Idioms in English: Do They Really Matter?

Published on
February 28, 2022
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Updated on
May 19, 2022
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📖
8
min read
This article may contain affiliate links
Written by
Emile Dodds

Many English learners become obsessed with idioms and see them as a way to become a natural speaker of English. Let’s explore just how important idioms are… and the dangers of using them.

Idioms in English: Do They Really Matter?
Table of contents

As your English gets better and you begin to speak more confidently, you can choose new language goals. 

A good goal for intermediate and upper-intermediate speakers of English is to become more expressive (use more precise and complex language to explain things).

For example, compare Eddy and Paolo in these two exchanges.

Wanda: What did you think of the concert?
Eddy: It was good. I liked it.
Wanda: What did you think of the concert?
Paolo: It was absolutely terrific, I felt on top of the world! I enjoyed it immensely!

It is clear that Paolo is more expressive. He uses a wider range of vocabulary to communicate his feelings more accurately.

How can you be more expressive, like Paolo? Here are some ways:

  • Expand your vocabulary
  • Use emphatic (strong) language, like ‘terrific’,’instead of ‘very good’
  • Use more specific vocabulary
  • Use idioms

In this article, we will talk about the fourth point: idioms.

What is an idiom?

In a nutshell, an idiom is a word or phrase that has a special meaning. In particular, you cannot understand the meaning from the individual words.

For example, if we say that it is raining cats and dogs, we do not mean that animals are falling from the sky! It is an idiom that means ‘heavy rain’.

Similarly, when we begin a sentence with ‘in a nutshell’, we are not talking about nuts! We are simply saying that we want to give a brief description.

An idiom can be a single word. For example, if we say that George is ‘nuts’, it means that he is crazy.

You can already see a good reason to use idioms - they’re fun! Perhaps this is one reason that idioms are a very popular topic amongst English learners.

Are idioms the same as slang?

While slang often uses special meanings, there are some important differences between slang and idioms.

Firstly, slang is considered non-standard English. You should not say “Wassup bro?” in a job interview or to your boss. Often, slang words are not even in the dictionary!

Secondly, slang is often used only in one place (like California or Australia) or even just by one age group.

When I visited Australia, for example, I learned the word bogan (a lower class person with bad behaviour). But this word becomes useless outside Australia where nobody knows it.

You might see the word “fam” on Twitter, used by younger people. But I bet my parents and grandparents don’t know what it means!

Thirdly, people often use slang to be cool. It’s cool to call people “bro” or “fam”. But it can sound awkward when used incorrectly, and my advice is to avoid it. What’s more, your primary goal in English should be to communicate effectively, not to be cool.

On the other hand, people do use idioms to be more expressive or colourful in their language. This is our goal, and why idioms are important.

Can we use idioms in a business situation?

Remember, idioms are not slang. So, yes, we can use idioms in a business situation. 

In fact, there are many idioms that are specifically used at work. Here are some examples:

My boss runs a tight ship. (= He is a strict manager)

I’m new here. I’m still learning the ropes. (= I’m learning how everything works)

We need to make sure we’re on the same page. (= We’re in agreement)

The dangers of idioms

So far, it seems that idioms are wonderful things. They’re fun, they’re expressive and you can use them in many situations.

But idioms also present big challenges for English learners. Let’s examine these challenges here.

Idioms become outdated

Some idioms reach far back into the past. The idiom raining cats and dogs has been around since the 17th century

I’m sorry to break it to you, but most native English speakers don’t even say “it’s raining cats and dogs”!

It is very easy for English learners to pick up outdated idioms which we no longer use. 

One of my students learned the idioms, “I’ll give him a knuckle sandwich” (I’ll punch him in the mouth) and “sent to Coventry” (deliberately not talk to someone).

He loved these idioms so much that it broke my heart to tell him they were hopelessly outdated. He probably learned the idioms from a movie that was made in the 1950s or an outdated grammar book.

