English Fluency For Advanced English Speaker (2015)

Chapter 8:  Idioms and More: You Can't be Fluent without Idioms



Hmm? Did you notice that title of this chapter? Yes part of it is what’s known as an idiom. In fact, that’s probably one of the most common idioms native speakers use.


The English language can be a struggle to learn on its own. Throw in an unexpected idiom or two and now you’ve opened a whole new can of worms. There again, is another idiom. Just for your information, opening a whole new can of worms means that in an attempt to solve one problem an entirely different problem popped up.


Even children who are native to the language have a difficult time learning some of the idioms if they’ve never heard them before. When I was a child, for example, and an older one at that, my mom and I were finishing up washing the dishes after supper one day. My father, who had gone into the living to read a book, actually fell asleep reading it. The book lay on his chest.


Mom said to me. I need to “take a page from Dad’s book.” I was horrified. “But, Mom,” I said, “that would confuse him to no end.” My mother looked at me like I was crazy. She was using an idiom and I was taking her words literally. I thought she was going to pull a prank on my father by actually confusing him by tearing a physical page from the book he was currently reading. As an avid reader, I didn’t even say where the humor was in the act. What she meant, though, was that she was going to follow his example and take a nap.


Knowing the confusion I had with several idioms, who knew as I got older that I actually confused my own child with one.  I said to her, in all innocence one time,  that something I did would undoubtedly get her Dad’s goat. She said to me (as if I weren’t already aware of it), “But Mom, Dad doesn’t have a goat.”


Now as you probably have already guessed getting someone’s goat has nothing to do with stealing his farm livestock. What I meant by that was I was going to agitate him, get him worried and perhaps even a little concerned about something. But my daughter, like myself before her, had to learn the language one idiom at a time.



How to Learn Idioms



Right now you’re probably thinking that an idiom is a secret joke that native speakers like to pull on non-native speakers and children. Who knows? Perhaps that’s exactly how idioms did come into use hundreds of years ago. Now there they are common phrases that are widely accepted in the English.


Unfortunately for the serious student of English, there is really no way to learn them except by memorizing them one by one. While there are really probably hundreds of them, I’m providing you with the meanings of the ten most commonly used idioms in the English language.


These are the ones you’re most likely to encounter as you begin to delve deeper into the language. If you can begin by learning these ten, you’ll probably reduce your confusion of listening to native speakers by quite a bit. You’ll then be able to focus more on the other parts of the conversations you’re listening to.


10 of the Most Common Idioms



  1. A piece of cake


You’ll hear this quite a bit. “That test was a piece of cake,” someone might say walking out of a classroom. That means that it presented no challenge to them. It represented , in fact, quite the opposite -- something easy to accomplish. Another, related idiom, meaning much the same thing is “easy as pie.” Why anyone would compare a pie to something being easy isn’t really understood, but at least you now know the meaning of both of these.


  1. It cost an arm and a leg


That would be a gory financial transaction if you were to take this phrase literally. This idiom means the item being referred to was expensive. It’s used nearly constantly in this language. In fact, you’ve probably already heard it.


A second idiom with a very similar meaning is “it broke the bank.” It doesn’t mean that the bank – whatever or wherever that might be – literally broke into pieces or that it ran out of money. The phrase just means the cost of the item was quite expensive. In both of these cases, many times the implication is that the cost is more than what the item is worth.


  1. Break a leg


Believe it or not, this idiom means “good luck.” It’s especially used backstage in theaters just prior to actors going on stage. It’s considered bad luck to say the phrase “good luck” back stage, but apparently it’s all right to wish someone to break a bone. It’s widely used outside of this venue as well. So the next time someone tells you to “break a leg” they really aren’t hoping you trip and fall.


  1. Let the cat out of the bag


Here’s another curious phrase. After all, who would place a perfectly good cat in the bag in the first place? And who would care if the cat got out?  This phrase’s true meaning, though, is to reveal something that was meant to be kept a secret.  When someone tells you something and you inadvertently tell another, you’re “letting the cat out of the bag.”


  1. Hit the books


Idioms can certainly conjure up some bizarre images in the minds of those who aren’t native speakers. Upon first hearing this, perhaps you had an image of students surrounding themselves with the textbooks they like least and physically punching and hitting them. What a strange way of releasing your anger. This phrase is really synonymous with the act of studying. Yes, it’s that simple. Not nearly as colorful, though.


  1. Hit the nail on the head


When you hear this one you may believe you’re speaking to a carpenter. But that’s not necessarily so. In fact, chances are good the person who uttered this expression has never even used a hammer in his life. Once again, like with all good idioms, it hasn’t a single thing to do with the physical item it’s referring to.


Instead it has everything to do with performing a right move, action, or even the proper interpretation of a fact or statistic. At least with this idiom it’s nearly understandable how it might have got its start. When you take a hammer and hit the nail on the head, the nail glides perfectly into the wood. With the idiom, you’ve done everything right.


  1. To scratch someone else’s back.


You may also hear this phrase as “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” This doesn’t mean that you’ll be literally standing behind someone asking them exactly where there back itches and then he’ll do the same for you. Although implied in this literal interpretation is that both individuals are helping the other.


This often-used idiom means that if you help your friend with a problem or out of a tight situation, he’ll return the favor when you need something done.


  1. When pigs fly


Can you imagine anything more ridiculous than looking up in the sky and seeing a pig fly?  They definitely weren’t designed with flight in mind – regardless of how they may in evolve in the future.


