What I write below reflects English use in my region. Since language use varies, some of the specifics may not apply to your area. Regardless, I think the gist of this article holds.
What is an Idiom?
One of the definitions from dictionary.com fits the bill. Namely, an idiom is..
An expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements, as kick the bucket or hang one’s head, or from the general grammatical rules of a language, as the table round for the round table, and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics.
I think many people know the first part of the definition, but not the second. This can deceive them into thinking idioms are isolated, rather than pervasive. This in turn can be very damaging, as idioms have a big impact on the success of ESL/ELT instruction.
I will explore some ways idioms permeate language and the resulting implications. Let’s start with a simplified definition of idioms. An idiom is…
Any valid language fragment that can’t be derived from the official rules of a language.
Some Illustrative Examples
- The motorcycle made a left at the intersection.
- The motorcycle made an accident.
#1 is considered correct, while #2 is not. Yet there is no definition of “made” that I’m familiar with that explains the above. Is this collocation of “made” idiomatic?
- The house is on fire.
The house is not on top of a fire, nor is there any definition of “on” that I’m familiar with that explains the above. Perhaps “on fire” should be treated as lexeme that means “burning”?
- He is a heavy smoker.
- He is a major smoker.
- He is a big smoker.
I see no errors in grammar or vocabulary in the examples above, yet only #1 is considered “correct”. Why? Because it’s what most people use!
- By the way, did you speak to her?
This is a traditional idiom, but is unique in that it’s so ubiquitous that many may not think of it as one.
- Don’t worry about the problem — I’m on it.
Is this an idiomatic use of “on”? Although it doesn’t fit any of the (official) definitions I’ve seen, I’ve seen this structure used consistently enough that I’d teach it as another meaning of “on” (to address an issue). This is a case of accepting a vernacular use, even if the official sources don’t agree.
- I will build a house.
- I will build a burger.
#2 is technically fine, but people use #1. Yet, this may change. Some restaurant menus have a section for creating custom burgers, which they call “Build your own burger”. Now this is probably a catchy play on words, but it has given that use of “build” a certain legitimacy. Maybe in time, this will turn into a legal pairing. After all, technological and cultural changes have caused new words to enter the lexicon in our lifetimes (think email and texting). Language is dynamic.
- Don’t throw in the towel yet.
Here’s an idiom that reveals how culture informs language. A person unfamiliar with #1 may still understand it if she is a fan of sports fighting. In this case, the figurative phrase is still connected to the concrete event, so people may be able to map the concepts on their own.
The Take Home Points
First, language is not a set of fixed rules, it’s a dynamic cultural product. In learning it, students will inevitably learn culture and history.
Second, the goal is to teach people to thrive in an English speaking environment. This means textbook grammar is out, and practical language is in. Furthermore, what’s practical depends on the environment (work, friends, confrontational situation, etc…).
Third, vocabulary consists of lexemes. This means phrases like “by the way” are treated as indivisible vocabulary units, just like “car” or “bear”. In fact, the concept of idiomatic phrases might never arise if students get used to thinking in terms of meaning-carrying lexemes.
Fourth, some lexemes have their own grammatical rules — such as collocations, verb tense and sentence structure changes. Therefore, we have to expand our view of grammar to include this.
Fifth, we must be willing to abandon rules that don’t work. This means some items are presented as arbitrary. It’s tough — often students want to know why something is the way it is. Yet we may have to get used to saying “that’s just the way it is”.
Finally, we may need to make judgment calls on how to teach things, letting pragmatism lead the way. For instance, take the word “responsible”, which is often paired with “for”. Do we try to derive this pairing from prepositional rules, or do we teach “responsible for” as a lexeme that relates a cause to an event?