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The Understanding of Idioms: Definition and Examples

By Muazma Batool — Updated on April 17, 2023
To learn idioms, it is helpful to familiarize yourself with common expressions and to practice using them in context. Also, using resources such as dictionaries, books, or online resources can provide a deeper understanding of idioms and their meanings.

An idiom is a phrase with a meaning unclear from the purposes of its parts taken separately. It’s the linguistic analog of entering the wrong numbers into a calculator and obtaining the correct response.

One example of an idiom is the expression “kill two birds with one stone.” Native English speakers know this doesn’t mean the person is hurting birds or throwing stones but rather implies they are multitasking.

In an in-depth look at the issue, we’ll explain what an idiom is, run through the many kinds, explain how to use them correctly in writing, and provide some examples.

What is an Idiom?

A phrase or term is said to be an idiom if its meaning cannot be derived from its literal wording. To put it accurately, the word “idiom” comes from the antique Greek word “idioma,” which means “peculiar phrasing.”

This is because it is an idiom that is common among native speakers but foreign to others who don’t understand the language.

The appearance “can’t see the forest for the trees” is an idiom describing someone so focused on the particulars of a problem that they fail to recognize the broader picture. No trees or woods are a part of it.

If you want to get the meaning of an idiom, you have to be able to “see the forest for the trees” or consider the entire expression rather than just its parts.

Kinds of Idioms

The four broad categories of idioms are pure, binomial, partial, and prepositional idioms.

We’ll go through how clichés, sayings, and euphemisms vary from idioms and why some individuals may confuse them with idioms.

1. Absolute Idiom

This is a common phrase whose meaning cannot be gleaned from its parts alone.

The term “spill the beans” refers to divulging a secret rather than emptying a can of beans.

However, looking at the individual words in that statement would lead you to the opposite conclusion.

2. Binomial Idiom

These types of idioms are a group of two or more words connected in some way, usually by a conjunction or a preposition.

By and large (generally speaking), do’s and don’ts (rules for what to do and what not to do) and heart-to-heart conversations are all examples (a candid conversation between two people).

3. Incomplete Idiom

This is an abbreviated form of an idiom whose second component is often recognized by native speakers.

When in Rome, as they say, “Do as the Romans do,” which is the second half of the proverb that is typically left out.

4. Prepositional Idiom

This common idiom combines a verb with a preposition to form a new verb with its meaning.

By connecting the verb “agree” with the preposition “on,” the idiom “agree on” conveys the idea that two people have the same opinion on a given topic.

Cliché vs. Idiom

An idiom can be a cliché, but not vice versa.

Overused to the point of insignificance, clichés reveal a lack of creativity on the part of the speaker.

Example: “Don’t worry, there are lots of fish in the water.” isn’t likely to make someone feel better after a split.

Given how often it has been used, the term has no meaning.

Idiom vs. Proverb

A proverb is similar to an idiom in that its significance cannot be gleaned from the words taken separately, but it differs in that it is meant to impart wisdom to another person.

If you hear the phrase, “Don’t weep over spilled milk,” you shouldn’t be upset over something that has already occurred.

There’s no connection to milk here, and the phrase doesn’t indicate that the speaker is in tears.

To reiterate, an idiom is not always a proverb.

Idiom vs. Euphemism

Euphemisms are idioms that are employed while talking about an uncomfortable subject.

You may be using euphemisms around a topic even if you’re not bothered by it on a personal level; this is because such expressions have become so ubiquitous as to be cliché.

There are many synonyms and euphemisms for discussing sensitive subjects like death, sex, and money.

One such euphemism for “dead” is the phrase “he kicked the bucket” (as well as an idiom).

How Do Idioms Function in Language?

The structure of an idiom is hard to pin down since it varies from language to language and even from area to region within a single language.

Syntax, or the sequence of words or sentences, is more important than grammar when it comes to idioms.

Keep in mind that the word “idiom” comes from the Greek meaning “peculiar phraseology,” hence the standards for how an expression should be constructed are regional.

Although most New Yorkers know that “it’s a mad brick” means “it’s chilly,” the combination of those phrases is unique to New York City, so folks in other parts of the United States might not know what the term means.

Idioms from different regions have different structures, and mastering them takes time and practice in communicating with locals from that region.

When Do We Utilize Idioms?

Idioms are a common technique for a speaker or writer to add a layer of nuance to their message. You may think of them as a seasoning that helps keep your writing and speech from being boring.

So, instead of repeatedly stating “you’re accurate,” you might try “you struck the nail on the head” or even “bingo” to spice things up.

Different Idiomatic Expressions

Collocations, or groups of words used together to convey a particular idea, are another idiomatic expression employed by native English speakers.

In English, we often use the phrase “heavy traffic” to refer to a long line of stopped vehicles. As a term of description, “packed traffic” is unusual.

Though both sentences might be taken in the same sense, the collocation of “heavy traffic” “sounds right” to native English speakers.

Why Do Idioms Challenge Language Learners?

Idioms provide a unique set of difficulties for language students since their meanings cannot be gleaned from the literal translations of the words that comprise them.

It would be like handing someone a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that appear like one thing but become something completely different when put together.

However, as we’ve already shown, this also applies to native speakers of the same language who come from various regions within the same nation.

There are no firm and fast rules for idioms. Thus the only way for language learners to become familiar with them is through conversation with native speakers and acquiring their explanations.

Content Details

Written by
Muazma Batool
As a content editor, Muazma Batool is not just a grammar guru but a creative mastermind who breathes life into every word. With an eagle eye for detail and a passion for storytelling, she transforms bland text into engaging content that captivates audiences and drives results.

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