The English language is rich in colourful idioms. While they are one of the language's greatest strengths, they can also be very challenging to new speakers and difficult to know how to use correctly. The proper use of idioms in sentences depends on the context and intention of the sentence.
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An idiom is any phrase which has a figurative meaning based on something other than the literal meaning of the words. For instance, the expression "to drop someone a line" means to contact them by letter or telephone. Nothing about the words "drop" or "line" conveys this meaning. In other words, listeners or readers have to be familiar with the expression already or to deduce its meaning from the context in which it appears.
Examples of idioms in sentences
The correct use of an idiom can add colour and vivid imagery to a sentence. "When he found out, he was very upset" simply doesn't have the same ring as "when he found out, he hit the roof!" Similarly, "what are you up to" has a relaxed, casual intimacy that "what are you doing" lacks. An idiom can be used in any sentence to replace a word or phrase with a similar meaning -- but doing so isn't always appropriate.
When to use idioms
The most common use of idioms is to add emphasis to a sentence, or to convey the distinctive voice of the speaker. As a result, idioms are very common in spoken English. In writing, idioms can serve to convey familiarity or informality, or to give the effect of spoken dialogue. The richness of English idioms combines with the language's wide vocabulary to create an unparalleled range of choices for speakers and writers.
When to avoid idioms
Although they are useful in many situations, idioms are not always the right choice. The use of idioms can be a sign of informal communication, meaning that they are sometimes inappropriate in a business or academic environment. Idioms can also often be challenging for those who speak English as a second language, so writers working for an audience of non-native speakers may find that they want to avoid idioms in order to make their work clearer.
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