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Don’t give up on idioms and phrasal verbs!

Using idioms and phrasal verbs in ESL

Image courtesy of PixelAnarchy

Stuart Redman, teacher trainer and OUP author, introduces his upcoming webinar on 30th September entitled: “Don’t Give Up on Idioms and Phrasal Verbs.”

Teachers often have strong views about teaching (or not teaching) idioms and phrasal verbs. Read through a cross-section of views below. Which statements do you most identify with? Are there any that you strongly disagree with?

‘I tend to steer clear of idioms and phrasal verbs for low-level learners. They have other priorities, and I don’t want to confuse the students too much.’

‘I teach phrasal verbs and idioms as they come up, even to low-level learners; for example, they need to understand items like ‘write it down’ or ‘take it in turns’ as part of the classroom language I use.’

‘I teach quite a few phrasal verbs, but I don’t really teach idioms. They don’t seem to crop up very much in the course books I use.’

‘Generally speaking, the students I teach are learning English for academic purposes, so I don’t teach many idioms and phrasal verbs because they’re too informal. I just stick to teaching more latinate vocabulary, because that’s what they need for reading, essays and that sort of thing.’

‘I’m quite confused about how to organise the teaching of idioms and phrasal verbs. I always go over the grammar of phrasal verbs, but after that, I’m not sure how to go about it in a systematic way.’

‘I often focus on idioms associated with parts of the body, for instance, ‘have a chip on your shoulder’, ‘put your foot in it’; or animal idioms such as ‘let the cat out of the bag’ and ‘the black sheep of the family’. It’s always fun, so that helps students remember it.’

‘When I studied English at school, we used to learn long lists of phrasal verbs organised by the root verb, for example, ‘take in, ‘take out’, take over’, etc. As a student I found this quite confusing and I felt overloaded.’

‘It’s all very well teaching idioms and phrasal verbs, but the big problem is how to practise them. I think students get bored by just doing gap fill exercises, and that’s the kind of thing I come across most often.’

‘I don’t bother much with teaching idioms because a lot of learners tend to use them inappropriately or they just stand out like a sore thumb.’

Look again at the statements. Can you find fourteen idioms and phrasal verbs, not including the examples given in inverted commas, e.g write it down and take it in turns?

During my upcoming webinar we will look at ways of organising and contextualizing idioms and phrasal verbs for teaching purposes. We’ll also be looking at material from the Oxford Word Skills series and the Oxford Learner’s Pocket series.


Homophones: Some Sound Advice

Woman's earIan Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at homophones: words that sound the same as other words, but have a different meaning.

Born or borne? Discreet or discrete? Site or sight? Sink or sync? Homophones are one of the bugbears of learning a language, especially a language such as English, which can represent similar sounds in a number of different ways.

A homophone is a word that sounds the same as another word, but has a different meaning. Often two homophones are spelt the same (as in the case of a ring on the telephone and a diamond ring), but homophones can sometimes have different spellings (as in the case of their and there), which makes life even more difficult.

Homophones can create a particular problem when one of the spellings is not very commonly used. For example, the word but is so much more common than its homophone butt that when you hear a word with this sound you are likely to think that you are hearing the conjunction. However, it is worth remembering the less common homophone can crop up from time to time in phrases such as the butt of a joke.

The verbs pour and pore present a similar issue: pour is much more common, but the phrasal verb pore over involves quite a different meaning. When you pore over a piece of writing you don’t cause it to flow but you study it intently.

When the rarer of two homophones is used in an idiom or phrase, such expressions can be impossible to decipher if you are not aware that a homophone is being used. Take the example of the word bated. This is not the past participle of the verb bait. Pretty much the only time you will come across it is in the phrase with bated breath: if you wait for something with bated breath you wait for it eagerly. The phrase has nothing to do with your breath being prepared to catch a fish, but it makes use of an old variation of the verb abate, and so the idiom describes a person who is so excited that they hold their breath until a particular thing happens.

