Most students love learning idioms. Idioms are fun, and the more idioms we use, the more natural we sound, right?
Well, not really.
Using idioms to increase your IELTS score can often have the opposite effect.
I learnt this lesson the hard way when I was doing my French degree and living in France.
I had picked up the word ‘patates’ (the equivalent of ‘spuds’ in English), after hearing my flatmates use it, and I thought it was very cool.
“Don’t say that Fiona. It sounds weird when you say it” they said.
And they were right.
Idioms can be a real minefield (= a situation presenting unseen dangers); even ‘native speakers’ get them wrong.
In this blog
Should I use idioms in IELTS?
An idiom is a phrase or expression where the real meaning is not guessable/predictable from the usual meaning and to use an idiom correctly there are so many factors that you have to take into account, for example
- who uses this idiom (age, gender, profession, location)?
- when do they use this idiom? (context)
- why do they choose to use this idiom (humour, anger, sarcasm, style)?
- how often do people use this idiom (once in a blue moon?)
I’ve noticed that UK soap operas often give the ‘non-native speaker’ characters idioms that make them stand out as foreigners.
The other day, Alina, a female 20-something Romanian beautician in with excellent English skills was given the line ‘Sling your hook’.
Although she said it perfectly accurately, it sounded wrong. Why? Probably because it was used by the wrong person in the wrong context at the wrong time for the wrong reason.
This is the problem with idioms. Even when they are 100% correct, they can sound out of place or unnatural if you’re not careful.
Before you decide to use idioms in your Speaking or Writing (General Training Task 1) test, it is important that you are aware of the dangers.
In this clip, Steve Carell (from the US version of Ricky Gervais’s (UK) comedy ‘The Office’) says ‘Hello, mate’ to Ricky.
Ricky finds this weird because Steve doesn’t usually say ‘mate’ and thinks he’s making fun of him (‘taking the mickey’).
3 things you need to get right when using idioms
Let’s look at the “Sling your hook” idiom. Who would naturally say this?
It used to be associated with male London dockers in the 1930s and it is usually said in a certain way (aggressively): “Sling yer ‘ook”.
So this idiom belongs to a certain gender, age, class, location, date and possibly profession.
If you’re not the ‘type’ of person who would use that idiom, or if you’re not using it in the right context, it can sound completely wrong.
So here are the 3 main things you need to consider when using idioms:
- Appropriacy of context and register
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
Idioms are mostly fixed expressions, so if you make the SLIGHTEST mistake, the idiom sounds wrong and even comical.
For example, you cannot say ‘Sling your hooks’ or ‘I want to sling my hook’.
Here are some inaccurate examples that I’ve collected from bad advice on social media.
Can you work out what’s wrong with them?
- ‘Talk to my hand’*
- ‘I’m having a bun in my oven’*
- ‘You will pass with a flying colour’*
- ‘Many people are without sufficient earnings to make their ends meet’.*
- ‘Cloning has become a rage all over the world’.*
- ‘I wanted to take the test but I got a cold foot’.*
- ‘I have some time on my hand’.*
- ‘I’m on 9 clouds’.*
- ‘The early birds catch the worms’*.
- I have a green finger*.
- ‘Talk to the hand’. (= ‘I’m ignoring you’. Popular in the 1990s.)
- ‘I’ve got a bun in the oven’ (= ‘I’m pregnant’. Rarely used now.)
- ‘You will pass with flying colours’ (= ‘You will do very well’.)
- ‘Many people are without sufficient earnings to make
theirends meet’. (= to afford what they need. A common and useful idiom.)
- ‘Cloning has become all the rage all over the world’. (= very popular at a particular moment. Probably not appropriate for the topic of cloning.)
- ‘I wanted to take the test but I got cold feet’. (= I felt frightened. A common and useful idiom.)
- ‘I have some time on my hands’ (= have plenty of free time and nothing to do).
- ‘I’m on cloud 9‘ ( = I’m very happy)
- ‘The early bird catches the worm‘ ( = the person who starts early is more successful)
- “I have green fingers” (=I’m good at gardening)
The biggest problem with idioms is that you need a deep understanding of how and where they can be used.
You can’t just add them willy-nilly in the hope that they will boost your vocabulary score.
- Some idioms are age-specific: a teenager can say ‘sick’ ( = ‘good’) but I can’t. (Even this is a matter of opinion. The ‘rules’ are unclear.)
- Some idioms depend on who you’re speaking to and under what circumstances e.g. you wouldn’t say ‘I’m sorry your goldfish kicked the bucket’ (= died)
- Some idioms are spoken but rarely written. (e.g. for donkey’s years = for a long time)
- Some idioms are used ironically, for humour or entertainment (e.g. ‘sling your hook’).
- Some idioms are out-dated and belong to a different era (e.g. ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’)
- Some idioms are so over-used that they have become cliches (old and tired). People often can’t be bothered to say the whole thing, so they say just half of it e.g. ‘Every cloud….’
Here are some accurate but misplaced idioms I’ve seen recently. What do you think may be the problem?
- ‘I feel over the moon when I go to the market’.
- ‘I saw a famous person once in a blue moon.’
