Tuesday, March 7, 2017

TIP TUESDAY: IDIOMATIC ENGLISH

Gentle Readers . . . and Maxwell,

Idioms are common words or phrases that make sense in the U.S., but would probably have no meaning to a beginning speaker of English. They're also difficult to translate into another language.

For example, I might say he bought the farm or went toes up or bit the dust in place of saying he died.

Idiomatic English can also mean that a phrase is said using particular words, such as she talked down to him, which is not the same as she talked under him.

We try not to end a sentence with a preposition, but because of idioms it's okay for me to write I dressed up.

If your characters don't know idiomatic English, they might be from a country other than the United States, or they might not use idioms correctly for other reasons. Idioms can be an indicator of familiarity with correct English.

A few idioms that are often misused, according to Hodges' Harbrace College Handbook, include:

according to the plan [not with]

bored by it [not of]

die of cancer [not with]

independent of his family [not from]

happened by accident [not on]

jealous of others [not for]


Someone once told me that we should say a person has a flu rather than has the flu because different strains of influenza exist.

Not true. Has the flu is idiomatic English.


Have you heard idioms misused?


Infinities of love,

Janie Junebug


Thanks, fishducky!

46 comments:

  1. My whole brain is filled with idioms! LOL! ;)

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  2. Hi Janie - good examples ... they need to sound right - then it is ok ... if ok is a word! Cheers Hilary

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  3. I used to teach English as a second language at nights and it really opened my eyes (idiom) to how much of what I say daily is idiomatic. We had classes two nights a week for three months and we only got half-way through the lesson book. Granted there was a week where we diverged into curse words (they asked, I didn't force it on them [another idiom]). This was over 5 years ago so I don't remember very many specifics, but it was the most fun and most difficult class I ever taught. It's hard to explain things like "don't look a gift horse in the mouth," to non-native speakers who don't even have a baseline of understanding.
    Question for you: why is "die of cancer" wrong? "What did he die of? Oh, she died of cancer." No?

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    1. Die of cancer is correct. Die from cancer is wrong. I used to tutor some ESL students who needed to write essays. It was difficult for them.

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  4. Janie, you are as pedantic as the pest. Oops, I am mixing up my Dutch idioms with my English ones. When I was trying to learn Dutch back in the 1980's, I was told in Dutch that I was "like a cat looking out of a tree." Guess I was curious but scared to death. Maybe we can say that about most non-native speakers trying to fit in a new country in a new language. Linda@Wetcreek Blog

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    1. I probably am as pedantic as the pest. I love that.

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  5. I recall a few movies where foreign speakers used idioms incorrectly with humorous results. Love the errorist sign!

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    1. Yes, I've noticed that in some movies, but I can't think of specific examples.

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  6. My ex-gf was from Canada (by way of Britain) and she always wondered why we "go to the hospital" - they just go to Hospital.

    I sometimes stop and consider phrases that sound so natural to us - especially the old fashioned ones.

    When I worked at a video store long, long ago my manager was a pregnant Filipino woman who told us "I've got one in the bun" ..not quite the phrase she was looking for, haha.

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    1. Definitely not the phrase she wanted. I wonder about going to the hospital v. go to hospital. We go to school. Why don't we go to hospital?

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  7. Yes, I've heard them misused all the time! Chances are I've made some mistakes, too.

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  8. "He took the bull by the tail and looked him straight in the eye."

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  9. Very informative, I enjoyed reading. Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

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  10. I'm sure I have, but I need to think about it.

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    1. Don't think too long. You have other things to do.

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  11. I hear "on accident" all the time. It drives me crazy!

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    1. Aaaaargh! I hate on accident. I think that's the one I hear misused most frequently.

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  12. You are so smart. I learned something today.

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    1. I'm not smarter than the average bear. Words are my thing.

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  13. I enjoyed the less but am still mulling a flu or the flu.

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    1. We'd say a strain of flu, so it kind of makes sense.

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  14. Here we say, I could NOT care less. Where when I read some American blogs they say I could care less. In my mind it means they do actually care and wished to care less. Where if I say it, I dont care at all. Is that an idiom?

    One word that really gets on my nerves and you find lots of people under the age of 30 who will say 'I pacifically (said Pacific as in the ocean or to pacify someone, I cant work out which) asked for ice cream. Where it should be, 'I specifically asked for ice cream'. And these people have A levels and have been to university. Heaven help us!

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    1. People who write and say "I could care less" have been the bane of my existence for years. I haven't heard pacifically used in place of specifically. That would drive me nuts, too.

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  15. It's really easy to mix up for/of/with/to/on. It happens all the time. Examining the phrase closely for intended meaning usually helps.

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  16. Great post, Janie. Love the meme:)
    Hmm, do you think people whose secondary language is English feel its more idiot English than idiomatic English:)

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    1. English is such a confusing language that many people probably think it is idiot English.

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  17. This had me trying to think of idioms unique not to just the English language but to Aussie English but you know nothing would come to mind. Why I don't know maybe my brain isn't fully awake and working.

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  18. I get tripped up on "from" versus "of". I once had a beau who lectured me about "by" versus "on" accident. He was a jerk and an idiot otherwise, but I did learn that one lesson from him.

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    1. At least that was a good lesson to learn.

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  19. A friend told me of a conversation with a woman who was from the Philippines but had lived here for 20 years. She and my friend were discussing the economy. She informed him that they were having to "rob Peter to pay Dick." My friend said he managed not to smile.

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  20. My mother-in-law was a veritable font of mixed-up idioms. She'd start with one and end with another, which often created a meaningless, but hilarious result. I sure do miss her.

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  21. OMG, your cartoon about the errorists had me rolling with laughter! It would make me crazy when third graders would use "on accident" over and over again. I also hated "I would of done yadda yadda" instead of I "would have done yadda yadda." You can, of course, substitute other verbs for "done." I hope that you are enjoying your weekend! Sending you love and hugs!

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  22. Hmmmmm...those right there are interesting points to ponder!

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  23. I think I'm OK with those. Commas are a whole different story.....

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