The idiom give somebody a wide berth is another where the less common of two homophones is used. When you hear it for the first time it may be tempting to interpret this as having something to do with birth. However, the term in fact comes (like many English idioms) from seafaring. A berth is the space allowed for a ship to move about when it is tied up or swinging on its anchor, and so when a troublesome person or thing is given a wide berth they are avoided and given plenty of room to go about their business.

My final example is the phrase learn by rote. When you hear this it may sound as though the last word is wrote. But this phrase has nothing to do with writing; it means to learn things by repeating them over and over rather than by understanding their underlying meaning. What makes this harder to know is that you will never come across the word rote in any other context.

So homophones can not only create problems with spelling, but they can also be quite misleading when it comes to grasping the meaning of a phrase. If you find them tricky then you can take some comfort from the fact that native English speakers often get these confused as well!


Idioms – as clear as mud?

A bird in the hand

Image courtesy of By Matt Reinbold via Wikimedia Commons

Miranda Steel is a freelance ELT lexicographer and editor. She has worked as a Senior Editor for dictionaries for learners at OUP and has also worked for COBUILD. In this post, she looks at some of the weird and wonderful idioms in the English language.

Idioms are commonly used in spoken and written English. They add colour and interest to what we are saying. But how often do we actually find idioms in their original and full form?

Native English speakers are usually confident that their readers or listeners will recognize the idiom, so well-known phrases rarely need to be given in full. You may hear someone being warned not to count their chickens (don’t count your chickens before they are hatched) when they assume a future plan will be successful, or a friend may hint that her colleagues took advantage of the boss’s absence with when the cat’s away! (when the cat’s away, the mice will play).

Some idioms can be shortened in other ways such as long story short (to cut a long story short).

“Anyway, long story short, it turns out Drake isn’t really his father.”

Sometimes only a fragment of the original idiom remains. It is common to see restaurants offering early bird menus or prices (the early bird catches the worm). Someone may describe a terrible idea as a lead balloon (go down like a lead balloon). I recently heard someone talking about a baby and bathwater situation (don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater) when the whole of a plan was rejected because of a problem with only part of it.

Another common way of changing an idiom is to reverse its meaning. For example if you don’t want to deal with a problem straight away, you may put it on the back burner, but if something needs immediate attention, you can put it on the front burner. In your home village you might be a big fish in a small pond but if you move to a large city you could end up a small fish in a very big pond.

Many idioms are very versatile and can be changed in a variety of ways. A carrot and stick approach involves offering rewards and making threats to persuade someone to do something. However, you may come across examples like the following:

“Why use a stick when a carrot will work better?”

“Their approach is all stick and no carrot.”

“They are using every carrot and stick at their disposal.”

One of the most attractive aspects of idioms is their adaptability. It is often possible to substitute one of more of the words in them to adapt to a particular situation. When two people have opposite tastes, you can say one man’s meat is another man’s poison. But how about one man’s junk is another man’s treasure or one man’s madness is another man’s genius? The possibilities are endless.

Substitutions can also be used to alter the meaning of an idiom. For example, a plain-talking person will call a spade a spade, but someone who is more frank than necessary may call a spade a shovel. On the other hand, someone who is reluctant to speak plainly may call a spade a gardening implement.

So, why not have a go at adapting some idioms yourself? After all, when in Rome…

Challenge: For extra bonus points, can you tell us which English idiom the image above refers to?

For more idioms, check out the Oxford Idioms Dictionary for learners of English.


Teaching phrases and expressions – a language teacher’s nightmare?

Woman with hand over mouthTamás Lőrincz, a teacher and teacher trainer, shares his tips for tackling English phrases in and out of the classroom.

Do you know what Scotch Mist is? Honour bright? Before I started writing this post, I didn’t have a clue. I was off my head with joy to find a book on my bookshelf with 420 idiomatic, colloquial, and proverbial expressions, published in 1939. Have you ever entertained an angel unawares? Do you even know what it means? Before writing this post, I certainly didn’t.