By the way, if you want to know whether an idiom is outdated, a useful tool is Google Books NGram Viewer. This shows you how frequent the usage of a particular word or phrase is over time.

It seems like saying "Sent to Coventry" isn't so used any more
You can probably still use "chew the fat"
"bruh" is used more and more (although don't say it in a job interview)
"bob's your uncle" is still ok

Idioms don’t translate from language to language

You may have some idioms that you love to use in your own language. Unfortunately, these idioms probably won’t translate directly into English.

As an example, “nuts” means crazy as an English idiom. However, in Bahasa Malaysia, “nuts” (kacang) means “easy”. Senang kacang je literally means “easy nuts only”, but in English we would translate it as easy-peasy.

For other idioms, there may not even be an English equivalent at all!

Idioms are difficult to guess

If you are speaking to a non-native speaker of English and you use an idiom, you may not be understood. 

There is a good chance the speaker won’t have heard of the idiom and idioms can be hard to guess.

For example, if we say someone is the black sheep of the family, what does that mean? What is your guess?

The meaning is someone who the other family members are ashamed of. We may also shorten the idiom to simply, “the black sheep”.

Idioms are hard to use correctly

One of my students once wrote an essay about her grandfather. Apparently, her grandfather loved everyone in the family. In fact, my student described him as “a love machine”.

Unfortunately, that is not what a love machine means - it has a sexual meaning, and she was a little embarassed when I revealed it to her! 

English idioms can be very difficult to get correct. I suggest that you use an idiom only after you have heard it or read it several times in context.

How many idioms are there in English?

I’m not going to beat around the bush (= avoid saying something), there are over 10,000 different idioms in English. 

You can buy a dictionary just for idioms!

Of course, many of them are outdated, such as “cock a snook” (= show disrespect).

Why does the dictionary contain outdated idioms? So that if you find an idiom in an old movie or book, you can check the meaning.

The dictionary of idioms is a reference, not a guide to idioms that you should use in your everyday language.

Although we use idioms frequently, you will not hear each one so often. For example, if you watch an English movie, you are sure to hear a lot of idioms - Hollywood scriptwriters love them as much as English learners!

However, if you take an individual idiom, such as mumbo jumbo (= nonsense), you will only hear it very rarely.

Generally, we need to hear a word a few times before learning it and feel comfortable using it. This means idioms are difficult to learn because we just don’t hear each one very often.

One advantage idioms have is that they are often quite visual, so they are easier to remember than individual words.

You could try learning idioms from a wordlist, but this is not really an effective technique. You need a lot of real-life practice to master idioms. It is an advanced-level skill.

Are idioms in English important?

Now that we have examined idioms in detail, we can answer this important question.

Idioms are a great way to make your English more expressive and natural.

However, there are many ‘dangers’ when you learn idioms and you may be misunderstood or say the wrong thing. You need to hear or read an idiom a few times before using it.

Plus, there are many other ways to be more expressive in English, such as learning a range of sentence starters.

So, although idioms are very useful, they are not as important to learn as you may think. 

Let’s look at another question.

Can you speak English without using idioms?

This question is much easier to answer. 

Yes, you can speak excellent English without using idioms. You can be expressive and you can communicate to the same standard as a native speaker. In fact, there are plenty of native speakers who will rarely use idioms in their own speech.

Final advice

My final advice is this: learn idioms, but proceed with caution.

Build up a collection of idioms that you have heard or read a few times. You should be sure of the meaning. 

Movies are a great source for idioms. But make sure it’s not an old movie (or a movie set in the past). Other good sources are podcasts, TED talks or any listening source that comes with a transcript.

Don’t learn idioms from a word list or a dictionary. Instead, it is better to practise the skill of guessing the meanings of new idioms when you hear them.

Most people want to learn idioms to be more expressive. Instead of studying idioms individually, you can achieve this by learning strong adjectives, sentence starters and strong action verbs.

It is more important to understand idioms when you hear them than to be able to use them yourself.

As your English improves and you use it more and more, you will find that your collection of idioms naturally grows slowly but steadily.