In “Love in Translation,” in the Aug. 8 and 15 New Yorker, Lauren Collins wrote about learning to live in French after moving to Switzerland with her French husband. But she makes an astute observation about her native English:
Grammar offers few clues as to the parts of speech that are not so much idioms as loose affinities. How is one to know that inclement almost always goes with weather; that aspersions are cast but insults hurled; that observers are keen; that processions are orderly; that drinks, as someone apparently decreed sometime in the early years of this century, must be grabbed and e-mails shot?
Good question — and one that first-year international students at the J-school must surely be asking themselves right about now. So does anyone living or working in a new language.
Those “loose affinities” really are a subset of idiom — a “characteristic mode of expression,” according to one online dictionary. Editing a CUNY student from South America over the summer, I marked a number of corrections with “Idiom.” The student e-mailed that she didn’t understand what I meant by “idiom.” My explanation:
It can mean a group of words that has a special meaning of its own. You may understand every word in the idiom but not understand what the idiom means. . . .
But idiom can also mean — and this is what I meant several times in this piece — a normal, customary way of saying something, For example, we normally say “came to a conclusion,” not “got to,” or “is of interest to them,” rather than “of their interest.” English is especially idiomatic in terms of what preposition to use after what word. . . .
If I say something you’ve written, or quoted a source as saying, is “not idiomatic English,” it means it doesn’t sound like the natural way a native speaker would express something.
That’s what Collins was talking about. And that natural way of expression is what every non-native English-speaker at the J-school should be striving for.
Idiom changes with time and circumstances — hence Collins’s in the early years of this century (since e-mail had become commonplace just a few years years before). It’s not only drinks that can be grabbed. When a former boss of mine breezily asked, “Shall we grab a few?” my immediate reaction was, ” A few what? Brewskis?” (That’s slang, generally male, for beers.) But then I realize he meant a few minutes — in other words, to talk.
How does a non-native speaker understand such phrases when in that case even I didn’t? Mainly through listening and practice. Each August at international pre-orientation, I hand out a six-page list of English idioms that doesn’t even scratch the surface of (or make a dent in) of the thousands Americans use daily. If you need a copy, stop by room 432 during office hours or e-mail email@example.com.
Overuse all too easily can turn idiom, which is desirable, into cliche, which is not. As a writer in English, Collins added:
I strained to avoid such formulations. But in French conformity was my ambition. Speaking offered a sense of community, the rare chance to crowdsource my personal thesaurus. . . . I was trying to join in, not to distinguish myself. I wasn’t a writer but a speaker. I wasn’t an observer but a participant. It was such a happy thing to strive for a cliché.
That word thesaurus also came up during my first office hours of the semester when Pauliina Sinlauer from Finland asked, “How do I find a synonym?” She was concerned that her writing would lack color if she used the same word over and over again.
Many vocabulary-building tools exist, and one is a thesaurus, a book of synonyms and related terms. A wide selection is now available online. Pauliina and I tested the top of the Google list — thesaurus.com — by searching for good. A list of 52 synonyms and 39 antonyms (opposites) came up, each linking to its own page. Not every synonym is appropriate in every case, especially in journalism: favorable and positive, yes, if they’re what you mean; rad, probably not. Here’s where a thesaurus can help you start distinguishing the nuances between words.
One thing I emphatically told Pauliina not to do was to reach so far for another word that she would fall into the trap of elegant variations like elongated yellow fruit for banana and fluffy white stuff for snow. Beginning journalists in particular would be well advised to avoid the thesaurus page for said. Having been taught not to repeat the same word over and over again, they too often stretch for substitutes like declared and opined and stated and expressed and assured when the journalistic convention is said. Really, it’ll do.
As the idiom says, it’s a slippery slope — that is, “a process or series of events that is hard to stop or control once it has begun and that usually leads to worse or more difficult things,” according to merrriamwebster.com. And as Collins would no doubt confirm, in English slopes do tend to be slippery.
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