A Textbook of English - W. O. Vincent

A Textbook of English
W. O. Vincent

The chief purpose of W. O. Vincent’s A Textbook of English for Foreign Students was “to provide material for practice with words and combinations of words, so that the student is able to build up an extensive vocabulary, and to become familiar with their uses and shades of meaning.” (From the jacket blurb)

In the 74 years since this book was published, English teachers are still trying to achieve the same aim. Our job, of course, has become more complex. Coursebook authors and editors are very selective as to which turns of phrase to include in their books, while teachers are also careful to make sure that the idiomatic expressions they teach their students are relevant to their lives.

Of course, corpora are very useful in making such decisions, but they are ultimately time-bound. Some of them have been based on databases that are hundreds of years old and the frequency of appearance of certain phrases are not always an accurate representation of how language is currently used.

As teachers, we like checklists. So, let’s make a list of five things we can all do to make sure that the phrases we use and teach are not outdated.

1. Search

I know – obvious. Search engines like Google are one of the best ways of checking current usage. Just check the number of hits and it will tell you immediately whether you should bother teaching it or not.

2. Read

Yes, I’m going to be even more obvious now. Tabloids, regardless of your personal opinion of them, do feature a lot of language grounded in the colourful and flexible use of English. Handled correctly, they are an interesting classroom resource that can generate discussion about how and why specific phrases and expressions are used.

3. Sing

Check out the lyrics of some of the top 20 songs. Popular music is an inexhaustible supply. Just look at this week’s top single in the UK (Katy Perry’s ROAR at the time of writing). Katy Perry starts with two beautiful phrases your students will gobble up in no time:

I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath…

4. Watch

If you don’t want to hear Katy Perry ROAR (which I find absolutely understandable), you can watch a movie with your class as well. Even the worst movies are potentially valuable sources of current usage, interesting twists and turns of the language.

If you want something ready-made and reliable. Kieran Donaghy’s ELTon award winning Film English website gives you some fantastic opportunities to teach, practice and learn new phrases and expressions.

5. Socialise

Provided your students are digitally literate and know how to safely manage themselves online, you can help them find friends on Facebook and Twitter. Interacting with online friends can cause an explosion of new vocabulary, packed with up-to-date and intriguing phrases and expressions.

Google Hangouts and Skype chats are also fantastic tools for enabling your class to talk to new people, no matter where in the world they might be. Many teachers use Skype and Google Hangouts to connect with other classrooms around the world, giving their students valuable exposure to informal English.

You may have heard these suggestions before, and they are tried, tested, and produce positive results. (And there’s no point in re-inventing the wheel, as they say). We live in an age of global connectivity and lightning-quick access to information, yet it’s sometimes difficult to remember that English surrounds us, no matter where in the world we may be. With a bit of effort and willingness, we can enable our students to interact with others in English more easily, and give them the tools they need to understand and use idiomatic English more confidently.

And if you were hoping for a bonus suggestion, here it is: keep a lookout for a pretty good-looking smartphone application coming your way from Oxford University Press. From what I have seen – yes, I had a sneak peek; the perks of guest posting 😉 – it will be great fun for teachers and students alike.

Now over to you. What are your preferred ways of teaching phrases and expressions? Please share your tips with us in the comments to this post.


Who’s going to shoot the puppy?

Dog photographDilys Parkinson, editor of the Oxford Business English Dictionary, looks at some of the weird and wonderful idioms in Business English. This article was originally published in Dialogue Magazine.

Picture the scene: you’re in a boardroom at a crisis meeting. The market is shrinking, profits are falling rapidly and jobs must go immediately. Staff need to be told. ‘So,’ someone asks. ‘Who’s going to shoot the puppy?’

‘Shoot the puppy’ (that is, do something terrible and shocking) is just one of the idioms now heard in the business world. Many of these idioms are not used very often in ‘everyday’ English, even by native speakers, so how important are these idioms for people studying English for their working lives? Do they belong in a Business English syllabus?

One could argue that they can be ignored, because the majority of business transactions are carried out between non-native speakers who simply won’t use them. On the other hand, many non-native speakers will certainly come into contact with native speakers who do use these expressions, and even more will come across them when they read newspapers, business magazines and journals in English.

