Idioms - the What and the Why of Using Idioms

Have you ever read a text that makes you really frustrated because of some phrases that sound like total nonsense? You understand each word and yet it doesn't have any logic. The reason may be just one – idioms.

An idiom is a phrase or a fixed expression that has a special meaning which can be very different to the literal one. English is particularly rich in idioms – it has approximately twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions.  Oh come on, don't fight the idea tooth and nail – of course you don’t need to know them all. Nevertheless, idioms, language lovers agree, add colour and flavour to a language so take some time to learn more about them.

Why should we make the effort? It is as sure as eggs that idioms will make you sound fluent in a language. It will also make you more expressive, as idioms are usually quite vibrant and bring an association or a clear mental picture to mind. Used correctly, idioms can amplify messages in a way that draws readers in and helps to awaken their senses. They will also help you understand a lot more when you read and listen and will help you get to know the culture of the respective country. For example, a lot of idioms in British English come from the navy, as the Brits used to be a nation of sailors and American English has a lot of sports idioms. 

Once you have drawn a bead on certain idioms you'll see that they have a very interesting story – like to set one's teeth permanently on edge – to have a feeling of unpleasant distaste – both literally and figuratively. The earlier form of the phrase was 'to edge the teeth' and described the feeling of sensitivity caused by acidic tastes, like raw rhubarb. A Middle English citation of a version of 'teeth on edge' is found in Wyclif's Bible, 1382: "And the teeth of sones wexen on egge." Shakespeare also used the expression in Henry IV, Part I, 1596.

Idioms are at times problematic for language learners as they have to be learned individually and are often ungrammatical. Of course, native speakers don't acknowledge that which can sometimes lead to awkward situations and misunderstanding. You should walk on eggshells when using idioms because there is always a chance that you may misuse them. But hey, don't look daggers at the screen! It is always better to try and learn than not to try at all. And I am sure that when the chips are down you will come up with the best of idioms!

NB! Using idioms in your IELTS test – it shows a really high level of language usage. But be careful – use them only if you are sure about the meaning, otherwise you risk losing points.

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All idioms in the article are used in Harper Lee's classic "To Kill a Mockingbird":

  • to fight tooth and nail - to use a lot of effort to oppose someone/something
  • as sure as eggs - something really certain
  • draw a bead onto - focus on
  • set one's teeth permanently on edge - to upset someone
  • walk on eggshells - to be really careful
  • look daggers - to look very angrily at someone
  • when the chips are down - when a very serious situation arises