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 easy.
“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 around bush.
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.”