As a non-native English speaker, you understand the meanings of words and
how to put together a sentence that conveys a coherent idea. However, when
in conversation with a fluent English speaker, you sometimes don’t always
understand certain phrases the native English speaker says. Ever heard such
phrases as “Actions speak louder than words”or“The apple doesn’t fall far from
the tree” and totally misunderstood what someone was trying to say?
That’s because these expressions, or idioms, are very particular to the English
language and don’t make sense when you try to understand it verbatim. In the
above phrases, actions aren’t really “speaking,” and there is no apple or tree.
Literally translating the sentence will not help you understand it any better;
you simply must memorize what these phrases mean as a whole, so you don’t
feel lost when someone says one to you.
As an example, let’s take “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” This
phrase actually has nothing to do with chickens at all; rather, the idiom is used
as a warning to someone who is counting on a certain event happening before
it actually does happen. If you assume you will get a great job and buy yourself
a Mercedes with the mentality “I’ll get my money back when I get my pay
check,” you are “counting your chickens before they hatch” because you are
spending a lot of money on a car before you know for sure that you have that
money to spend.
Another common idiom used frequently is “Don’t cry over spilt milk.” Again,
this phrase has absolutely nothing to do with milk. Instead, the milk is a
metaphor for a past event that you are worrying about right now. This
expression implies that “what happens in the past stays in the past,” so you
shouldn’t be upset or “cry” about something bad that happened yesterday
(spilt milk) that you can’t do anything about now.
Let’s continue. The more idioms you understand and memorize from this
article, the more easily you will integrate with the English language.
“Two peas in a pod” – when two people, usually friends or relatives, have a lot
in common, have great chemistry, or share interests or other characteristics.
Example: Sue and Ann have been best friends for years. They are like two peas
in a pod.
“Give me a hand” – to help someone with something
Example: I have a lot of groceries in the car, so will you come and give me a
hand with them?
“Take it easy” – relax; calm down
Example: I’ve had a long day, so I’m going to stay home tonight and take it
“Head over heels” – crazy about; enamored with
Example: Chris just met Jenny a few weeks ago, but he is already head over
heels in love with her.
“The ball is in you court” – it’s your turn; you have the power
Example: I called him and left a message on his machine, so now the ball is in
his court, and I’ll see if he calls me back.
“Beat around the bush” – not being forward; in a conversation, when you give
unneccesary details and talk a lot in an effort to avoid getting to the point
Example: We don’t have much time, so please get to thepoint and don’t beat
And of course, there are many more. If you find yourself in a conversation
when one of these phrases is used, don’t hesitate to ask what the expression
means. You may totally miss the point of what someone is trying to say if you
don’t understand these idioms. Once you know one, you’ll be able to
understand it the next time.
One more piece of advice: don’t use an idiom unless you are 100% sure of its
meaning. The last thing you want to do is say something you truly don’t
understand and then get called out on it by someone else. You’ll look like you
are trying too hard to fit in and be smart. Rather, in the words of Abraham
Lincoln, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and
remove all doubt.”