Common Mistakes with Idioms

common mistakes with idioms

In this article we will be discussing and correcting some common mistakes with idioms. This topic is directly relevant to the speaking and writing IELTS tests. This is because the concept “idiom” features in the rubrics for both of these. It’s indirectly relevant to the reading and listening tests, because a better grasp of idiomatic language will generally correlate to better language skills overall. Whether you are a first time test-taker, or you are making a second attempt, this post will help you to identify and avoid some very common errors.

What are Idioms?

Idioms are chunks of language that arise from custom or habit. While there are many different kinds, a common feature is that they use words in a non-literal way. In other words, meaning of a chunk of idiomatic language is not simply the sum of the literal meaning of its parts. For example, if you say that someone is “head over heels”, an English speaker will understand that the person is in love. Her heels are not, literally, over her head. The phrase makes us think of falling over and feeling silly. This is a feeling with which you are all (I hope) familiar. Of course, the words “head”, “over” and “heels” all have literal/physical meanings. But the speaker is talking about something else.

Some idioms can undergo modification. For example, if you want to encourage someone to start a project, you can ask him to get the ball rolling. You can also say that, last week, someone got the ball rolling by starting the project. You modified the verb “get” to the past tense “got”. However, some idioms do not allow for much change at all. If you want to accuse someone of hypocrisy, you can talk about the pot calling the kettle black. However, it sounds quite unnatural to say: “yesterday, the pot really called the kettle black”. You’re better off just saying “he was a real hypocrite”. This is because English speakers don’t really use this idiom in the past tense.

Where do Idioms Come From?

Idioms form and spread through language communities naturally. People who are creative or influential usually start a trend, which others imitate. In our own times, we talk about “googling something”. The person doing this might be using any search engine to find the information, but the name of the giant company Google is so salient for most people, that it has come to stand in for the act of searching on the internet. Idiomatic language can even take place in a single word. If you call a gluttonous or impolite person a pig, you are not saying that the person is, literally, a pig. Rather, you are comparing the person to a pig because of his or her habits. If you are talking about a time you had to get up early, you can say that you got up “bright and early”. But if you say you woke up “early and bright”, this sounds wrong.

Why Mistakes with Idioms Matter for IELTS

As we’ve said many times on this blog, IELTS tests your ability to communicate in English. It does not test your academic knowledge of English grammar. This is why we are careful about giving advice such as “the top 5 idioms for IELTS” (others are less reluctant to do this). You don’t know what topics you will get for speaking or writing. There is no way to predict this, so it makes no sense to simply memorize lists of words, phrases or idioms. However, it is important that you show some ability to use idiomatic language if you are looking for a high band score (7 or above). This phrase even features in the examiner rubrics for both speaking and writing. Bear in mind that even something as simple as describing a “stumbling block” counts as idiomatic, because we are not talking about an actual, physical block:

The difficulty and cost of learning the violin are stumbling blocks for many people.

In light of this, you need to make sure that you have a good grasp of a wide range of common idiomatic phrases. Unfortunately, this is not a matter of simply memorizing lists. It will take time to elevate your English language skills to the point that you can use idiomatic language naturally, freely and accurately. The good news is that this is actually possible, and it will yield results on test day. So let’s get started with some common errors that sound like nails on a chalkboard:

Commonly Abused Idioms

We asked our academic team to come up with a list of idioms that are useful for IELTS. Then, we got them to list the errors that people often make in handling them. Wordsmiths that they are, they took the further step of adding a possible application for each one.

“For all intents and purposes”

People often misuse this idiom and the result can be very jarring for the reader or listener. You can use this expression when you want to say that two things are roughly equivalent, but you don’t want to commit to saying they are exactly the same:

If two people live together for a certain period of time, the law recognises them, for all intents and purposes, as a married couple: CORRECT

Here we are saying that the law will regard two people who live together in a relationship as if they were married. However, we have allowed enough room for the fact that they are not, in fact, married. Put another way, we acknowledge that the state of being married and the state of living together are roughly equivalent but distinct. The most common mistake people make with this idiom is to change the form of the word “intents” to “intensive”:

If two people live together for a certain period of time, the law recognises them, for all intensive purposes, as a married couple: INCORRECT

This has come about because “intents” and “and” are next to each other. When English speakers speak at a natural pace, small words like “and” do not receive any emphasis. Say the phrase “salt and pepper” aloud to yourself. The chances are, you emphasised the words “salt” and “pepper” with your voice. But you probably did not emphasise “and”. In these contexts, the word “and” can almost disappear, or become barely audible. As a result, some people hear “intensive” instead of “intents and”. This phenomenon is called connected speech and it is one of the toughest elements of language to master.

This is the kind of mistake a second language speaker might make. It will suggest to the examiner that you have a certain level of mastery, but perhaps not enough to justify a band 8.

