Idiomatic Sentences in English and Russian

Exploring the dimensions of idioms, the feasibility of its use by analyzing the idiomatic units in different languages, finding them in an dictionary and the definition of ways of formation of idiomatic expressions and approaches to teaching language.

Рубрика Иностранные языки и языкознание
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Язык английский
Дата добавления 21.07.2009
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For even weaker classes some vestige of cognitive activity can still be maintained while employing a rather spoon-feeding method of presentation. Exercise B is an example of this (using different idioms). Here, students do not even have to match idioms to a jumbled list of definitions. The idiom is followed by its definition, but a key word is missing. Key words are presented separately in jumbled order and the exercise operates on a cloze principle. This exercise is suitable for individual work. Experience has shown me that the idioms are better retained in this way than if they had merely been presented with definitions already complete.

Exercise B

Task: 1. Complete the blanks below with the correct word. Use each word
only once.

2. Do you have equivalent idioms in your language for any of these meanings? "Translate" your native idioms into English. See if the person next to you understands.

Don't count your chickens before they are hatched.

This means: DON'T BE OVER

He is like a bull in a china shop.

This means: HE IS VERY

His bark is worse than his bite

This means HE IS


Every cloud has a silver lining.

This means: THERE IS SOME


Hold your horses.

This means: A MOMENT.

She is down in the dumps.

This means: SHE IS

He couldn't keep a straight face.


WORDS: good, clumsy, kinder, optimistic, serious, depressed, wait.

Comment: Task 1 is best done individually. In Task 2 the opportunity is

provided for pair work in the multilingual class. Afterwards results can be compared in plenum concerning those idioms which are comprehensible when "translated" into English from various.

Exercise C

Task: Express the underlined sections of the following text with language which expresses the same meaning more or less.

Example: I was feeling a bit down in the dumps I was feeling a bit depressed

I was feeling a bit down in the dumps because it was raining cats and dogs, so I went to see Bill. Bill drinks like a fish because his work drives him up the wall. He is an EFL teacher. But he would never leave you in the lurch. Today I found him like a cat on hot bricks because he was bored. We decided to kill two birds with one stone by going to the pub and the launderette. We had a bone to pick with the barman in any case because he had forgotten to reserve the dartboard for us the previous day. We decided that not to go to the pub in protest would be just cutting off our noses to spite our faces. We did not want to make a mountain out of a molehill either.

Comment: This exercise is best done in groups. Learners should be encouraged to use the context for meaning clues rather than puzzling over the surface meaning of the idiomatic units devoid of context. The passage has been deliberately contrived to provide lots of semantic clues: for example, if it is raining one tends to feel depressed rather than elated, and one is more likely to feel depressed if it is raining heavily rather than lightly. Again, the "two" birds with one stone are picked up by the two nouns "pub" and "launderette". For this reason, another approach to the exercise would be for the teacher to take the class through the reasoning processes by which meaning may be inferred from context by paying attention to anaphoric, cataphoric and exophoric reference.

Exercise D

Task 1): Arrange these proverbial expressions into pairs of opposite (or at least "near opposite"!) meaning:

1) No man is an island

2) Necessity is the mother of invention

3) Spend and God will send

4) The more, the merrier

5) We are ships that pass by night

6) He who hesitates is lost

7) You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear

8) Many hands make light work

9) Too many cooks spoil the broth

10) Fools seldom differ

11) Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise

12) A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

13) Look before you leap

14) Great minds think alike

15) Two's company, three's a crowd

16) A man's reach should exceed his grasp

17) Look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves

18) We can't go through life with our heads buried in the sand

(Answers are: 1 & 5, 2 & 7, 3 & 17, 4 & 15, 6 & 13, 8 & 9, 10 & 14, 11 & 18, 12 & 16)

Task 2): For each of the following two proverbs find a proverb in the above list which is very similar to it in meaning?

19) Faint heart never won fair maid

20) Fools rush in where angels fear to tread

(Answers are: 19 & 16, 20 & 13)

