using idioms for your papers

Common grammar mistakes in using idioms for your papers

Jan 19, 2013
For many people, addressing the common errors involved with idioms and idiomatic expressions is a small but troublesome task. This is in part due to the non-literal meanings of such words and phrases. For example, the idiom pull the wool over their eyes, refers to hiding or concealing something. But literally the expression suggest that a physical piece of wool would be used to cover the person's face. Obviously the first meaning is what is intended but how would you know unless familiar with the current expression? This is where the gray area of idioms comes to surface.

So what exactly does an idiom consist of?

An idiom is basically a combination of words that is used to express a meaning other than the literal meaning that can be interpreted by each word that comprises it. They may be nouns, adjectives, verbs or prepositional phrases.There are thousands of idioms put to use in the English language and are generally much more common in speech than in writing.

Why are mistakes so common with idioms?

The answer could be several things; one obvious one is that since idioms do not represent the literal meaning of a group of words they can easily be misinterpreted or misused due to lack of knowledge of a specific phrase or overall inexperience with the language. The first issue is an apparent one, and may occur with native as well as non-native speakers. In some cases when it comes to odd or rarely used idioms even native speakers may use them improperly or misinterpret them. Likewise non-native speakers especially experience difficulty in this area because they may not have the context to match the phrase and therefore cannot properly interpret the meaning of it.

Common mistakes using idioms

As stated previously idioms are not always phrases and are actually more commonly seen as single words; including nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Below are a few pairs of words that are often misused:
  1. bunch vs. group
    We ate a bunch of grapes.
    We ate a group of grapes.
    The first answer is clearly the correct one but looking a the definition of each term; group and bunch, how would you explain the differences in meaning?
  2. many vs. lots of
    The children received many toys.
    The children received lots of toys.
    Here the correct answer is the second sentence, though the first sentence does not seem too far fetched.
  3. plus vs. and
    Working at home saves on gas plus I get to spend more time with family.
    Working at home saves on gas and I get to spend more time with family.
    The correct answer is the first sentence.
  4. a lot vs. very much
    I would a lot like to visit my grandmother this year.
    I would very much like to visit my grandmother this year.
    The correct sentence is the second one and is more noticeable when verbalized.
  5. around vs. about
    I will call you about six o'clock.
    I will call you around six o'clock.
    There is a slight difference of opinion with these two terms. The most correct opinion would be that around should not be used in place of about. Therefore when speaking about time or numbers then the term about is used-thus the first sentence is the correct one.
Throughout all of the above examples its clear how someone could easily confuse the two terms if their decision was solely based on the definitions of the words given. This is where practical use of language is important as well as knowing the specific rules and guidelines for certain phrases.

Common mistakes using idiomatic phrases

Generally mistakes in idiomatic phrases will primarily come from the speaker confusing the words involved in the phrase. In most cases if a person attempts to use the phrase then they know the intended meaning but are just having some trouble remembering or pronouncing it. For example, an ESL student might use the term blind as a cat when they meant to say blind as a bat - even though they were aware of the intended meaning behind the phrase.

Fixing errors

Considering the many mistakes that can come about with idioms, a good question to ask is How to avoid these mistakes? One tried and tested solution for grammar concerns is the verbalization of sentences. Simply read your sentence or essay aloud during the proofreading process to check for any grammatical errors such as those involved with idioms. Though this is not a foolproof method it should definitely root out a lot of common language mistakes. Otherwise, for mistakes that are less common, such as the about vs around example, the only sure method of preventing this is to simply memorize the appropriate forms and hope to get it right!

The use of idioms in essays and papers

When is it okay to use idioms in writing? Depending on the type of writing you're constructing it may be okay to use idioms sparingly throughout your paper or essay. Often times idioms work best when an author is trying to further illustrate or explain a particular issue or concern.
Though in most cases idioms are not required for college level papers and essays except in the case of English language courses. For students learning English as a second language, its extremely important to put to use proper idiomatic expressions. Knowing when and how to use idioms is sometimes the missing link that separates basic and intermediate English language students from advanced and native-like speakers.
Outside of this, idioms can also be used in other papers, whether for an English language course or not; though its use should be very light if at all. Too many idioms in a paper can make the writing appear extremely cliche and trite-something you definitely want to avoid. Some professors may go as far as saying to not include them at all. *Though in many cases idioms can easily be added to a narrative or expository essay for example, without being very noticeable (for instance, if only used once or twice in a page).
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