“If worse comes to worst”

Imagine you are planning something in your mind. There is some risk involved in the situation. It could be a day out with your family when you can’t predict the weather, a high-stakes business meeting, or a performance of some kind. You will probably find yourself imagining everything that could go wrong and anticipating possible solutions so that you’re not caught off guard:

If worse comes to worst and it starts raining, we can just go to a restaurant: CORRECT

If worst comes to worst and it starts raining, we can just go to a restaurant: INCORRECT

The reason the second sentence is in error is because of the situation we are imagining. We are making a prediction about things moving from one undesirable state to an even more undesirable state. “Worse” is bad, but “worst” is as bad as things can be, so the expression contains a reference to this progression.

“Jibe with someone or something”

As far as mistakes with idioms go, this one is not so egregious. It is barely noticeable in speech. However, if you use it in the IELTS writing test, you should be careful. You can use this expression to refer to a situation in which one fact corroborates another. The most common context is in talking about a person’s experience or background knowledge:

People often say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but that doesn’t jibe with my experience. I believe that a person makes no effort with his or her appearance, you can infer a lot about his or her attitude from that.

The most common error people make when using this idiom is to change “jibe” to “jive”. It’s an easy mistake to make, because the word “jibe” does not actually exist in modern English. The problem is that “jive” does, and it has a meaning that is probably very far off from what you’re trying to say. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, to succeed in IELTS you will need to be bold and take some risks. Using a phrase like this indicates to the examiner that you are a competent user of English. Getting it right will just solidify this impression, but getting it wrong will detract from the impression your writing makes.

“Fend for yourself”

This one is tricky for two reasons. The verb “fend” is actually not in use in modern English. It only occurs in this phrase, and in one other: to fend something off. It’s also very close to the verb “defend”, from which it derives. This leads to errors like the following:

We cannot simply leave widows and homeless children to defend for themselves: INCORRECT

We cannot simply leave widows and homeless children to fend for themselves: CORRECT

A separate but related issue comes up when people mistakenly try to use “fend” when they mean “defend”. It’s correct to say that you are defending against something or someone. But it’s wrong to say that you are fending against something or someone. Be careful!

Case in point

In the IELTS writing test, particularly task 2, you have to justify your opinions. In the process of explaining why you believe something, you will draw on your linguistic resources to make an argument. This is what the examiner will assess. One phrase that you can use to introduce evidence in support of your point of view is “case in point”:

I believe that the welfare state is a failed institution that is causing severe social and economic problems. As a case in point, I refer to my home country, where national debt is now well in excess of Gross Domestic Product: CORRECT

The meaning of this phrase is that the specific point (the writer’s home country) proves the writer’s case (that welfare states are bad). In other words, we can find his case demonstrated in this one point. This makes for a concise and useful little expression. Changing “in” to “and”, as so many people do, destroys this meaning:

I believe that the welfare state is a failed institution that is causing severe social and economic problems. As a case and point, I refer to my home country, where national debt is now well in excess of Gross Domestic Product: CORRECT

“Deep-seated”

This one is very interesting, because both the “correct” and “incorrect” versions can be understood in a way that makes sense. The reason I’ve put “correct” and “incorrect” in quotation marks is that, as we’ve discussed on this blog before, correctness is largely a function of usage. That is, a language community deems something to be correct when it matches what a majority of speakers do. There is nothing inherent in the word or phrase itself that makes it right or wrong. This is important because IELTS measures your ability to communicate in English, not your academic knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary. This is why it’s a bad idea to memorise very archaic idioms that modern English speakers don’t use. These were once correct but are no longer.

In the the adjective “deep-seated”, we have a compact way of referring to something that is very firmly entrenched or hard to remove. We usually use it to talk about emotional states:

Many people have deep-seated resentment about the events of history: CORRECT

Many people have deep-seeded resentment about the events of history: CORRECT

The resentment is something that exists at a profound level. It’s been there for a long time, “sitting” (here is the idiomatic quality) at a depth below the surface. The incorrect (but common) “deep-seeded” could be understood to mean something that was “seeded”. It sounds like someone put the resentment there and it grew, as you might plant a tree. It’s conceivable that “deep-seeded” will exist as a “correct” idiom at some point in the future, with a slight nuance in meaning. However, it’s best to go with “deep-seated” and make a good impression with the examiner.

How to Avoid Mistakes with Idioms

The list could (and does) go on and on. Idiomatic language is integral to communication, so idioms proliferate in all languages. When someone is assessing your ability in a language, one of the key indices will always be how comfortable you are with the non-literal. But now that we’ve considered some of the most common problems people have in using idioms, you might have some questions. Can’t I just avoid idioms altogether? Is it worth the risk?

The reality is that you will need to show some facility in the use of idiomatic language in order to get a high band score. This features in the writing and speaking rubrics under “Lexical Resource”. Having a firm grasp on idioms will also help you to catch subtle distinctions in the listening and reading tests. There’s no quick fix here, and we would caution you against believing anyone who makes unrealistic promises. If this is an issue that is holding you back, you need to focus on building your skills in the English language in a way that will elevate the quality of your writing. Get the guidance you need and start your journey today.