beans, but is what 'spill the beans' means?
These are beans, but is what 'spill the beans' means?

What is an Idiom?

An idiom is a fixed expression in a language that has either a literal or figurative (non-literal) meaning. To pull someone's leg is an example of a figurative expression as it means to tease someone or joke with them, not actually literally to embrace physically and grab someone's leg.

There are thousands of them in the English language and as a teacher I often get asked do we have to learn them? Are they important? They come from a range of different sources, we have Roman idioms such as 'the die is cast' (means it's gone too far, or past the point of no return) and horse idioms such as 'long in the tooth' (which means experienced). I personally love studying the etymology (origin) of these expressions and enjoy seeing myths and misnomers disproved. It's also strange to see how many we use in everyday life without thinking about them.

Some examples include:

‘To drop someone a line’ means to call someone.

‘To spill the beans’ means to let out a secret.

‘To feel blue’ means to feel sad.

‘To cost an arm and a leg’ means a very expensive.

’Put a cork in it’ is an impolite way to say, "shut up!", ‘stop talking’.

A nutshell
A nutshell

Are they important? Do you have to learn them?

In one word: yes. They are vital and it's interesting to say that I wanted to answer the start of this section using an idiom: to put it in a nutshell (which means to summarise) and then I changed that to make it simpler for people who don't know that idiom. My second choice was another idiom that is more literal: 'to put it in a word', but in the end I settled on 'in one word' as it is easier for a language student who doesn't know it.

The reason you have to learn them is to aid your communication. Natives use them, other wise there would be no point in knowing them. They are common in spoken and informal English, which means people will use them naturally in conversation. They should not be used in academic writing or in formal pieces of writing. However, I have watched several TED talks where academics will speak about their subjects freely using idioms. If you don't know them, you will miss cultural references and even cause alienation from communication. There are ones that most people know such as 'it's not my cup of tea' (It's not to my taste) or 'it's raining cats and dogs' (heavy rain), but there are others that are more obscure and non-literal that will lose the meaning of the conversation if you're not aware of them.


Johnny Depp is a very talented actor, but now I realise this is not what Richard wanted to know.
Johnny Depp is a very talented actor, but now I realise this is not what Richard wanted to know.

Does it really cause problems?

Sadly, it can. I'm going to tell you a story. When I was a child I was a member of an acting group. There was another member called Richard who was about 6 years older than me and left the group when he turned 18. The next year I was with my dad when saw him in a shop and he said hello. We talked for a little bit and he asked if I was still a member of the acting group. I was, and told him that I went every week. It was then he asked me 'What is the talent like?'.

A talented person, in the literal sense, means someone with great ability or skill. In terms of acting, a very talented actor is someone who is good at acting. Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt are very talented actors and he asked me what the talent was like. I responded to him telling him there were several good ones and in particular a boy called Steve. This is where the conversation got awkward: Richard said goodbye and my Dad was smiling, but in a way that I could tell that something was wrong. I was 13 and to me talent had the literal meaning. However, my father explained afterwards that 'talent' can also refer to 'girls'.

To my horror, I realised that Richard had been asking 'what are the girls like?' While I understood he wanted to know about the ability of the actors and told him about a boy called Steve, he actually wanted to know if there were any beautiful girls. I had embarrassed myself without knowing and to this day I don't know if he thought I was gay or naive. I am a native and I made this mistake.

What if you said you were going for a job interview and I said 'break a leg'? It sounds aggressive if you don't know the meaning. What I'm trying to say is 'good luck!', but if you don't know the meaning it can cause serious problems.

A student, Renata, brilliantly used the idiom 'give me a hand' which means to help, but if someone took it literally they may think I want to greet them and shake hands.

Making these kind of mistakes will be awkward and create embarrassing situations. If you are interacting with natives you will need to know them as they will use them without thinking.

Han Solo would probably not have liked people using idioms all the time.
Han Solo would probably not have liked people using idioms all the time.

The Dangers of Idioms

There are two major dangers. The first was discussed and is written above. The fact that not knowing them will cause miscommunication if the person you are speaking with uses them. This is what I refer to as alienation, the sense that being unaware of the meanings will detract from the conversation.

You could end up talking at cross-purposes (an idiom to say talking about two different subjects). Like I said above if I said break a leg, the conversation could end in an argument.

The second danger is overuse. Time and time again teachers hear students using idioms. It's great that when they learn something new, they end up using it. Practising the idioms really helps, but the problem is that sometimes people 'talk in idioms'. I have had students who use an idiom in nearly every sentence and will try and put on into the conversation somehow. This makes it unnatural and very strange for a native to hear. There was one girl who used so many that the conversations became quite frustrating for some natives. It felt like she was challenging the listeners knowledge of idioms, which brings me onto the next point:

A Badger!
A Badger!

How common are they?

This is a difficult question to answer, and I asked it to myself! Some are, some aren't. I rarely use 'it's raining cats and dogs' and prefer to say 'it's chucking it down' or 'it's throwing it down'. I sometimes use 'it's not my cup of tea', but years of teaching have made me use it less, because I get fed up with hearing it so many times.

They get used a lot in informal letters and conversations. Spoken English is filled with them, so if you want to watch TV programmes in English, films, listen to music, read articles and blog posts then you will see and hear them. If you want to interact with natives you will need to know some, or be able to recognise them and ask them the meaning.

Which ones are common is a tough question. Idioms are used more commonly in different regions, so in Newcastle they may use 'not my cup of tea' more than in Scotland for example. Different regions will also have unique ones, for example on the Isle of Wight where I grew up they say 'that's the badger' meaning 'that's it, or that's correct', but I have never heard it anywhere else in the country or world. British will say 'a piece of cake' whereas some Americans more commonly say 'piece of pie'.

I say 'give me a hand' or 'it's not rocket science' but I've never said 'take a chill pill' (this is American and means relax), but I know what it means and this is the important part.

Break a leg with Idioms!
Break a leg with Idioms!

How can I learn them?

The best way is to listen out for them and write them down when you hear them. The ones that you hear most are probably the most common ones. If you hear 'break a leg' several times, then you know it's going to be common.

I will do the same. Whenever I hear idioms from British natives or TV programmes, I will make a note and when I have a list of the 100 most common ones in the coming months, I will give the list to my students. Why don't you write down the ones you hear most commonly below and help share them with other people.

Enjoy your lives.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Ana Paula 

      2 years ago

      Hello Roy! I have learnt this with you.

      'In the middle of nowhere' it means far away from any cities, where few people live or when you want to say that someplace is far from the center.

      'Bend over backwards' it means to work very hard to do something, make every effort, especially to be fair or helpful.

      'In the cold light of day' it means when you have had time to think calmly about something.

      I don't know if the last two sentences are American or British idioms.

      By

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)