So just the idea of pigs flying is utterly ridiculous. And there you have it. That’s the entire point of this idiom. When pigs fly refers to an event that is highly unlikely, if ever, to occur.


  1. Bite off more than you can chew


Do you recognize this idiom from the title of this chapter? While this has nothing to do with eating, with a little thought, you might be able to figure it out. Imagine you’re starved and have been waiting in a restaurant for a meal that’s more than a little late. By the time you get your sandwich you grab it and take a huge bite. Unfortunately, it’s a bit more than your mouth can handle and you find it extremely difficult to deal with this situation in a polite and mannered fashion.


While this has absolutely nothing to do with food, it has everything to do with your trying to attempt a feat that is just a bit beyond your capabilities. If you’ve ever volunteered to perform a project for work only to discover you don’t have the knowledge or skill to complete it, then you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. You’ve taken on a project that is just too large or beyond your capability to handle at the moment.


Homophones, Homonyms and Homographs


Just when you think the English language can’t get any more difficult to understand, someone has to start talking about homophones, homonyms and homographs. It’s bad enough that each of these words sound and look so similar, just wait until you discover what each word represents. Learning about these categories of words alone will convince you, if you need any more evidence, that the English language is not the easiest language to learn.


So what are they and why in the world should you even learn them? Let’s tackle them one by one.  A  homophone, also called a homonym, is a word that has at least two distinct, usually unrelated meanings but are pronounced the same in each situation. Sometimes they have the same spelling, but not necessarily.


What do we mean by that? Look at the word rose. “The rose bloomed today.” Used in this sentence you know that the word is referring to a flower. But in the sentence, “Diana rose from her nap” means something entirely different, even though they are the same word, spelled the same way.


When you read these words in sentences, you’re likely to immediately know the meaning intended. When you and others use them as part of the spoken language you may have to listen closely to know what the word means in the context that it’s used.


The use of all types of homophones in the English language is just another good argument for something we talked about earlier in the book: learning to recognize phrases instead of just words.


If you only learned words singly in your early years of language study, you may be puzzled by the use of the word rose in either of those sentences. Depending on what you learned, you may very well be picturing a flower when a person said “rose” instead of the verb, meaning to get up.


As you progress in your study, you’ll recognize more and more of these. Here is just a small sampling of homophones:


Lacks – to be without something

Lax – not strict


See – to use your eyes

Sea – a body of water


Erie – one of the Great Lakes in the Midwest of the US

Eerie – a strange feeling, usually referring to something that is paranormal


Vein – blood vessels of mammals

Vain – to attempt something but have it not mean anything


Male – a man

Mail – letters that are delivered by the post office



On to Homographs



If you’re not confused enough already, you just may be after you learn about words that are commonly called homographs. These words, more likely a pair of words, are normally spelled identically. The catch is they mean something different depending on their pronunciation. Again, these belong to a class that you’ll discover as you continue speaking the English language tests not only your skills, but your patience as well.


Sometimes the pair of homographs are pronounced differently. The difference, however, is a subtle one. It’s usually just a matter of the placement of the accent in the syllables that make up the word.


One thing you may want to know is that there exists an entire class of homographs that end in the three letters “ate.” When they are pronounced one way they have one meaning and when you shift the accented syllable they mean something else.


A classic example of this is the word “advocate.” When you pronounce it with the long “a” sound the meaning of the word is to be in support of something. When the word is pronounced with a short “a” sound, the word means a person who either supports or acts on behalf of the cause of another individual.


Unfortunately for the student of the English language these words are strewn all around. You’ll never know where or when you might encounter them. But as you progress in your ability to speak the language you’ll discover that you’ll become much more familiar with them and recognize them when you both read and listen to the language. Below are just a few of the more common homographs you may encounter in your studies:


  • Attribute:a characteristic or quality of something or to assign a characteristic to a specific person, place or thing
  • Axes:the plural of the noun ax or the plural of the noun axis
  • Bass:a deep tone or a type of fish
  • Bat:a piece of equipment used to hit a baseball or the winged mammal
  • Compact: something small or to make something small. It also refers to a case that holds make up. Additionally, you’ll occasionally find this word meaning agreement or covenant, as in the historic Mayflower Compact.
  • Compound:something created from more than one substance or an enclosed area that includes at least one building
  • Content:Satisfied or something that is found in an enclosed case. It also means the words found in books or other material
  • Desert:an arid, dry place; to leave someone behind. Not to be confused with dessert, which is a sweet after-dinner treat.
  • Does:a form of the verb do; the plural of doe, a female deer
  • Down:the opposite of up or soft, young feathers of birds
  • Entrance:the area in which you enter a room or to bewitch or delight an individual
  • Fine:sharp or very thin or the penalty you pay
  • Lead: to take a group behind you and show them the way or a type of metal
  • Minute:60 seconds or a portion of an hour
  • Object:another word for anything you can see or touch or to speak up against something
  • Produce:fresh fruits and vegetables as in the produce department of a grocery store or to create something
  • Refuse: a verb meaning to decline something or a noun referring to garbage or waste
  • Row:a fight or to move a boat with oars
  • Second:a portion of a minute or the item after the first
  • Tear:the water that comes from the eyes or to rip
  • Wind:moving air or to turn in a circular motion
  • Wound:an injury or something that has been turned, the past tense of wind


While much of this information is important in the written language, it’s also fundamental to your acquiring better skills when it comes to the spoken word. If you hear one of these  words spoken and need to take time out of your listening trying to decide what it means, you’re also losing vital listening time for other portions of the conversation. In fact, in doing that, you may be missing the most important parts of the conversation.