Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


8 Comments

What do idioms look like?

Man with egg on his faceAhead of his talk at IATEFL 2011 entitled ‘Don’t give up on idioms and phrasal verbs’, Stuart Redman, co-author of Oxford Word Skills, ‘gets to the bottom of‘ idioms in the English language.

What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you see these expressions?
kick the bucket
be barking up the wrong tree
a storm in a teacup
strike while the iron is hot
have egg on your face

Your answer is probably that they are all idioms: groups of words that not only have a meaning that is different from the individual words, but also a meaning that is often difficult or impossible to guess from the individual words. If someone is barking up the wrong tree, they have the wrong idea about how to get or achieve something; it has nothing to do with – or is unlikely to have anything to do with – dogs or trees. If you have egg on your face, you might need a handkerchief, but it’s more likely that you are embarrassed or feel stupid because something you have tried to do has gone wrong. These expressions are also good examples of the commonly-held view that idioms tend to be very vivid and colourful expressions.

Now, let’s turn to another list of expressions. What do they have in common with the list above?
to some extent
I’ve no idea
from time to time
first of all
in the distance

Less obvious perhaps, but the answer, in fact, is the same: they are all idioms. Is the meaning of these expressions very different from the individual words? Not to any great extent. Is the meaning difficult or impossible to guess? Not particularly. Are they vivid and colourful expressions? Certainly not. So, why are they idioms?

Continue reading