Avoid Misunderstanding Idiomatic Expressions

Edited by Eng, Nuance, VC

An idiom is a phrase or expression whose meaning is not always apparent or obvious. An example would be when someone says, "You can't judge a book by its cover." The meaning is you don't know who someone is, or what something is by how their appearance.

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Understanding Idioms


Although it is impossible to be familiar with all idiomatic expressions out there, there are some ways to avoid misunderstandings and to be able to deduce somehow what is being said. The more common ones are easy to follow, but at some point, you will encounter some newer ones that you haven't heard before. When this happens, here are some ways for you to get an idea what is being said:

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  1. 1
    Consider the context of the sentence
    This is very old advice that parents and teachers normally teach this to kids who are just starting to learn to read. This applies when you hear some unusual phrases in a conversation. You have to consider what the overall context is in the conversation, and from there you will be able to make a guess of how the idiomatic expression relates to the conversation. Of course, this makes the assumption that you are listening actively to the conversation and that your mind is not somewhere else.
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  2. 2
    Confirm your understanding
    Consider the context of the sentence and if you want to make sure your understanding is correct, you may want to convert the sentence into a simple language and ask the person you are talking to if the meaning is correct. There's no harm in wanting to clarify something that you have heard in a conversation. If you don't ask, you don't learn.
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  3. 3
    Consider the body language of the speaker
    Body language helps give further clues to confusing phrases. If you see that the overall appearance is light and that he may be joking, then consider that when trying to decipher an idiomatic expression. Some of these expressions may not have a positive meaning if the words are taken literally. However, if you link together all other clues you are given in the conversation, you will realize that it has a totally different meaning.
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  4. 4
    Broaden your horizons by reading constantly
    There's no better way to become more familiar with idiomatic expressions than to read constantly - all different types of material. If you read novels, you will find a lot of idiomatic expressions there. And what's good about that is since you are reading it and you going at your own pace, you actually have the opportunity to check the meaning by yourself. You can pause as you read and carefully examine the way the sentence has been structured and from there, you can reflect on its meaning. After that, if you see the same expression in another sentence, you'll better understand the true meaning of it.
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  5. 5
    Read an idiomatic expressions handbook
    It will be very helpful if you spend some time everyday reading a few entries in an idiomatic expressions handbook. The more you read about them, the better you'll be at figuring out the meaning of what's being said.
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  6. 6
    Ask a question
    If all else fails and you really can't figure out what is being said, there is nothing wrong in directly asking the person you are talking to for some clarifications. You can be very honest that you didn't understand a particular line and that's why you want some clarification.
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Tips, Tricks & Warnings

  • People for whom English is their second language, will find idioms very difficult to understand. Nuances with words is the last thing you tend to learn with a new language. Idioms, and humour are difficult.
  • People who fall anywhere in the Autism spectrum (Autism, Asperger's, NLD), have trouble with phrases that aren't literal - which idioms are not.

If you have problems with any of the steps in this article, please ask a question for more help, or post in the comments section below.


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Article Info

Categories : Communications & Education

Recent edits by: Nuance, Eng

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