Idiomatic Expressions

Some expressions are idiomatic to English – that is, they are peculiar to English – and their meaning can’t be determined from the elements in the phrase. Some idiomatic expressions are metaphorical. Some cannot be translated word for word into another language.

They are used frequently in both speech and writing. Familiar idioms include ‘get off my back’ (no one is literally on the speaker’s back), ‘she’s got her head in the clouds’ (literally, her head is not in the upper atmosphere), and ‘he’s got a big mouth’ (literally, it is not the size of the person’s mouth that’s at issue; it’s how loudly or frequently the person speaks).

Idiomatic use of prepositions can be difficult. If you’re uncertain about which preposition to use with a certain word, check the dictionary. Sometimes the preposition to use depends on the context. For example, ‘agree’ maybe followed by ‘about,’ ‘on,’ ‘to,’ or ‘with.’

Here are some idiomatic expressions writers have trouble with:

According to the plan (not with)
Accuse of perjury (not with)
Bored by/ with it (not of)
Comply with rules (not to)
Conform to/with standards (not in)
Die of a disease (not with)
In accordance with policy (not to)
Independent of her family (not from)
Inferior to ours (not than)
Happened by accident (not on)
Jealous of others (not for)
Wait for someone (not on)
Proud of me (not with)
In favor of (not to)

*See the post on prepositions for more information.

As mentioned above, translating idiomatic expressions from one language to another cannot (usually) be done word for word. Consider the English idiomatic expression of “Heads up!” This does not simply ask listeners to look up; it is often used as a warning, urging someone in immediate danger to become aware of the threat. In Mexico, however, one would not yell “Heads up!” to warn someone. There is a different expression, ¡Aguas! This phrase comes from colonial Mexico when people tossed their “black water” (sewage) from upper stories onto sidewalks and streets–a custom that may have been transported from overseas. When passersby heard someone yell ¡Aguas!, they knew it was a warning that they might get splattered. The phrase has transcended its original context, but it still has the same general meaning: to be careful because something bad might be about to happen.

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