Idioms are interesting components of language. Native speakers use them quite frequently and even incorrect wordings and spellings are usually understood. For example, many English speakers use the term "all intensive purposes" when its actually "all intents and purposes." Even though the incorrect phrasing doesn't really make any sense (many people say for all intensive purposes - but why is the purpose intense!?) its still likely that you'll find several people who will actually defend the incorrect term; simply because they and many people they know have been using it this way for many years.
So why so many mistakes?
The misuse of idioms can be for many reasons. For native speakers it can simply be because the words are often verbalized instead of read (usually if you read an idiom the writer has taken out the time to make sure its spelled correctly) or because different versions or alterations of the term have become commonplace and the original meaning is either lost or only used within certain circles of people.
And with foreign language learners on the other hand, the reason for misuse is obvious-they are still learning how to articulate themselves in all aspects of the given language. So its very common and natural for them to make mistakes, especially with something as obscure as idioms. Likewise, the correct application of an idiom takes time and practice-something usually taken for granted by native speakers.
The benefits of idioms
So for some people learning English, who may really be struggling with idioms, a good question for them may be Why even bother with idioms? Idioms are extremely useful for conveying meaning and feelings that would otherwise be difficult to express. They are also an effective means of providing clear examples to improve reader and listener comprehension.
Overall, idioms are in many cases, descriptive language that is used to assist a person in gaining a better idea or picture of what is being said-similar to the purpose and objective of metaphors or similes. Additionally, idioms are also useful for providing well-planned and beneficial statements of wisdom as well as allowing for a 'shortcut' in speech. So for instance, instead of taking the time out to explain something in two or three sentences, an idiom may be used (maybe four or five words) instead to convey the meaning quickly and efficiently.
*As people do love shortcuts. Which is usually the main culprit behind slang! No one feels like saying the proper term(s) in every situation.
So considering the importance of idioms, how can you learn to use them correctly?
Well there are definitely several tips and tricks that you can easily put in place to make sure you nail down idioms and their correct usage. Four are provided below.
Learning to use idioms-useful tips
In many cases proper idiom use is something that develops over time; but there are ways to quickly improve your ability to understand and apply idioms in daily conversation.
#1 Practice exercises
Though this may not be your ideal way of learning your idioms, practice is a proven method of increasing comprehension in just about anything. In addition to practice exercises in workbooks and online, if enrolled in a writing course, it may help to add a couple of idioms to an essay to have a teacher verify whether or not they were used correctly. Hopefully if your teacher is a well-qualified they'll spot any incorrect idioms and call you out on them. Though don't be surprise if many native speakers are familiar with the meaning of a particular idiom (or one closely related to it) but will actually provide the wrong spelling or even word choice of the select idiom.
Practice with people
The other common method of practicing is through personal interactions and conversations. Granted this can be a little hard if you're not comfortable with the person you are speaking with; so its recommended to do it with someone that you can trust and hopefully will not make fun of you! The last thing you want is to be discouraged!
Choose forums carefully and opt to practice your idioms in a safe environment. Perhaps classmates, a storekeeper, neighbor, friend, or even an online message board would be appropriate. The most important thing is to not be afraid of messing up-mess ups are something that naturally comes with learning and development, so expect to incorrectly use an idiom here and there.
#2 Pay attention to context clues
As you may already know using context clues is an easy way to figure out what something means by examining its surrounding 'context.'
For example, this following sentence uses the idiom rack your brain. "I stayed up all night, racking my brain, trying to figure out this difficult math problem."
Just by the context and clues such as difficult or all night indicates that the idiom used here is in some ways connected to hard work or a strenuous activity (otherwise why would the speaker have to stay up all night, and why would they call the problem difficult?)
This is a pretty obvious tip, but nevertheless it works. If you'd really like to learn quickly or just want to make sure you know what each idiom means, choose a select group of idioms that are commonly used in conversation (a bad idea is to select old or outdated idioms that no one really uses anymore). Afterwards simply develop notecards or another means and practice until you've completely memorized them all along with their meanings.
Though in order to keep them in your memory you definitely have to use them. Whether in writing or speech if you don't put your idioms to use you'll likely lose them. And again, make sure that you choose common idioms (this may be done by surveying a few books or sites to see which ones come up the most, or simply by doing a specific search for 'common' or 'everyday' idioms).
#4 Read more
Finally, one of the best ways of learning how to properly use and spell an idiom is to read. Reading is a wonderful means of increasing your comprehension and spelling for any language. If you want an increased effect, you may even decide to read out loud to practice saying the idiom along with reading it.
And obviously not all publications will have lots of idioms-so choose your material carefully. Generally, textbooks or formal writings may only have a few, though they are likely to appear at times. Also try not to focus too much on 'hunting out' the idioms because that may take away the fun of reading. Simply read something at your own pace, with your own choice of topic, and eventually your understanding of idioms should increase; usually things will just seem to click all of a sudden.