Idiom: the advanced course

Native English-speakers use idioms — those funny expressions like putting the cart before the horse and sleeps with the fishes and Break a leg!  — without thinking twice. But idioms often leave non-native speakers scratching their heads. (If you don’t know those, e-mail me at for a list of common ones. It runs six pages.) A real-life example from Anuz Thapa last spring:

Q. In what places do we use this structure: “If push comes to shove,” he added, and Mrs. Clinton “has to go by any means necessary, it will be done.”
A. “If push comes to shove” means if a situation becomes so bad that action must be taken. It’s an idiom, pretty much acceptable in all contexts except maybe the most formal.


But idiom also means “a characteristic mode of expression,” according to one online dictionary, a common way of saying something — basically, what goes with what.

For instance, we say regarded as but never considered as — just considered — even though their meanings are pretty much identical. You commit to doing something but resolve to do it. You may think these examples amount to splitting hairs, but even slight mistakes in speaking or writing mark you as an outsider — someone who hasn’t quite mastered the language, and therefore, to many Americans, suspect.

Here are more illustrations from international students’ work:

But another relevant issue could set the groundwork for a future international confrontation.

We don’t set groundwork; we lay it.


As the weather turns colder, activists are fighting even harder for bringing the governor’s attention to homeless New Yorkers.

Not quite. You fight for a noun — for example, fight for your rights — but fight to do something.  The sentence should have read:

. . . activists are fighting even harder to bring the governor’s attention to homeless New Yorkers.

Often it’s a matter of gerund versus infinitive:

The new administration is in the process to change NASA and the way it is funded.

Idiom is in the process of changing.


But only 60 percent of the eligible couples expressed their willingness of having a second child in 2013.

Idiomatic: . . . willingness to have a second child. In English, we are willing (or unwilling ) to do something.


President Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries to enter the U.S for 90 days affected many students who left the country to spend winter break in their home countries.

Actually, the order banned immigrants from entering. It also prohibited them from doing so.  But they were forbidden to enter. Some verbs demand to be followed by infinitives, some by gerunds; some can take either, interchangeably; and with some the choice depends on the meaning. For a fuller explanation, click here.


In another story, that same student quoted a source as saying:

“Me and my husband recently celebrated our 50-years marriage anniversary.”

I sent her back to her recording to check the quote. First of all, me and my husband is ungrammatical; it should be my husband and I. (Why? It’s the compound subject of a sentence, and it’s considered polite for the speaker to put herself last.) The source may have said it that way — which raises the question whether it’s OK to clean up quotes — but you certainly wouldn’t want to misquote a source and introduce a grammatical error the source didn’t make. In terms of idiom, 50-years marriage anniversary is not they way a native English-speaker would say it. The marriage is the enduring (one hopes) relationship; the taking of vows is the wedding, whose anniversary is celebrated each year, or not. The idiomatic way of saying what the quote meant was My husband and I recently celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. 


To meet Robaba, we had to drive on rough, curvy roads in an underdeveloped part of the most developed Afghan city.

This writer meant curving roads. Curvy does mean “having many curves,” but the distinction is cultural: in American English, the word is most often used to refer to women’s figures.


Prepositions are a major source of confusion; English has a lot of them, and their use tends to be highly idiomatic. A few recent examples:

. . . increased demand in affordable food. Idiom is demand for.

 . . . based in the following legal precedents . . . No, based on.

In a story on New York City restaurants: 91 percent of them have signs saying A — the top grade awarded by for hygiene — hanging on their windows. No, in the windows. Or on a door.

“Which song do you want to dance in?” she asked. But we dance to music.


More important, Iranians have never been involved in any major terrorist activity in American soil.

The writer meant on American soil — the land. In the soil would be underground.


A 2016 study by Harvard Medical School associated proximity to vegetation with less risk of mortality by cancer and respiratory diseases.

Actually, it’s mortality from cancer, etc. But people die of diseases or old age, not from them.


Finally, one of the most common errors in idiom involves do and make. In many languages, especially the Romance languages from which English is partly derived, a single word covers both. The French faire, for example, means either to do or to make. But somewhere along the line, English developed two separate words.

In English we do research. In journalism we do interviews, but we make or take notes. We make decisions, at least in American English. (The British take decisions).

And mistakes? In English, we make them — lots of them. That’s how we learn.



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