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Understanding Common Expressions In The English Language–Chapter Four–What Are Idiomatic Expressions and Why Do We Use Them

Long before recorded history began the elders of each generation passed along to the chilren the stories told to them by their forefathers as well as the noteworthy happenings of their lifetimes. In this fashion the significant historical events and legends of a people were kept alive for future generations, and the cultural heritage was preserved. From these myths and legends we inherited many common phrases that are still in use today.

Every language has its own unique collection of sayings and phrases. These expressions often contain meanings that may not be obvious by simply looking at the individual words contained therein. We call these expressions “idioms.”

An idiom is a  a widely used phrase or expression that typically presents a figurative, non-literal meaning attached to the phrase; but some phrases become figurative idioms while retaining the literal meaning of the phrase. Categorized as formulaic language, an idiom’s figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning. Idioms occur frequently in all languages; in English alone there are an estimated twenty-five million idiomatic expressions.

Idioms often summarize or reflect a commonly held cultural experience, even if that experience is now out of date or antiquated. They promote cultural and historical information while also helping people in improving their language skills. Idioms take on distinct qualities that differ from one language to the next. Furthermore, idioms can reflect particular cultural traditions and personalities. For instance, you might say that someone should “bite the bullet” when they need to do something undesirable. The phrase’s origin refers to wounded soldiers literally biting down on a bullet to avoid screaming during a wartime operation. That common occurrence from the past resulted in a phrase we still use today.

Idioms are things that people say or write that when taken literally, don’t make sense. This can be quite confusing, but essentially they are ‘sayings’ or ‘phrases’ that are understood by English speakers in terms of their intended meaning, but when taken at face value the words together make little or no sense at all. An example might be somebody saying they were “Over the moon” because of something good happening in their lives. Taking that literally would leave somebody feeling quite confused, but most people understand that the individual is trying to say that they are really happy about something. 

Idioms are things that people say or write that when taken literally, don’t make sense. This can be quite confusing, but essentially they are ‘sayings’ or ‘phrases’ that are understood by English speakers in terms of their intended meaning, but when taken at face value the words together make little or no sense at all. An example might be somebody saying they were “Over the moon” because of something good happening in their lives. Taking that literally would leave somebody feeling quite confused, but most people understand that the individual is trying to say that they are really happy about something. There are many examples of idioms in English and we’ll take a look at a few more later, but why do we use them to begin with?

Additionally, Idioms were created to convey a unique and typically rather precise meaning for which no exact term exists. The ones that are clever or innovative are remembered, and what is memorable is repeated in a meme-like form. Idioms are more than just a shorter way of saying the same thing. They enrich our language by providing concise precision that alternative wording lacks. They are sometimes the only way to express a particular idea.

The History of Idiom

Most idioms have an extensive history of being used over an extended period of time. Many have origins in the Bible and even more are derived from Old English or Latin phrases and words. Well-known authors like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and many others have used or are solely responsible for the creation of some idioms in their works of poetry, drama, plays, and more. These well-known authors used idioms to prevent their writing from sounding bland, mundane, and repetitive by using the same old boring comparisons using both relative and literal terms. In fact, most of the popular idioms that we still use to this very day have stood the ultimate test of time having originated thousands of years ago.


Many idiomatic expressions were meant literally in their original use, but sometimes the attribution of the literal meaning changed and the phrase itself grew away from its original roots—typically leading to a folk etymology. For instance, the phrase “spill the beans” (meaning to reveal a secret) is first attested in 1919, but has been said to originate from an ancient method of voting by depositing beans in jars, which could be spilled, prematurely revealing the results.

Other idioms are deliberately figurative. For example, “break a leg” is an ironic expression to wish a person good luck just prior to their giving a performance or presentation. It may have arisen from the superstition that one ought not utter the words “good luck” to an actor because it is believed that doing so will cause the opposite result.


In linguistics, idioms are usually presumed to be figures of speech contradicting the principle of compositionality. That compositionality is the key notion for the analysis of idioms is emphasized in most accounts of idioms. This principle states that the meaning of a whole should be constructed from the meanings of the parts that make up the whole. In other words, one should be in a position to understand the whole if one understands the meanings of each of the parts that make up the whole. The following example is widely employed to illustrate the point:

Fred kicked the bucket.

