Phrases that carry different meanings than the literal definition of their component words are called idiomatic expressions or idioms. Idioms appear in all languages, and speakers use them to communicate ideas cleverly or quickly. Using and decoding idiomatic expressions helps non-native speakers sound more fluent and aids them in understanding others more efficiently. Learn about different kinds of idiomatic expressions used in English and when to use them.
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Many idiomatic expressions get their meaning by comparing one object or action to another using the words "like" or "as." Over time, certain similes become standard methods for illustrating certain ideas. For example, when you use the expression "like two peas in a pod" you are describing how two things are similar or close in nature, by comparing them to peas which grow together in a pod. "Light as a feather" and "busy as a bee" are two other examples of simile-based idiomatic expressions.
Some idiomatic expressions function as verbs. Phrasal verbs usually contain one or more individual verbs and prepositions that, when used together in a sentence, act as a single verb. For example, people use the phrasal verb "to get away with" to mean "avoid punishment" as in the sentence, "She will get away with stealing that car." Because phrasal verbs are so widely used and seamlessly integrated into standard sentences, many people do not recognise them as idioms.
Linguists call idiomatic expressions intended to convey wisdom or morals, aphorisms. Also colloquially called "sayings," aphorisms may develop organically overtime, but are often coined in widely read books, famous speeches or other texts. Some have roots in sacred scriptures and survive translations and cultural diffusion because of their ability to capture profound philosophical truths in short, easy-to-remember sentences. Some often-quoted aphorisms include, "He who hesitates is lost" and "The best things in life are free." It is important to note that while aphorisms often spread and become common idiomatic expressions, some authors write aphorisms that never enter popular usage.
Cultural and Historical Idioms
Landmark events and important historical figures often make their way into idiomatic expressions particular to certain cultures. In the United States, for example, to give your "John Hancock" means to provide your signature. This expression references one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock, whose signature is one of the largest and most distinct on the document. You might also hear a particularly upright, virtuous person referred to as an "honest Abe." This idiom alludes to the fabled honesty of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.
Like similes, metaphorical idioms compare two situations, objects or actions. However, idioms based on metaphors do not use the words "like" or "as" to connect the two ideas. For example, when you call a method of coercion a "carrot and stick method," you compare the situation at hand to the practice of luring stubborn horse or mule by dangling a carrot in front of him and prodding with a stick behind. Remember that while many idiomatic expressions rely on metaphors, not all metaphors enter common usage as idiomatic expressions.
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- MIT Press Journals: Unsupervised Type and Token Identification of Idiomatic Expressions; Afsaneh Fazly, Paul Cook and Suzanne Stevenson; 2009
- Knowgramming.com: Difference Between Metaphor and Idiom; John D. Casnig
- University of Idaho: Idioms and Idiomatic Expressions
- University of Idaho: Two-Word Verbs