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The Grammar Behind Idioms

October 17th, 2012

An idiom is a phrase, or group of words, that together mean something different than each individual word normally means (see a list of idioms). Usually, an idiomatic expression or phrase consists of a verb and a preposition.

A preposition is a transition word that helps us link two ideas or things together.  Examples of prepositions are in, of, on, for, to, from, with, about, etc.  These idiomatic expressions are used in formal and informal situations like a business place or at a bar with friends.  It is not improper to use idioms in English.  However, changing one word in an idiomatic expression can often change the meaning of the phrase.  Be careful using idioms and be sure that you understand exactly how and when to use them.

Here are some examples of common idioms used in English and the situations that surround the use of the idiom. All examples will be spoken by a female, so I will use the female pronouns only for simpler reading.

to get/to be + used to + noun/-ing verb —– This means ‘to become accustomed to an activity or way of life’.  For example: I got used to waking up at 6:00 am every morning. In this scenario, a person is explaining how she thinks it is normal for her to wake up at 6:00 am.  Notice, we use the “-ing” ending to the verb that follows this idiom.  Also, we can use the verb “to be” before the idiom used to.  For example: He listens to his music loudly every day.  I am used to it. In this example, the person is saying she is accustomed to the habits of another person.  The noun it refers to the act of listening to music loudly.

Just in case + subject + verb —–  This means ‘in a hypothetical, future situation’.  For example: Just in case we can’t find your house, keep your phone with you so I can call you. In this example, the woman fears a hypothetical situation of not being able to find her friend’s house.  Maybe she will find it without any problems, but maybe she will have problems.  We use just in case to describe the possibility of having problems finding the house.  Even though this sentence talks about a future situation, we use present tense verbs because the words just in case indicate that the idea of the sentence is in the future.

Subject + kind of/sort of + noun/verb —– This means many different ideas in many different scenarios.  In English, we use kind of and sort of to soften our speech and try not to sound demanding.  Situation: a friend cooked a meal for you.  The meal is Pad Thai, which includes peanuts.  You don’t like peanuts, so you take the peanuts out of your dish and put them on the side of your plate.  Your friend asks you, “What’s wrong?”.  You can answer, “Oh, I kind of don’t like peanuts.”  This is a nicer, softer way to tell your friend that you are thankful that she cooked for you, but that you do not want to eat the peanuts in the dish.  We also use kind of and sort of when we want to express a medium interest in something.  For example: Person 1: Do you like baseball? Person 2: Sort of. In this example, there is no verb or subject necessary to answer person 1’s question.  The answer expresses that the person only likes baseball a little bit.

to end up + -ing verb/(preposition + noun) —–  This means ‘the situation finished or will finish unexpectedly like this’.  For example: We didn’t think we were going to the party, but we ended up driving to his house to go to it. In this situation, the people didn’t think they wanted to go to the party, but unexpectedly, they did go to the party.  Their situation finished in a different way than they originally planned.  Notice, the verb to end is used in the past.  Remember, end is a verb and noun.  Another example with the preposition + noun: Last night, we ended up at the party.  This is the same situation as before, but this is a shorter way to say the same idea. In this example, at is the preposition and party is the noun.

Idiomatic expressions are very common in English.  There are literally hundreds of them and native English-speakers use idioms so commonly, they don’t even notice when they are using an idiom or when they are exactly describing a situation with precise English vocabulary.  Remember, an idiomatic expression often does not demonstrate the meaning of its individual words.