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Learning and Understanding Idiomatic Speech

April 12th, 2009

When I first began to work with the international students in college, I asked someone at a luncheon, “What brings you here today?”  Looking at me like I was a bit crazy, he answered, “The bus.”

That was my first realization that no matter how good an ESL speaker is, there are phrases that will always tend to cause confusion to non-native speakers.  These idiomatic phrases add color and interest to any language and are worth learning if you want to converse fluently with native speakers.

The following are a few phrases that, when taken literally, would seem confusing.  But with a simple explanation, they can be easily understood and ultimately used by someone who has studied English as a second language.

“By no stretch” – The speaker is referring to something that’s very hard to achieve or realize, even with great effort, as in, “It was not a good meal, by any stretch of the imagination,” which means that even being generous, the meal could not be described as good.

“Not worth a damn” – A mildly vulgar expression that something isn’t of any worth or value.  Use cautiously.  It’s not appropriate in formal situations or other situations where profanity would be offensive. For example, “That dog is not worth a damn.”

“To run circles around” – Rarely used literally, to run circles around means to be substantially better than another, as in, “Her job performance was so good that she ran circles around her coworkers.”

“Half dead” – An expression of extreme tiredness, having nothing to do with actual health, commonly used at the end of a long and tiring day.  For example, “I was half dead after I worked all night at my job.”

“To take under one’s wing” – A reference to bird behavior, this means that someone has taken responsibility for another and will help them along in their development, often in a mentoring capacity.  Often used in work, military, academic or athletic setting, you can see an example in the phrase, “The coach really took the new guy under his wing.”

“By the book” – This means that an action should follow the rules exactly.  It also references the nature of someone who won’t deviate from a set of rules, regardless of circumstances.  For example, “When you work with him, know that he’s a by the book kind of guy.”

“More power to you” – This isn’t a wish for you to have better electricity from the power company – it’s an injunction, usually slightly ironic, that the speaker thinks that you are unlikely to do a task, but you should try if you think you can accomplish it.  It generally means the speaker has no intention of helping you achieve your goal, neither will they dissuade you from attempting to reach it.  For example, “I don’t think you can meet that deadline, but more power to you.”

“As easy as pie” – A reference that something is as simple or easy as eating a delicious dessert, or that it requires little effort to successfully accomplish.  In colloquial conversations, this phrase does not refer to the process of cooking or eating.  As an example, “Learning a few idiomatic expressions in English is as easy as pie if you read this article.”