Understood compositionally, Fred has literally kicked an actual, physical bucket. The much more likely idiomatic reading, however, is non-compositional: Fred is understood to have died. Arriving at the idiomatic reading from the literal reading is unlikely for most speakers. What this means is that the idiomatic reading is, rather, stored as a single lexical item that is now largely independent of the literal reading.

In phraseology, idioms are defined as a sub-type of phraseme, the meaning of which is not the regular sum of the meanings of its component parts. John Saeed defines an idiom as collocated words that became affixed to each other until metamorphosing into a fossilized term. This collocation of words redefines each component word in the word-group and becomes an idiomatic expression. Idioms usually do not translate well; in some cases, when an idiom is translated directly word-for-word into another language, either its meaning is changed or it is meaningless.

When two or three words are conventionally used together in a particular sequence, they form an irreversible binomial. For example, a person may be left “high and dry”, but never “dry and high”. Not all irreversible binomials are idioms, however: “chips and dip” is irreversible, but its meaning is straightforwardly derived from its components.


Idioms possess varying degrees of mobility. Whereas some idioms are used only in a routine form, others can undergo syntactic modifications such as passivization, raising constructions, and clefting, demonstrating separable constituencies within the idiom. Mobile idioms, allowing such movement, maintain their idiomatic meaning where fixed idioms do not: Mobile I spilled the beans on our project. → The beans were spilled on our project. Fixed The old man kicked the bucket. → The bucket was kicked (by the old man).

Many fixed idioms lack semantic composition, meaning that the idiom contains the semantic role of a verb, but not of any object. This is true of kick the bucket, which means die. By contrast, the semantically composite idiom spill the beans, meaning reveal a secret, contains both a semantic verb and object, reveal and secret. Semantically composite idioms have a syntactic similarity between their surface and semantic forms.

The types of movement allowed for certain idioms also relate to the degree to which the literal reading of the idiom has a connection to its idiomatic meaning. This is referred to as motivation or transparency. While most idioms that do not display semantic composition generally do not allow non-adjectival modification, those that are also motivated allow lexical substitution. For example, oil the wheels and grease the wheels allow variation for nouns that elicit a similar literal meaning. These types of changes can occur only when speakers can easily recognize a connection between what the idiom is meant to express and its literal meaning, thus an idiom like kick the bucket cannot occur as kick the pot.

From the perspective of dependency grammar, idioms are represented as a catena which cannot be interrupted by non-idiomatic content. Although syntactic modifications introduce disruptions to the idiomatic structure, this continuity is only required for idioms as lexical entries.

Certain idioms, allowing unrestricted syntactic modification, can be said to be metaphors. Expressions such as jump on the bandwagonpull strings, and draw the line all represent their meaning independently in their verbs and objects, making them compositional. In the idiom jump on the bandwagonjump on involves joining something and a ‘bandwagon’ can refer to a collective cause, regardless of context.


word-by-word translation of an opaque idiom will most likely not convey the same meaning in other languages. The English idiom kick the bucket has a variety of equivalents in other languages, such as kopnąć w kalendarz (“kick the calendar”) in Polish, casser sa pipe (“to break his pipe”) in French and tirare le cuoia (“pulling the leathers”) in Italian.

Some idioms are transparent. Much of their meaning gets through if they are taken (or translated) literally. For example, lay one’s cards on the table meaning to reveal previously unknown intentions or to reveal a secret. Transparency is a matter of degree; spill the beans (to let secret information become known) and leave no stone unturned (to do everything possible in order to achieve or find something) are not entirely literally interpretable but involve only a slight metaphorical broadening. Another category of idioms is a word having several meanings, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes discerned from the context of its usage. This is seen in the (mostly uninflected) English language in polysemes, the common use of the same word for an activity, for those engaged in it, for the product used, for the place or time of an activity, and sometimes for a verb.

Idioms tend to confuse those unfamiliar with them; students of a new language must learn its idiomatic expressions as vocabulary. Many natural language words have idiomatic origins but are assimilated and so lose their figurative senses. For example, in Portuguese, the expression saber de coração ‘to know by heart’, with the same meaning as in English, was shortened to ‘saber de cor’, and, later, to the verb decorar, meaning memorize.

