If you’ve been around native English speakers for a while, you can probably tell there is more to how they speak than just correct grammar and diction. Native speakers often use sarcasm, idioms, metaphors, and slang to express themselves better and add color and emotion to their speech. Idioms, especially, are often used by native English speakers to get an important point across without losing context.
It’s natural for some foreign speakers to have problems understanding and using idioms in conversational English. The words in idioms are often not meant to be taken literally, which can be very confusing to non-native English speakers. To understand and use idioms fluently, you need to know what they are. Let’s explore the topic of English idioms and how you can use them better with the help of a few use-case examples.
What are idioms?
An idiom is a phrase, expression, or word that has a figurative meaning that is different from the literal meaning of the words. They are readily understood by native English speakers but could be challenging for a beginner or intermediate-level speaker of English. Another way of looking at idioms is as old sayings that have been passed on from one generation to another. Almost every language spoken around the world has a concept of ‘common sayings’ that are used frequently in day-to-day conversation.
A few examples of idioms are:
- Kicking the bucket
- Once in a blue moon
While the origin of the idiom is unclear, ‘kicking the bucket’ refers to someone dying. A possible explanation behind the saying could be the fact that animals taken to slaughter used to be tied to beams called ‘buckets’. When the time for slaughter came, the animals struggled to get free by kicking the bucket they were tied against. Hence the idiom!
Using ‘kicking the bucket’ in a sentence:
- Every one of us will kick the bucket eventually.
- Mrs. Dalloway kicked the bucket last Sunday.
The idiom ‘once in a blue moon’ has a much clearer, self-explanatory meaning. It is used to refer to something that happens rarely, like seeing a blue moon - a phenomenon that usually happens only once every two-three years.
Using ‘once in a blue moon’ in a sentence:
- I only get to see him once in a blue moon ever since he moved to another town.
- I still go to the cinema but only once in a blue moon, when there’s something I really want to see.
Some examples of specific idioms and their uses in sentences
How to use idioms in day-to-day life?
Here are a few tips to help you use idioms the right way and with the maximum effect.
Use idioms humorously
Idioms are often used by native speakers as a way of adding color to everyday conversation. People with a command of the language can use them creatively to add context and value to their words. For learners, being able to use idioms in speech can help build confidence and make everyday communication with others more effective.
For instance, if somebody refers to “letting the cat out of the bag”, you can be pretty sure they are not referring to a literal cat in a bag. What the idiom means instead is giving away a closely guarded secret. Here’s an example of its use in a real-world setting: “We were planning to surprise him with a farewell party, but unfortunately, Peter let the cat out of the bag too soon”. There’s a hint of a complaint in the sentence, but the use of an idiom to express it gets the point across in a light enough way.
Mix idioms with sarcasm
It may take some time to get comfortable with, but using idioms sarcastically can be a great way of adding flavor to your conversation. You’ll be able to engage audiences and hold their attention much better if you can pull it off. In the farewell party example, for instance, using the same idiom with a hint of sarcasm can convey disappointment at the whole turn of events. As long as you use the right tone of voice and inflection, you’ll be able to get your feelings across more effectively with a little sarcasm.
Use idioms in the right context
The correct use of idioms has a lot to do with the context it is used in. For instance, like slang and contractions, idioms can be specific to certain regions, cultural backgrounds, and situations.
For instance, it’s one thing to use “kicking the bucket” in a group when speaking about the death of someone that nobody has emotional connections with or knows personally. It’s quite another to use the same idiom when referring to the passing away of someone’s friend, colleague, or relative. That would be considered downright rude, if not uncultured. The socially acceptable way of talking about it in such instances is to say that someone has passed or is no longer with us. Keeping in mind the context in which a particular idiom can be used is critical.
Curious to learn more about the correct use of idioms, phrases, and other nuances of English speaking? Immigo can help you get fluent with idioms and advanced vocabulary in real conversations. Our live lessons, one-on-one sessions, and practice rounds are designed to get you rapidly comfortable with spoken English. Practice with your peers or spar in English with the Immigo AI to improve your English skills.
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