Monday, July 11, 2011

Idiomatic Expressions for Non-Idiots

Idioms have been coming up like hotcakes, and just falling from the sky lately. Like manna from heaven. (Yes, all idiomatic puns are intentional).

My students need to know and become familiar with idioms. Why? Because, for the most part, they are non-native English speakers. These weird, idiomatic, "No, it doesn't literally mean that; it's either metaphoric, or a reference to some obscure, pop-culture phenomena that was before your time but which people still mention," expressions are everywhere, and they are not going away. Like post-apocalyptic roaches.

My students are, however, high achieving and very smart, hard workers. They know what they need to understand and do in order to get the best grades and highest exam scores.

To that end, I have been asked to help my students (they asked me, all by their lonesome [selves]) with idioms. 

Non-native speakers of ANY language will never ace some critical reading tests without understanding idioms.

This is why I--after years of studying French, and despite being a decent student of the language--knew I would bomb the SAT II in French; it's rife with idioms I've never heard. I self-tested, and sure enough, it was a no-go.

As an aside: if you want my advice about foreign language SAT IIs (subject tests), that advice generally is: "Don't bother unless you lived in that country or have a native parent who speaks the language to you at home. You think you'll do well, but you won't." Sorry to be negative; that is God's honest truth.

I say that, and students now exemplify precisely the opposite! They show that it is indeed possible to score very well (near perfect!) on the SAT even if the test-taker is a non-native English speaker/writer.

If you are willing to work your tail off, you can do it. I just don't think too many people are willing to give it a go or run with it as much as the students I am currently teaching.

Now, in order to help ANY student who wants to bone up on idioms, I've been keeping a list of idiomatic expressions I've seen lately (and ones off the top of my head--snap!).

An essay I read by Cindy McCain, "Spouses Get a Bad Rap," was a treasure trove of idioms. The entire piece was littered with them, like dandelions.

Thanks to that short memoir on what it's like to be a political spouse (as seen in Newsweek,  May 23 & 30, 2011) I was able to explain:

  • Stepford wives (this was a highly amusing conversation!)
  • pushing [you] out of the nest, to see if [you] can fly; "they fling you off and expect you to fly..."
  • pull off the trail
  • recharge your batteries
  • sour grapes (sour-graping)
  • living inside a bubble
  • get a bad rap (this led to discussion of the criminal's "rap sheet")
  • being someone's "eyes and ears" (thankfully, this is self-explanatory)
  • in the cards
  • front-row seat to...
  • inner workings
  • tough pill to swallow

We also talked about:

  • a tough row to hoe
  • we're all in the same boat
  • empty nesters
  • feeling "shaken up"
  • being "on cloud nine"
  • in the doghouse
  • pushing the envelope
  • walking on air
  • talking turkey
  • same difference
  • up in the air
  • too many balls in the air (juggling)
  • flying off the handle
  • steam coming out of [your] ears (feeling "steamed")
  • feeling "in a bind"
  • being "on the fence"
  • feeling "down in the dumps"
  • standing up [for someone or something]
  • being on Skid Row

If you can think of more idiomatic expressions, feel free to comment or send me an e-mail. Every little bit helps.




  1. Such a great idea. I think we take it for granted (hah!) that people just understand all these expressions. We assume it's hard wired and part of their DNA. This is fun! I could do this all day!

  2. Yes--idioms in any language are just part and parcel (somebody stop me!) of daily language and interaction. We need to either become more conscious of overusing them and try to substitute other expressions, or we need to be sure to explain idioms in class...even to our native speakers. It always boggles my mind how many young people are oblivious to some of these terms/phrases...then again, some of the idioms are getting old-hat!




    A good resource I just saw (I prefer, sometimes, to do things based on my own knowledge before I paste from other sources). Nice long list of idioms here.