In 2015, TED collected 40 examples of bizarre idioms that cannot be translated literally. They include the Swedish saying “to slide in on a shrimp sandwich”, which refers those who did not have to work to get where they are.

Conversely, idioms may be shared between multiple languages. For example, the Arabic phrase (fi nafs al-markab) is translated as “in the same boat,” and it carries the same figurative meaning as the equivalent idiom in English.

According to the German linguist Elizabeth Piirainen, the idiom “to get on one’s nerves” has the same figurative meaning in 57 European languages. She also says that the phrase “to shed crocodile tears,” meaning to express insincere sorrow, is similarly widespread in European languages but is also used in Arabic, Swahili, Persian, Chinese, Mongolian, and several others.

The origin of cross-language idioms is uncertain. One theory is that cross-language idioms are a language contact phenomenon, resulting from a word-for-word translation called a calque. Piirainen says that may happen as a result of lingua franca usage in which speakers incorporate expressions from their own native tongue, which exposes them to speakers of other languages. Other theories suggest they come from a shared ancestor language or that humans are naturally predisposed to develop certain metaphors.

Dealing with non-compositionality

The non-compositionality of meaning of idioms challenges theories of syntax. The fixed words of many idioms do not qualify as constituents in any sense. For example:

How do we get to the bottom of this situation?

The fixed words of this idiom (in bold) do not form a constituent in any theory’s analysis of syntactic structure because the object of the preposition (here this situation) is not part of the idiom (but rather it is an argument of the idiom). One can know that it is not part of the idiom because it is variable; for example, How do we get to the bottom of this situation / the claim / the phenomenon / her statement / etc. What this means is that theories of syntax that take the constituent to be the fundamental unit of syntactic analysis are challenged. The manner in which units of meaning are assigned to units of syntax remains unclear. This problem has motivated a tremendous amount of discussion and debate in linguistics circles and it is a primary motivator behind the Construction Grammar framework.

A relatively recent development in the syntactic analysis of idioms departs from a constituent-based account of syntactic structure, preferring instead the catena-based account. The catena unit was introduced to linguistics by William O’Grady in 1998. Any word or any combination of words that are linked together by dependencies qualifies as a catena. The words constituting idioms are stored as catenae in the lexicon, and as such, they are concrete units of syntax. The dependency grammar trees of a few sentences containing non-constituent idioms illustrate the point:

The fixed words of the proverbs (in orange) again form a catena each time. The adjective nitty-gritty and the adverb always are not part of the respective proverb and their appearance does not interrupt the fixed words of the proverb. A caveat concerning the catena-based analysis of idioms concerns their status in the lexicon. Idioms are lexical items, which means they are stored as catenae in the lexicon. In the actual syntax, however, some idioms can be broken up by various functional constructions.

The catena-based analysis of idioms provides a basis for an understanding of meaning compositionality. The Principle of Compositionality can in fact be maintained. Units of meaning are being assigned to catenae, whereby many of these catenae are not constituents.

Various studies have investigated methods to develop the ability to interpret idioms in children with various diagnoses including Autism, Moderate Learning Difficulties, Developmental Language Disorder  and typically developing weak readers.

Multiword expression

A multiword expression is “lexical units larger than a word that can bear both idiomatic and compositional meanings. (…) the term multi-word expression is used as a pre-theoretical label to include the range of phenomena that goes from collocations to fixed expressions.” It is a problem in natural language processing when trying to translate lexical units such as idioms.

Understanding the lexicon of English demands more than knowing the denotative meaning of words. It requires its speakers to have connotative word comprehension and more, an understanding of figurative language. Idioms fall into this final category. The focus of this paper is to share the importance of idioms for non native speakers as part of their mastery of the English language. Idioms share cultural and historical information and broadens people’s understanding and manipulation of a language. Among the various definitions idioms are:

* the language peculiar to a people, country, class, community or, more rarely, an individual;

* a construction or expression having a meaning different from the literal one or not according to the usual patterns of the language is the second definition that best suits the focus of Idioms include all the expressions we use that are unique to English, including cliches and slang. Prepositional usage is also a common part of idiomatic expressions this paper addresses idioms as used in figurative language.