Comment: This exercise is again best done in small groups or pairs. Learners should be encouraged to look for "easy" pairs first, rather than going through the list one by one. Sometimes the lexical items are clues to the contrasting pairs (e.g. 1 & 5, where "ship" and "island" function as mutual clues and cues). The exercise can be made less demanding by the teacher prompting and helping the learners in this way. Sometimes the lexical link is not quite so obvious, but nevertheless can be uncovered (e.g. 4 & 15, where "two, three" cue "more"). Note, how "fools" in 10 contrasts with "great minds" in 14, whereas within 20 the contrast is between "fools" and "angels", a contrast which may not be at all obvious to all learners, involving as it does what Leech (1974) calls "historical meaning" of the word "angel". Learners should be encouraged to puzzle over this and access their world knowledge, but the teacher must ultimately be prepared to provide elucidation. It is less important how many of the pairs learners get right than that they get to grips with the detailed semantics of these proverbial expressions, becoming conscious of both literal surface meaning of the individual parts and the total metaphorical meaning of the expression. In this respect reference to how L1 expresses the same ideas may be helpful. A tolerant attitude to some "second best solutions" should be adopted by the teacher. For instance, 1 and 18 could also go together as opposites, and this solution is rejected only because 11 and 5 form a poor pair of opposites. This exercise can be used as a point of departure for discussion in various directions, and has certainly been far from exhausted when the tasks listed above have been done. For example, students of literature will be interested in the literary origins of 5 (Matthew Arnold), 11 (Shakespeare), 16 (Browning), 20 (Pope). The exercise thus provides a lead-in to these literary texts, excerpts from which could be read to show how the expression was first used. Experience proves that if such expressions are not to go in one ear and out the other, then intensive work of this nature is necessary. It is interesting to uncover the basic image underlying these expressions which in some cases is not obvious, for example, the ostrich in 18, the metaphorical force of "mother" and the sense of "invention" (i.e. "initiative", "inventiveness") in 2.

I would like to offer one final exercise to show how the metaphor approach towards idiomatic language may be extended to teaching vocabulary more generally, not only to firmly fixed idioms. The point I wish to make is that certain lexical fields can be applied to various contexts in a way which is not always realised. It is in this way that words acquire a range of meaning, even if the proficient language user is not aware of this, precisely because the given non-linguistic context already delimits his or her meaning expectations for various lexical items. Situational and communicative approaches to language teaching often stop short of showing how vocabulary learned for a particular context can be reapplied in others, although this is what is continually being done in language use, for example, as mentioned above, when the economy is discussed in terms of the lexis of sickness and health.

The following example exercise would be intended as a follow-up to a comprehension passage done in the previous lesson and seeks to activate the slumbering vocabulary recently encountered. It takes the vocabulary of emotion as used in a passage from a novel dealing with the death of a young boy, and places it in a very different context, namely a football match. Cognitive effort is thus required by the learners to lift vocabulary out of one context, perceive its semantic characteristics and apply it appropriately in another context. Below is a condensed version of the comprehension passage.

Comprehension Passage to precede Exercise E

It was about three weeks after my little brother had died. Barely were we all sitting together in the living room when my mother and aunts began talking about Edward. At first their voices were subdued, but gradually they rose as the women became more and more excited, and the words came flooding out. "Yes," cried my Aunt Lucy and my mother in chorus. He was too good to stay with us, too good. He was a saint!" Carried away by their own emotion, they became almost ecstatic in their exaggerated utterances. I sat there very quiet and afraid, I too was carried away by the emotion; I felt feverish and my eyes grew moist. My father was perfectly still. Once in a while I glanced at him. He looked very upset and he didn't join in the conversation. I knew there was going to be an incident. The tension mounted. Suddenly he rose to his feet. His eyes flashed violently.

"Stop it," he said, and real anger was in his voice. "Stop talking about him like that. He wasn't a saint; he was just an ordinary boy, guilty of wrong like anyone else, and I won't have you talk about him like that." The underlined words represent those that will be required in the following exercise. To what extent the teacher would single these out for pupils and focus attention on them is up to him or her and the level and ability of the class in question. Of course, there are other vocabulary items pertaining to emotion in the passage (e.g. "moist", "flashed", which it has not been possible to incorporate into the exercise. This is in the nature of things if the following contrived passage is to be both short and reasonably natural.

Exercise E

Task 1): Fill in the blanks in the passage below with the underlined words and phrases from the passage above. Use each word or phrase once only. You may change the morphological form of words (e.g. tense and aspect of verbs, number of nouns) or the grammatical class (e.g. you may make a noun from a verb or an adjective from an adverb etc.).

(The passage is presented below with the blanks completed)

Once in a while I go to see a football match. Last Saturday I joined the thousands of fans flooding into St. James's Park to watch Newcastle United play Leeds United. I arrived two minutes before kick-off, so I was barely in time. The first few minutes of play were rather subdued, but then the tension mounted, the crowd cried out in chorus, and, carried away by the emotion, I joined in. Soon Newcastle was feverishly attacking the Leeds goal. The Newcastle fans became almost ecstatic when their team scored. However, the goal was disallowed. This upset the Newcastle fans, who believed the referee had been guilty of showing favoritism, and there were some violent crowd incidents as angry fans ran onto the pitch.

Comment: As a further exercise for an advanced class learners could be asked to continue the football passage for themselves, trying to use some more vocabulary items from the original passage.

