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Are Idioms Important?
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’.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.