On the Value of Idioms

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

  1. The motorcycle made a left at the intersection.
  2. 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?


  1. 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”?


  1. He is a heavy smoker
  2. He is a major smoker.
  3. 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!


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. I will build a house.
  2. 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.


  1. 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?


10 thoughts on “On the Value of Idioms

  1. Very interesting; certainly would not have thought of some of these expressions as idiomatic but I think you make a great case for them so being.

    That there might not be more fundamental rules for how idioms function is fascinating, and suggests that WHY explanations are central to justified beliefs.

    Thought provoking stuff, thanks for sharing!

    1. If you find this interesting, I highly recommend reading on “The Lexical Approach”, as this is essentially a presentation of its concepts.

      Could you elaborate more on your second paragraph regarding the WHY explanations and how they relate to not finding more fundamental rules for idioms?

      1. Will do.

        And my latter comment was noting that when we make statements that rely heavily on conceptual relations, we expect some sort of explanation for why the concepts work together in that way, not just that they do so. My remark was due to my interest in conceptual relations in metaethics being dismissed as mysterious by skeptics because of the difficulty of elaborating fundamental rules for these relations; I saw a partner in crime, as it were.

        Perhaps I should note that in my original comment I wasn’t positing that something was missing in the approach to idioms presented here, just that, in response to your fifth take home point, that the commonality of language learners want to know rules for idioms suggests that we think that there should be some fundamental explanation for conceptual relations, even if one isn’t available.

      2. Excellent point — and I agree. Yes, moving away from the “why” points to a deeper issue. Very often, we want to know why something is so, or the rules behind a thing.

        In fact, I think an ancient Greek philosopher said that knowing a thing was knowing its causes.

        This is very relevant today with statistics/data mining, which draw inferences from patterns in data. While sometimes asking “why” can help (and the data may even give us the “why”), it’s also often useful to abandon the “why” thinking and focus on the data as it is — the patterns.

        I wonder if it’s no coincidence that statistical techniques have done the most to aid natural language processing software, and that elements of the techniques I outlined are also statistical. “The Lexical Approach” even states that rather than providing rules, we should provide enough good examples, and let students form their own hypothesis as to how things work.

      3. If you have any trouble finding links, let me know. Also, the same author has a book called “The English Verb” which might be of interest to you. It’s more about how verbs express attitudes, but it ties in with language and philosophy.

  2. Hi BR,
    Haven’t been here in a while. I was just reading through your latest post and realized I haven’t read any of your stuff for more than a month. Sorry!
    I don’t dare comment on your article about Plato since I’m far from an expert. What I know about him does point to what he said being more about epistemology, especially if you use the example of Socrates drawing knowledge (such as area = length squared) from a slave using questioning. This seems to suggest Plato was speaking about knowledge of mathematical forms. However, I haven’t read enough by far to state this with any confidence.
    I see you’re writing a lot about language teaching lately. I taught English for a long while and have to agree with your emphasis on collocations and idioms. I would also emphasize pronunciation, in the sense that English sentences tend to merge words together in a way that’s actually quite predictable, but which non-native speakers really struggle with.
    I’ll try to drop by more often!

    1. Great to hear from you! It’s funny, I thought about you a few days ago when I encountered Hilbert Spaces in a book I was reading. I miss your articles, and can’t wait until you write another one!

      I’m no expert on Plato either. Your example with Socrates and the slave is spot on. Maybe interpreting Plato as epistemology or sotoriology presupposes a sharper division between these two topics than he would have held?

      English has been on my mind lately, hence my articles :). I agree about pronunciation being essential to tokenizing a sentence, and hence being the first step to understanding. Words aren’t delimited by pauses, so people have to recognize word boundaries by recognizing word (pronunciations).

      I have some philosophical/Buddhist articles in mind, and one about Math, Formal (Rewriting) Systems and Chess that I’m mulling over. The latter explores the relationship between Chess and proofs 🙂

      1. I’m afraid going back to writing is going to take a while. I had planned to focus on the physics, but then the new book came and I had to finish that. Now I finally have some time on my hands, but I still haven’t gone through all the physics books I wanted to go through and I also need to work on a novel that I started quite a while ago and I really want to finish. Now and then I think about articles to write about, but it’s hard to sit down and write them.
        I see your inspiration doesn’t seem to leave you. It’s quite remarkable how you are able to write about completely separate topics and make sense in all of them. For a while in my blog I had the feeling that I had nothing left to say! Writing every day can be a bit draining.

      2. I take it the books you’re working on are in Spanish? I’d love to read those works, but my Spanish isn’t up to the task :(.

        Thank you, but my inspiration isn’t as strong as it seems. After all, I don’t write every day, and often weeks go by without a post. Now cranking out articles daily, that’s a whole other matter!

        I never got the sense that you had nothing left to say when you were blogging.

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