Alternatively they could be asked to paraphrase the vocabulary items used for both passages as follows: half the class would paraphrase the vocabulary as used in the original comprehension passage, and half as used in the football passage. This will underline for learners how the same words actually mean very different things in the two passages, but that there is a unifying common thread of meaning between them in the two contexts; For example, "upset" in the original passage means something like "deeply grieved", "near to tears with grief", "sad and angry". In the football passage it means (as a verb) "to annoy", "to irritate", "to exasperate". Note also the difference between "to feverishly attack a goal" and "to feel feverish", between a "violent incident" and "eyes flashed violently". Learners should be alerted to the processes of metaphor and metonymy at work here, for these are the processes by means of which the proficient language user finds words
for thought, and which we as teachers usually expect our learners.

Chapter b)

In this section we want to present you comparative analysis of idiomatic sentences in four different languages English, German, Russian and Uzbek. We've taken English because it's my specialization German because this language also relates to Germanic languages, Russian because it's my native language and Uzbek is the state language of my country.

The idiomatic sentences given below are divided by us into 3 groups according to their semantic capacity.

Firstly we want to present the examples of idiomatic sentences which are similar and practically coincide with one another in all four languages.

The first group is idiomatic sentences which are similar.

1. To cock one's more

Die Nase hoch tragen

Задирать нос

Бурни кутармок

2. Live a cat -and-dog life

Wie hund und Katze zusammenleben.

Жить как кошка с собакой

Ит -мушук булиб яшамок.

3. to be in the seventh heaven

Wie im Siebenten Himmel sein

Быть на седьмом небе

Боши кукка етмок

4. To pretend a perfect tool

Tun, ais ob man nicht bis drei zahlen kornte.

Прикидываться полным дураком

Узини нодон килиб курсатмок.

5. to be like a bull in a china shop

Such benehmen wie ein Elefunt in Porzellanladen

Вести себя как слон в посудной лавке

Тошдан тараша тушгандай

6. to play with fire

Mit dem Feuer spielen

Играть с огнём

Ут билан унашмок

The second group is presented by idiomatic sentences which are partly similar but nevertheless while translating comprehended be on somebody's hands

2. to promise wonders

3. he is a blockhead

4. to be in one's element

5. to shoot one's wad

The third group is the idiomatic sentences which are different and sometimes present difficulties while translating them from one of the languages into others.


This paper has discussed the nature of idiomaticity versus nonidiomaticity in learner language and compared and contrasted nonidiomaticity with error (section 1). The complementary nature of generated language and formulaic, conventionalised language in discourse has been discussed and the gradational nature of idiomatic language has been delineated (section 2). The metaphorical nature of much idiomatic language has been emphasised and the central importance of metaphorical multi-word units in language use has been insisted upon (sections 3 and 4). In the context of Bartlett's (1932) principle of "effort after meaning" pedagogical implications in terms of encouraging students to perform cognitive, problem-solving exercises in order to unearth the underlying meaning of the pervasive and structured metaphors informing idiomatic language have been sketched out (section 5). Finally, exercises indicative of these principles have been presented.

Idioms:Differences and Usage in American English and British English

If you look up the word idiom in Webster1), you will be given the following definition: Idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent element as kick the bucket, hang one's head etc., or from the general grammatical rules of language, as the table round for the round table, and which is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics. This definition seems a bit dry and doesn't really tell anything about the function of idioms in English language. English is a language particularly rich in idioms - those modes of expression peculiar to a language (or dialect) which frequently defy logical and grammatical rules. Without idioms English would lose much of its variety and humor both in speech an writing. The background and etymological origins of most idioms is at best obscure. This is the reason why a study of differences between the idioms of American and British English is somewhat difficult. But it also makes the cases, where background, etymology and history are known, even more interesting. Some idioms of the "worldwide English" have first been seen in the works of writers like Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Lewis Carroll or even in the paperbacks of contemporary novelists. An example of Shakespearian quotation we can easily found in the following sentence:"As a social worker, you certainly see the seamy side of life."2) Biblical references are also the source of many idioms. Sports terms, technical terms, legal terms, military slang and even nautical expressions have found their way to the everyday use of English language. Let us see some examples of these, some used in either American or British English and some used in both.

The first sentence sounds as following: "Having won the first two Tests, Australia is now almost certain to retain the Ashes." “Ashes” in this sentence is a British English idiom that is nowadays a well-established cricket term.)

Now let us see at the next sentence: "In his case the exception proves the rule." Here we are met with the full idiomatic sentence,or in other words, with a maxim:"the exception proves the rule in cases not excepted". Such kind of idiomatic sentence can be easily met and widely used in both American and British variants of the English language.

"To have the edge on/over someone." - this is the third example of our analysis. This idiomatic expression is of purely American English origin idiom, which is now established in almost every other form of English, including the British English.

