John Larrysson Column: How to Use Idioms in One Simple Rule

One simple rule: Don't

An idiom is a group of words that acts like a different word. There are many of them and each needs to be learned as if it were a specific word. This type of structure makes learning English as a second language very difficult. So it is easy to understand why idioms are usually used by native English speakers and not second language learners. Old China hands (native English speakers with years of experience in China and Hong Kong) tend to avoid using idioms because of how much this structure is easily confused.

audio 1

The next question is how to understand native English speakers who use these troublesome groups of words. Like any word, you can often guess from context what the word is supposed to mean.


That ring is important to me, so I searched the house with a fine-toothed comb.


The speaker did not use a comb, with fine or thick teeth. He means that he searched very carefully. If you search a person's hair for something, like lice (small bugs), to do it carefully you would use a fine-toothed comb. The sentence above tells us that the speaker wants to find a ring. He searched a house. We can guess that the "fine-toothed comb" part means carefully, for a long time or with special help. The first option carefully is correct; the others are good guesses.

audio 2

Although idioms are usually best avoided, there are sometimes when idioms are useful. Idioms are used to say something that the speaker does not want to say openly.


She is an old flame of his.


The speaker wants to say that these two people used to have a sexual relationship. However it would be rude to be so open and blunt. Society prefers that we do not directly refer to functions of the body. Here is another example where an idiom, throwing up, is used instead of the word vomiting.


I'm throwing up my baby bumble bee



Won't my Mommy be so proud of me


audio 3

Sometimes clearly communicating meaning is less important than saying something in an interesting way. Poems, stories and songs often use idioms to express an idea in a more interesting way.


The Arctic trails have their secret tales



That would make your blood run cold;



(The Cremation of Sam McGee, a poem by Robert W. Service)

Unless a person is ill, their blood is 37oC. Hearing a tale (story) may scare you, but it will not change your blood's temperature. However to say that a tale is so scary that it will change your blood's temperature is a poetic way to say that it is a very scary tale. From the context the reader should be able to guess that the cold blood idiom is some sort of description of scary stories. Fear can cause a sensation similar to a chill.

audio 4


"He must be made of iron", said the brigadier-general, looking at him admiringly.



(Around the World in 80 Days, a book by Jules Verne, pg 42)

The brigadier-general is talking about Mr. Fogg who is travelling, by elephant, in India. He does not mean that Mr Fogg is made out of metal. That would not make sense. However iron is a strong metal that does not break easily. From context the reader can guess that Mr Fogg does not easily weaken.


For causes are ashes where children lie slain.



(The House of Orange, a song by Stan Rogers)

Some people treat political ideas and causes with more importance than they deserve. History is full of the deaths of innocent people killed because of religious and political causes. Stan Rogers created his idiom to explain that politics can cost the lives of too many children.

audio 5

I know the story of a Hong Kong man who worked hard to learn English and went to an overseas university. He understood English idioms better than most native speakers. To demonstrate his language skill he used many idioms in his Ph.D. thesis. He was quite proud to have learned so much difficult English. However, his supervisor had to hand the thesis back and ask him to rewrite it removing all the interesting idioms. In technical subjects such as maths and science, clarity of writing is very important. Even for native speakers, idioms are not always appropriate.

Idioms are used to speak indirectly about embarrassing topics. They are also used to make writing more interesting. However there are many situations when using idioms is a very bad choice. They make language more difficult to understand. In business contracts and technical manuals very clear language must be used. Idioms should also be avoided when talking to people whose English is weak. However some of the more common idioms are worth learning so as to help understand the language.

audio 6

by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.