English as the language of communication and commerce. Whether it is working in one’s native country or in an English-speaking country, idioms are important as part of the shared knowledge among English speakers. While idioms are commonly used for official business, a distinction must be made about slang. Slang is “currently widely used and understood language, consisting of new meanings attributed to existing words or of wholly new words, generally accepted as lying outside standard polite usage. It usually passes out of usage time or is accepted into standard usage”. Referring someone’s apartment as his or her “crib” is slang, and “crib” is a word now out of style. I believe the phrase, subtleties of the language, best describes a general area into which idioms can be categorized. They transmit certain information about the speaker that might not be obvious. Students of English who effectively communicate with idioms show a certain understanding of the language. They understand and communicate on a deeper level of the language. I use the word “subtle” not as one of its definition where something is hard to grasp or difficult to define but in a more expansive way. The wider meaning consists of a definition where lexical usage shows a deeper understanding of the target language and culture. Since vocabulary and culture are intertwined, Language 2 speakers can gain more vocabulary through idioms and conversely, can learn more about idioms from being exposed to the target culture.

The Importance of Idioms

You might be wondering why we choose to complicate things by using idioms at all. Wouldn’t it just be easier to say what we literally mean? Well, yes, it might be easier but it would also be a little boring. Using idioms is a way of expressing ourselves figuratively instead of literally. It’s a way to express meaning on a more relatable and deeper level. When we hear idioms or read idioms we are able to use our imagination more to really understand the meaning that the person is trying to get across to us. It’s almost like we understand their meaning even more.

Take the “Over the moon” example from earlier. The person could just say that they are “really happy” about whatever it is that is making them happy. But by using the idiom and expressing themselves figuratively, we understand what they mean and it carries with it a little more meaning than the literal version of what they are trying to say. Essentially, we can form an image in our mind of this person being so overjoyed that they could jump over the moon with happiness. If that isn’t more meaningful than someone saying “I’m really happy”, then we don’t know what is.

Idioms are important because they allow people to express themselves in a more open and creative way. It allows the speaker or the writer to get a point across to somebody in a way that might not always be clear initially, but in the context of what they are saying makes perfect sense. They can be really good as a short way of expressing a more complicated idea. “Over the moon” is much easier than saying “I’m really happy, I could jump for joy and land on the moon”. Most people know what “Over the moon” means anyway, so it communicates the meaning clearly and quickly.

What Is the Purpose of Idioms in Writing?

Idioms are a type of figurative language that can be used to add dynamism and character to otherwise stale writing. You can also use idioms to:

Here are some of the benefits of using idioms to improve fluency.

1. Idioms allow us to say a lot with a few words.

2. They are able to make the way you speak nicer by making your conversation less monotonous, smart, and even funnier. Idioms can also be used to add humor to your speech in places where you might otherwise appear brash.

3. English native speakers find it easy and natural to speak with idioms. That’s why when you use idioms, you sound just like a local. There are various idioms that can help speakers enhance their speeches by making them more impressive, and when utilized appropriately, they can create a lasting impact on listeners.

4. Idioms can help lessen any tense situation when speaking a specific language. Incorporating idioms into your language is a great approach to add creativity to conversations. This is due to the fact that an idiom can be employed as a form of artistic and connective expression.

Why Use Idioms in Everyday Conversations?

In short, because it would be difficult not to. We all know certain sayings or phrases from growing up, and that is exactly what an idiom is. Idioms can be universally understood, locally understood in your country/town/city/street, or even be understood just within your own family. Idioms are sewed into the fabric of the English language, wherever you’re speaking it. They are useful in everyday conversations because they get the meaning across without having to say very much at all. You save time, your meaning is clear in a figurative sense (even when it is not literally understood), and then you can move on to the next part of your conversation.

We use idioms in everyday conversations because they are phrases and sayings that are easily understood and quick to say. It makes sense to make use of this figurative way of conveying your message or getting your point across.

Learn more with common American idioms, and British phrases and sayings.

How and When to Use Idioms in Writing

Unfortunately, it isn’t always acceptable to use idioms in writing. If, for example, you are writing something that is going to be placed on the internet for a potential worldwide audience, idioms might become confusing. You have to understand that idioms might be unique to you in some sense, and that others might struggle to understand what you are saying. With idioms, context is everything. People who are learning English as a second language won’t be familiar with the quirky sayings and phrases that idioms represent, and sometimes even for people who have English as a first language might never have come across the particular idiom you are using. So, try to avoid idioms if you think your meaning might become unclear for your audience.