To justify a place in any teaching material or dictionary, there must be evidence that these idioms really are used, so let’s see what corpus evidence there is. What do we find in Oxford’s 45-million-word corpus of business language?

Unfortunately, perhaps, ‘shoot the puppy’ does not appear at all on this corpus. The nearest we can get to it is a novice entrepreneur being told that he has to be ‘willing to drown a puppy’. Nor are there any examples on the British National Corpus. An Internet search reveals that, although it is very frequent (about 33,000 citations), almost all refer to a computer game, while a few citations are related to a book, Shoot the Puppy, by Tony Thorne. It is very hard to find many written examples of the term in use at the moment, but this could change.

Let’s look at some other business idioms that occur more frequently. Another dog-related one is ‘dog eat dog’ – a rather dramatic image. There are ten examples of its use on the British National Corpus. A quick look at the smaller Oxford Business English Corpus, however, shows eight examples, and that’s enough to justify inclusion in a dictionary. For example: ‘I’m afraid in this line of work it’s a case of dog eat dog’. And: ‘We’re operating in a dog-eat-dog world’.

It’s certainly a colourful way of describing the fierce competition that there en is in the business world.

Many of the idioms used in the world of work are very clear and powerful. One of my favourites is ‘hit the ground running’, an idiom that comes from the idea of somebody jumping off a train, for example, and running off immediately. We often find it in job advertisements – ‘We need people who can hit the ground running on day one’ – or in comments such as ‘Few executives hit the ground running in a new role’.

We can easily imagine a new manager or employee in their track shoes, jumping into their new office and running around, getting things done very quickly. This idiom has 25 examples on the Oxford Business English Corpus, so is an important one to understand, as the example from a job advertisement shows.

What does all this mean, then, for people who are studying English for their working lives, and their trainers and teachers? From our corpus research at Oxford we have found that particular idioms are in fact commonly used in the business world, so people involved in Business English will meet them sooner or later. Some, such as ‘hit the ground running’, have or will also become part of our everyday language. So, while it may not be necessary to learn to use these expressions, learning the meaning of idioms should be an essential part of the study of Business English. A good dictionary, based on corpus research, will give guidance as to which ones are most useful.

‘Dead Cat Bounce’ to ‘Dog Eat Dog’ – welcome to the colourful world of business idioms

Idiom What is it / what does it mean? Example Where does it come from?
Have a foot in the door To get an opportunity in a company, group, market, etc. that could bring you future success. It may only be a low-level job, but at least it’s a foot in the door. The door-to-door salesman tactic of using a foot to prevent a customer closing the door.
Learn the ropes To learn how to do a new job correctly. It’ll take me a couple of weeks to learn the ropes, but after that I’ll be fine. Sailors being taught how to work the ropes that control the sails of a ship.
Red tape Official rules that seem more complicated than necessary, and prevent things from being done quickly. Do you know how much red tape you have to cut through if
you want to import a car?
The custom of tying red or pink tape around official documents.
Dog eat dog Fierce competition, with little concern for harm done or people’s feelings. The mobile phone market is very competitive – it’s dog eatdog out there. A variation of the Latin proverb ‘dog does not eat dog’, or that a dog would not destroy its own kind.
Dead cat bounce The small, temporary recovery in price/value that follows a large fall, but is then followed by another fall. Traders described the stock market’s recovery as nothing more than a dead cat bounce. A relatively new phrase which was invented in the 1980s to explain.
The lion’s share The largest part of something that is being shared. Thanks to some aggressive sales tactics, they now have the lion’s share of the market. An old Greek fable about a lion who is helped by some other animals to kill a stag, but then refuses to share it with them and keeps it all.
Get the green light To be allowed to begin something. As soon as we get the green light, we’ll start the recruitment process. Traffic lights – green means ‘go’.
Shoot the puppy
To do something very unpleasant, to do the unthinkable. I know no one wants to give them the bad news but we really can’t put it off any longer. Someone has to shoot the puppy. The US television industry in the 1980s – it was a way of imagining what people would be prepared to do, just to appear on television.

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