- ‘You should go by bike to be as fit as a fiddle’.
- ‘I like to go there because it’s my cup of tea’.
- ‘Can you shed some light on my essay?’
- ‘Have some time on your hands next week’.
- ‘I feel over the moon when I go to the market’. (Intended meaning – I enjoy going to the market.)
- ‘I saw a famous person once in a blue moon.’ (Intended meaning – I’ve never seen a famous person.)
- ‘You should go by bike to be fit as a fiddle’. (Often used about old people who are surprisingly fit for their age).
- ‘I like to go there because it’s my cup of tea’ (This is usually used in the negative, and is quite old-fashioned)
- ‘Can you shed some light on my essay?’ (This idiom means to make a situation less confusing through a further explanation to make it clear. You can’t shed light on an essay).
- ‘Have time on your hands next week’ (Intended meaning ‘Take some time off’. Meaning here: have a lot of free time and nothing to do – you can’t command someone to do this)
Idioms have to be dropped into conversation naturally and spontaneously without sounding laboured or forced.
The problem with an idiom like ‘Sling your hook’ is that ‘your’ is a weak form and becomes /jə/ in fast speech, and if the ‘h’ is dropped, there will be an intrusive r sound, hence ‘Sling yer ook’.
Idioms have to be said using all the features of fast, connected speech e.g.
‘It cost an arm and a leg’ = /ə nˈɑ:m ə nə leɡ/
(Check the pronunciation on YouGlish, but skip through the idiom lesson videos! Find the natural users).
How to use idioms in the IELTS test
The IELTS Test rewards you for using ‘idiomatic vocabulary’.
Look at the Band 7 Speaking Band Descriptor for Lexical Resource (Vocabulary),
- uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary
And there is no doubt that SOME idioms are used because they express an emotion or situation so clearly that they are better than the alternative.
- ‘My heart sank’ (= I was very disappointed)
- ‘They sent me on a wild goose-chase’ (= I was annoyed because I wasted time looking for something that didn’t exist)
- ‘You’re barking up the wrong tree’ (= following the wrong course of action)
But all idioms have a specific time and place.
The best way to use idiomatic vocabulary correctly is to simply listen to how people use idioms.
- How often do you hear the expression?
- Who says it, and in what context?
- How do they say it in fast speech?
If you’ve heard an idiomatic expression being used a lot and you’re sure you know what it means, how to use it and WHEN to use it, then go for it.
But instead of learning lists of idioms that you try to ‘shoe horn’ (make them fit) into your Speaking Test, it would be better to learn what some people refer to as ‘idiomatic language’.
For example, a more natural way of telling someone to go away could be ‘get lost’, where the meaning is clearer and can be used by most people whatever their age, gender, class or context.
Here are some more natural equivalents for some of the idioms we’ve discussed:
‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ = ‘It’s pouring (with rain)’.
‘She’s got a bun in the oven’ = ‘She’s expecting’.
‘It’s not my cup of tea’ = ‘It’s not my kind of thing’.
‘I’m sure you’ll pass with flying colours’ = ‘I’m sure you’ll do very well’
‘For donkey’s years’ = ‘For ages’.
‘He knows his onions’ = ‘He knows his stuff’.
‘I’m going to hit the sack’ = ‘I’m off to bed’
Idioms are informal, so you should only use them:
- In the Speaking Test
- In General Training Informal Letters
Idiomatic language is not considered to be ‘academic’ and should not be used when writing formal Task 2 essays (there may be a few exceptions – ‘On the other hand’ is technically an idiom).
1. A minefield vs a mine
When I was teaching at the British Council in Poland, a teacher said that I was a ‘minefield of information’ instead of a ‘mine of information’ ( = having a great deal of knowledge on a subject). How we laughed.
2. A damp squid.
People pick up idioms from hearing people use them. For years I thought the correct idiom for a disappointment was ‘a damp squid’ (Why???!!!) when actually it’s ‘a damp squib’ (makes more sense – a firework that didn’t go off because it was damp).
Wrong idioms are comical – here’s a list of the most common ones.
Lots of people make mistakes with idioms, probably because when they’re spoken so fast, people can’t actually hear what they’re saying. There’s even a name for when people get common words wrong. See a nice list of malapropisms here.
The question of whether and how to TEACH idioms comes up a lot in teacher forums.
This article by Sue Swift: ‘My teacher is an old cow’ goes into great detail about the different types of ‘figurative’ language (similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole and idioms).
She concludes that ‘learners can benefit from exposure to figurative language receptively‘ (e.g. learning what they mean) and that IF can use them ‘accurately and appropriately’, there is not much of a problem.
‘But they need to be aware of the dangers’ (see her blog for a full list, but they correspond with what I’ve mentioned above).
Rachel Tstateri also discusses the pros and cons of teaching idioms in her blog called ‘Teaching Idioms’.
A ‘spoonerism’ is when people mix up the initial letters of two words by accident e.g
– chewing the doors = doing the chores
– shake a tower = take a shower
– a flock of bats = a block of flats
– know your blows = blow your nose
The word ‘spoonerism‘ comes from the name of William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), a nervous professor at Oxford University who committed many “spoonerisms.”
See my article here.