One more example sounds as following: "A happy hunting ground." Which means a place where one often goes to obtain something or to make money. The Russian equivalent of this idiomatic expression might be as “хороший улов” The mentioned English idiom has its origin from the American English idiom from the Red Indians' Paradise.

Some words about history of American and British idioms.

In the old days English idioms rarely originated from any other form of English than British English. (French was also a popular source of idioms.) Nowadays American English is in this position. It is hard to find an American English idiom that has not established itself in the so called "worldwide English" which is usually the British English. This is not the case with British English idioms which are not as widespread. It has to be remembered that it is hard to say which idioms are actively used in English and which are dying out or have already died. Idioms are constantly dying and new-ones are born.

Some idioms may have gone through radical changes in meaning. This suggestion we can affirm, for example, with the idiomatic sentence “There is no love lost between them” which in Modern English means that some people dislike one another. But if we look through in the historical background of English, we might see that originally, when there only the British English form existed, it meant exactly the opposite and the shift in meaning is yet unexplained. All dialects of English have different sets of idioms and situations where a given idiom can be used. American English and British English may not, in this respect, be the best possible pair to compare because they both have been developing into the same direction, at least where written language is concerned, since the Second World War.

What is the reason of such strong American influence to the development of the idiomatic character of a sentence? Due to the English philologist and idioms investigator William McMordie 1) the reason that there is so much American influence in British English is the result of the following:

1.Magnitude of publishing industry in the U.S.

2.Magnitude of mass media influence on a worldwide scale

3.Appeal of American popular culture on language and habits worldwide

4.International political and economic position of the U.S.

All these facts are leading us to the conclusion that new idiomatic expressions in speech usually originate in the U.S. and then become popular in the so-called "worldwide English".

It should be borne in mind that this new situation is completely different from the birth of American English as a "variant" of British English. When America was still under the rule of the Crown, most idioms originated from British English sources. Of course, there were American English expressions and idioms too, before American English could be defined as dialect of English. To make prove of this we might illustrate the following some examples of these early American English idioms:

1."To bark up the wrong tree." - has its origin from the raccoon-hunting in which dogs were used to locate raccoons up in trees.

2."Paddle one's own canoe." - this idiomatic expression is an American English idiom of the late 18th Century and early 19th Century.

Some of these early American idioms and expressions were derived from the speech of the American natives like the phrase that "someone speaks with a forked tongue" and the "happy hunting ground" above. These idioms have filtered to British English through centuries through books, newspapers and most recently through powerful mediums like radio, TV and movies.

Where was the turning point? When did American culture take the leading role and start shaping the English language and especially idiomatic expressions? There is a lot of argument on this subject. Most claim that the real turning point was the Second World War. This could be the case. During the War English-speaking nations were united against a common enemy and the U.S. took the leading role. In these few years and a decade after the War American popular culture first established itself in British English. Again new idioms were created and old ones faded away. The Second World War was the turning point in many areas in life. This may also be the case in the development of the English language.

In the old days the written language (novels, poems, plays and the Bible) was the source from which idioms were extracted. This was the case up until WWII. After the war new mediums had established themselves in English-speaking society, there was a channel for the American way of life and the popular culture of the U.S. TV, movies and nowadays the interactive medium have changed the English language more to the American English direction. Some people in the Europe speak the Mid-Atlantic English, halfway from the British English to American English.

The influence of American English can even be seen in other European languages. For example, in Russian, we are adopting and translating AmE proverbs, idioms and expressions. It can be said that the spoken language has taken the leading role over the written and the only reason for this is TV and radio. Most proverbs and idioms that have been adopted to British English from American English are of spoken origin. This is a definite shift from the days before the World War II. What will this development do to the English language? Will it decrease its value? This could be argued, but the answer would still be no. Languages develop and change. So is the case with English language and idioms.

How then does American English differ from British English in the use of idioms? There are no radical differences in actual use. The main differences are in the situations where idiomatic expressions are used. There have been many studies recently on this subject. American English adopts and creates new idioms at a much faster rate compared to British English. Also the idioms of AmE origin tend to spread faster and further. After it has first been established in the U.S., an American idiom may soon be found in other "variants" and dialects of English. Nowadays new British idioms tend to stay on the British Isles and are rarely encountered in the U.S. British idioms are actually more familiar to other Europeans or to the people of the British Commonwealth than to Americans, even though the language is same. The reason for all these facts is that Britain is not the world power it used to be and it must be said that the U.S. has taken the role of the leading nation in the development of language, media and popular culture. Britain just doesn't have the magnitude of media influence that the United States controls.

The future of idiomatic expressions in the English language seems certain. They are more and more based on American English. This development will continue through new mediums like the Internet and interactive mediums. It is hard to say what this will do to idioms and what kind of new idioms are created. This will be an interesting development to follow, and by no means does it lessen the humor, variety and color of English language.


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