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“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

~George Orwell

A foreign speaker must know and understand the meaning of the new language’s idioms if he wants to understand what he is listening to or reading. Pick up any newspaper, book, movie or TV show and you will find it thick with idiomatic phrases. It is one of the reasons that computers do so badly translating: they can’t understand idiomatic speech and only translate literally.

You have been studying words in relation to their literal or dictionary meaning. However there are expressions in English which do not mean the combined meaning of the individual words composing the expression but the meaning of the whole phrase. When you say, “Do not let the cat out of the bag,” you do not literally let a cat out of a bag. It simply means, “do not reveal the secret.”

Look at these sentences:

  1. Lina opened her eyes in a strange room.
  2. The explanation opened her eyes.

The phrase in number 1 means that her eyes were closed and she opened them. The same phrase in number 2 is an idiom meaning “to learn, to realize, or make things clear.”

An idiom is a group of words whose meaning is different from the combined meanings of the words expressed.

Two-Word Verbs

Many English idioms are formed by adding an adverb to a verb, giving the combination a special meaning. These are called two-word verbs. Take the expression get off the bus. You do not say get out of the bus. You use the verb-adverb combination get off. In the same way, you do not open the light; you turn on the light instead.

You can work in the light or you can work in another detail in a design.

There are also many idioms that begin prepositions. Here are some of the most familiar. Learn to use them.

  1. between you and me (a secret)
  2. in with the gang (a member)
  3. for a song (free)
  4. down-to-earth (very practical)
  5. from a to z (from beginning to end)
  6. through thick and thin (in spite of all the difficulties)
  7. off the record (not to be made public)
  8. up to now (from the past to the present)
  9. to the point (to the important part)
  10. above all (most important)

Do you know where to find idioms in the dictionary? You cannot find them in a pocket dictionary but in the large editions of dictionaries. Idioms are generally in boldface (darker print). They are also found in handbooks and booklets on idioms in bookstores. Nowadays, let the Internet be your friend.

Study the following and use teach in a sentence.

  1. according to Hoyleaccording to the rules
  2. ace in the holea plan or asset that is sure to succeed
  3. ad-libto make spontaneous, unrehearsed remarks
  4. add insult to injuryaggravate a bad situation
  5. all thumbsclumsy, awkward
  6. all ears attentive
  7. anybody’s gamea contest which no is sure of winning
  8. actions speak louder than wordspeople’s intentions can be judged better by what they do than what they say
  9. barking up the wrong tree – to make an assumption about someone or something
  10. clam upbe secretive

They may not be mandatory but knowing what they mean is a great advantage to derive meaning from the spoken language of a language other than your first language.


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Mary Jane

Mary Jane Go has been teaching English for over 13 years. She believes that it is very important to learn English and learn it by heart. For her, it's always the right time for a dance party and that hanging out with friends is indispensable.

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