This topic was also covered in one of my podcast episodes. The page for the episode is here.
According to the Cambridge English dictionary, an idiom is “a group of words in a fixed order that has a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own.
This means that idioms are sometimes hard to understand. You may know the meanings of the individual words, but you may not be able to work out what an idiom means, particularly if you haven’t heard it before.
Some idioms, such as “the early bird catches the worm”, are found in a number of languages. Others are specific to one language or culture.
As the meanings aren’t always clear, I think it’s important that learners understand some common idioms. I often talk about groups of them on my Facebook page. For example, I recently had “horse week”, in which we looked at idioms to do with horses. Before that, we had “wolf week”.
If you’re using English as an international business language, idioms may not come up as much because people will probably use more functional language. However, many people use them and they often don’t even realise when they’re using vocabulary that may be more difficult for learners of English to understand. Therefore, I think it’s good to learn some of these more unusual phrases, so that you know what people are talking about.
So, should you try to use idioms when you’re speaking and writing English?
I would say that it’s a good thing to do, because it helps you to develop your vocabulary. Also, building idiomatic expressions into your speech or writing can make them sound more authentic. However, I would also advise you to think about the following points:
1. Make sure the idiom that you’ve learned is still in use
Everyone seems to know the one about “raining cats and dogs”, perhaps because it’s a strange image, but I can’t think of the last time that I used this in general conversation.
If you tell someone to “change the record”, you’re actually saying that you want them to talk about something else because you’re bored with their topic of conversation and you think they’ve been talking about it for long enough! But most children and teenagers wouldn’t be able to tell you what a record player is. They are used to streaming music, downloading it, maybe CDs, but apart from record collectors, most people don’t use record players nowadays and the expression is dying out with them.
If you learn and use an expression that nobody has heard for years, they might not understand you, or they might smile because it’s a bit outdated. This is less likely to happen if you start by learning expressions that you’ve picked up from the conversations around you.
2. Regional differences
If you are in the UK and you have a skeleton in your cupboard, there is something that you don’t want people to find out because it would be bad for your reputation. However, if you use American English, you’re more likely to have the skeleton in your closet, not your cupboard.
Any expressions which refer to money, such as pounds, pennies, dollars or dimes, are more likely to be used in the country where that currency can be found.
3. Is it appropriate for you and for the situation?
There are things that teenagers say, that I, as someone in their early 40s, would not say. Ok, this is moving from idioms into the area of colloquial language, but it’s good to keep an eye on who is using the language before you adopt it into your own vocabulary. Similarly, I might say “my wise old nan used to say …” and then follow it up with an idiom or a wise proverb, but I wouldn’t just use these expressions without making a reference to my Nan (or grandma), because people don’t say these things any more.
There are things that you would say to your friends, but you wouldn’t say them in a formal business meeting. You don’t make these decisions consciously in your native language, but when you’re learning new phrases in another language, it’s good to learn them in context, so that you can see when and how it’s appropriate to use them.
So, yes, go ahead and learn some idioms! They can make your language come alive and sound more authentic! But choose them wisely and make sure that they are appropriate for you, the situation, and your audience!
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