Apparently you can’t get far in spoken English if you don’t know the traditional English idioms – so they say.
For instance, the idiom “Till the cows come home” means “for a very long time” so you should be certain to use this idiom every now and then when you want to emphasize futility of the action you’re discussing – “You can try to please your boss’s every whim till cows come home, but you still won’t get that promotion.”
Or this one – “The pot calling the kettle black”. This idiom is used to point out to a person accusing someone that he’s not all that innocent himself.
Is it true though? Do you really have to go the extra mile (you see – I just used another idiom so they have to be useful, right?) learning such and similar English idioms to sound fluent and be able to communicate easily with other English speakers?
Well, I can’t actually give you a definitive answer to this question without first discussing the nature of English idioms and how they’re used. So let me bring up an example so that you can start seeing the big picture (see – another idiom!).
I remember an occasion when my daughters had their friend around and it started raining really heavily. As they say here in Ireland – it was lashing outside! I made a comment about the heavy rainfall and used the typical (so they say…) idiom – “It’s raining cats and dogs.” And you know what? None of the kids had the slightest idea of what I was talking about Fair enough, my daughters moved to Ireland when they were four, so it’s understandable that they mightn’t have known the expression I used.
Their friend, however, was a native English speaker so I kind of expected hear to know this popular (or so I was lead to believe!) English idiom. Why, don’t all English speaking people exclaim “It’s raining cats and dogs!” when it’s raining outside? According to so many English learning related websites it’s true, and you’ll be given a list of such and similar archaic phrases as your typical idioms to learn in every second English grammar book!
Modern English Idioms vs Archaic Idioms
I’m not going to deny that plenty of those English idioms originating in bygone days when a horse was the main means of transportation are still very relevant these days. For instance, the idiom “beat around the bush” originates in 15th century but it’s still used a lot in 21st century. Well, in case you’ve never heard it – it means to avoid the issue and keep talking about other topics. So whenever someone avoids answering your question directly, you can tell them to stop beating around the bush and answer the question they’re asked!
Or this one – “play by ear” – which originates in the first part of 19th century but is still used in these days as a figurative way of saying that you’re going to do things depending on how the situation develops and that you can’t really plan for anything. As you can imagine, first they used this phrase only when discussing music related matters; at some stage the phrase went mainstream and they started using it in other aspects of life so it became an idiom, something that can’t be taken literally.
On the other hand, there are many idioms that have lost their relevance in modern times – like the one about the pot and the kettle, so I really don’t think you should focus on such phrases when building your vocabulary of figurative English language.
“Look a gift horse in the mouth” is an idiom used in situations when someone criticizes something they got for free or very cheep, but tell me, when is the last time you heard this phrase? To be honest with you – I don’t think I’ve ever heard it during the last 2.5 years spent in my current job, and that’s something for you to think about!
I’m not saying you’re going to waste your time learning such old-fashioned idioms – most English speakers will understand you, of course.
The point I’m trying to make here is that you should use your time and brain capacity effectively, and I don’t think that stuffing your head with English idioms of relatively small relevance is the best way of using your resources. This brings us to the next point –
Be Selective When Learning English Idioms!
Some phrases will stick with you even if you don’t memorize them intentionally, and that’s quite natural. If you decide to purposefully learn English idioms in order to improve your English fluency, however, you should learn the ones that are relevant in your personal circumstances – in other words – situations when you use the English language!
Just think about this – is there any use for you to learn very specific English proverbs such as “chickens come home to roost” or “talk the hind legs off a donkey” if you haven’t heard anyone use them? Don’t make the mistake of learning something in English just because it sounds cool and it will allow you to show off in front of your work colleagues, fellow students or friends!
Just like I wrote in another article about which new English words to learn, you should rather engage in plenty of activities involving the English language so that you encounter new vocabulary naturally – and, of course, it includes idioms and idiomatic expressions as well!
And if you decide to add more to your figurative language by finding more of such useful idioms, I’d suggest you browse through large idiom compilations – such as this one and see if any of them ring a bell with you. You see – I just used an idiom which is used in situations when you’re reminded of something, and this idiom is quite relevant for any foreign English speaker.
So when you go through English idiom lists, you should make note of the ones you remember having heard previously. As you might remember from my earlier blog posts, passive and active vocabularies are different beasts and not everything you recognize is part of your active spoken English vocabulary.
Let’s say, you’re reading an idiom “have a sweet tooth” (“I have a sweet tooth” means that you’re fond of sweets, chocolate and pastries) and you have a feeling that you’ve heard it before. Well, I’d say it’s worth memorizing this idiom! The best way to achieve it would be by writing the phrase “I have a sweet tooth” down into your dictionary and using spaced repetition to cement it into your active vocabulary.
Most likely you’d be getting the same impression of familiarity when coming across a bunch of other idioms – “safe and sound” (meaning that everything is fine with the person in question), “far cry from” (used to describe that something is far from being complete, or something is much different from what you describe further in the conversation) and similar idiomatic expressions, so it’s worth noting them because you’d put them to good use in your daily conversations.
I mean – once you’ve heard them at some stage, they must be used in real life spoken language, right?
And now I’ve come to discuss the last point of this blog post –
Why I Favor Idiomatic Expressions Over Traditional Idioms
It’s quite simple – your typical English idioms like this one – “leopard can’t change its spots” or “a rolling stone gathers no moss” on many occasions are proverbs from the olden times. Let me tell you this once more – I’ve nothing against them, but I strongly believe that our mission as foreign English speakers is to learn the most useful idioms
Over the years living in an English speaking society I’ve come to realize that it’s the shorter, two or three word idiomatic expressions that are used in daily conversations most frequently – “piece of cake” (something that is very easy), “hands down” (“he’s going to beat the others hands down” – he’s going to win easily, without any serious competition), “hazard a guess” (to make a guess) and thousands of others.
Many of them – such as “so to speak”, “every now and then”, “for that matter” – aren’t even regarded as idioms by some linguists; their argument is that meaning of an idiom can’t be inferred from the words alone and that you have to learn what the idiom means before you can understand it.
Yet it’s exactly such and similar short expressions that I suggest you to learn – and by the way, I’ve been highlighting them in all of my blog posts in red so that you can pick them up as you read. On 99% of occasions they’re self explanatory (therefore they wouldn’t be really your traditional English idioms but then – who cares?) and on the rare occasion when you don’t really get it – you can always use Google to find the answer in a few clicks of a mouse.
Anyway – you shouldn’t be too hung up on figuring out whether it’s an idiom, idiomatic expression, or just a phrase or a collocation. Any expression that is used by native English speakers and can’t be constructed by translating directly from your native language is worth noting, and if it’s relevant for you – it’s also worth memorizing
Useful English idiom websites:
You can browse idioms by alphabetical index or by topic, and this website contains more than 3500 idioms with new ones being added on regularly.
Here the idioms are sorted out by topic but they’re slightly different from the website above – you’ll find it easier to find relevant idioms and phrases depending on certain situation descriptions rather than based on the overall topic of the words used in the idiom.
This is a great search tool for idioms. Let’s say, you vaguely remember a phrase but you’re not really sure of the exact words. Just type in the word you remember – and if there is an English idiom containing this word – it will come up for sure!
P.S. Are you ready to get on the fast track to spoken English fluency? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!