Idioms are also seen as quite an informal way of writing, so you should avoid using them for anything that needs to be formal in tone. Writing to a company that has just appointed you as their new Communications Manager for example, might not be the best time to tell them that you are “Over the moon” and that the task might be a “tall order” but you’re certain that you can “move the needle” and have everything ready “on the dot”. If those idioms confused you, don’t worry, they were supposed to… The point is, that meaning can get lost easily, and in formal or professional writing you should always aim to be as clear as possible.

That being said, if you are writing something that can be informal in tone and you know that the audience is going to understand your meaning because it’s commonly used in your local area or the meaning is easily deduced through context, then you absolutely should make use of idioms in writing! They are an excellent way of communicating an idea, and they will mean more to an individual who understands it than if you simply said everything literally.

Idioms are a very useful thing to understand in day to day life, and using them yourself now that you better understand them could save you time, express your meaning more clearly, and help people feel more connected to what you are saying or writing!

Tips for Incorporating Idioms into Your Own Writing

Has anyone ever told you that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence? How about that you might be jumping from the frying pan into the fire? We’re sure you’ve seen it raining  cats and dogs before. What do all these sayings have in common? They’re all idioms, of course!

What are idioms? They’re a type of figurative language. You can’t rely on the words in an idiom to tell you what the phrase means. That’s because they have a meaning that is different from the literal meanings of the individual words themselves.

In other words, you wouldn’t be able to glean the meaning of an idiom from the meanings of the words that make up the phrase. Thus, idioms are not to be taken literally.

Let’s look at an example. When someone says it’s raining cats and dogs, they don’t mean that there are actual animals falling from the sky. It’s an idiom! The phrase means that it’s raining very heavily.

Likewise, jumping from the frying pan into the fire doesn’t involve either frying pans or fires. It means you go from one bad situation to an even worse one. How about the grass being greener? That simply means that a different situation often seems better than the one you’re currently in.

Idioms can be found in all languages and cultures around the world. In English, idioms are used frequently. This can make learning English much more difficult because you can’t always rely on a word’s definition to tell you what a phrase means. To understand idioms, you have to hear them used in context. If you ever hear someone use an idiom you don’t understand, just ask them what they mean. That way, you can better understand the phrase the next time you hear it.

Language experts have found that idioms aren’t just for fun. They’re an important part of how we communicate. Some experts suggest people may have as many idioms as they do words in their common vocabulary.

Do you think idioms seem odd? After all, why would we use so many phrases with meanings different from the literal meanings of the words that make up those phrases? Some experts suggest that this is powerful evidence of the fact that humans aren’t meant to function on only a literal, logical basis.

Instead, our language reflects the complex beings that we are. Rather than using only literal, logical words and phrases, we choose to use expressions that paint word pictures and create humorous mental images. In this way, our languages and communications become richer and more robust—and, some might say, even more human!

Idioms are used very frequently in English and occur in almost any type of text. Halliday and Yallop say that native speakers love idioms, because they consider them to be an important part of their cultural heritage.

In conclusion, idioms are not only a part of language, but also they are the part of universal communication. We use idioms for theoretical purposes, and if we categorize idioms, they can be used in different ways for different purposes. Whatever it may be definitions of idioms don’t produce a class that conforms more or less well to general understanding. We can know the theme of idiom in sentence, which is used by the writer or speaker. I stressed throughout my project that idioms are important in English, and I supported this statement with the research. But among ESL learners, figurative language is not used and learned, as it should be. They hardly use idioms in their conversations. Mainly native speakers of English use idioms, and there are less native speakers than ESL speakers. ESL speakers do need to know idioms so crucially.

In order to preserve humorousness and originality of the English language idioms should be learned and used in English.

Resources, “Idiom.” By Wikipedia Editors;, “What Is an Idiom? Learn How to Use Idioms in Writing.”;, “Why Do People Use Idioms?”;, “1500+ English Idioms from A-Z (with Useful Examples).”; “Common Phrases and Where They Came From.” By John Mordock & Myron Korach;

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