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Chapter XV. Idiomatic Phraseology

§ 71. The word idiom is of Greek origin, and means an expression which is the peculiar possession of a given language. The root means "own"; it is the word which in John I occurs in the sentence, "He came unto his own." We have another and very curious word from the same root. In ancient Greece a private citizen, one who was strictly his own servant and not the public's, was called an "idiot." From that notion came the idea of a person not intelligent enough to hold office, and from that the modern significance of idiot - a perfectly unintelligent person. So when we say, "He is too much of an idiot to hold any office," we are unconsciously talking good Greek as well as good English. And the adjective idiotic can easily be connected with the word idiom. The idioms of a language seem to a stranger simply idiotic.

With this cheerful beginning we approach the idiotic idioms of our mother tongue. They defy reduction to a scientific basis. What sense is there in such phrases as win out, eat up, drink down? Why should we say, "I am dying from this wound," when the Frenchman says, "I go myself of it."f Everything has a reason, but the reasons for half the idioms have been lost in the cloud-banks of antiquity. If we could go back far enough we should know why a Dutchman says "Dance more up" where we say "Get out." But it isn't worth while to go back. The Dutchman must learn by main strength to use that idiotic expression "Dance more up," and when he comes to this country the poor fellow must drop it and learn to say "Get out." Unfortunately, before he learns that good old idiom, some idiot will teach him to say "Skidoo" or "Beat it" or "Fade away."

It is certain that idioms are powerfully effective. It is a mistake to reject them merely because we can't always parse them or show their origin. There is no better English than the idioms had better, had rather, had sooner. Would rather is only a clumsy imitation, invented by schoolmasters. The had is Anglo Saxon hadde, a subjunctive meaning I should consider - if you asked me - such and such a thing better or sooner or rather. Bather is merely Anglo Saxon for sooner.

Here are certain other idioms which have been fired at a good deal, but which remain uninjured: a good deal of try and help all manner of men whether or no

It is not incorrect to use equivalents for these idioms, such as a deal of, or a great deal of try to help every manner of man whether or not but the idioms do not suffer by comparison with these equivalents. Deal meant share long before it ever meant a large share. The and in try and help dates back to the coordinative stage of syntax, and is stronger, more hopeful than try to help. All manner is a logical blunder, but all is here a more powerful word than every. Whether or no is ordinarily no better than whether or not, but it means something different in such sentences as "I am determined to carry out my plan, whether or no."

They say that to live in Astor street is better idiom than to live on Astor street. Our English cousins say in. But street is Latin strata, a paved way, and our German immigrants are more logical when they speak of living by Astor street. On the whole, on the street is good enough.

§ 72. The human tongue has a way of mixing things. People have been known to say

Occupew my pie for Occupy my pew

Iceland's greasy mountains for Greenland's icy mountains

Half warmed fish for Half formed wish.

These are slips of the tongue. But there are similar slips of the mind. In one's haste one may say "Look here, this no longer ceases to be funny," when one means "Look here, this is no longer funny," or, "Look here, this ceases to be funny." That is mixing idioms. Instead of choosing either of two correct idioms, the speaker takes certain words from both and says what he didn't mean.

Mixing of idioms is very, very common. For example:




They are such letters as will win.

They are such letters which will win.

They are letters which will win.


This order had just come in, when another followed.

This order had no sooner come in when another followed.

This order had no sooner come in than another followed.


It is not what you say, but how you say it.

It is not so much what you say, but how you say it.

It is not so much what you say as how you say it.



It is quite different from what we thought

It is quite other than we thought.

It is quite different than we thought.


He was seldom or never right.

He was seldom if ever right.


He was seldom or ever right.


This soap injures neither the skin nor the temper.

This soap does not injure the skin or the temper.

This soap does not injure the skin nor the temper.

§ 73. Now, the use of English prepositions is a matter of idiom, and the misuse of them is a matter of mixing idioms. But it would take a great deal of room to show this in detail. Therefore we will throw together in one list a great variety of errors in the use of prepositions, and be satisfied to correct them without formal analysis.

In this list the correct word is enclosed in brackets, and should be substituted for the word or words in italics. A few important idioms previously mentioned are repeated here.

1. They are such letters which [as] are sure to bring returns.

2. These envelopes are not as [so] bad as they look.

3. This order had no sooner come in when [than] another followed.

4. These orders had hardly begun to be filled than [when] others began to pile in.

5. The sales manager, in [to] whom he had confided the state of things, sent for Jones.

6. These canned goods are such that [as] you never tasted.

7. A correspondent can never win by disobedience of [to] the laws of courtesy.

8. These pipes are connected to [with] the boiler. [But engineers constantly say connected up to, and for certain situations it is useless to object. The boiler stands still while they bring the pipes up to it; the to here seems to indicate motion toward and to.]

9. A four h.p. engine is out of all proportion with [to] a fourteen-foot dory.

10. A four h.p. engine is out of all proportion when compared to [with] the size of this little dory.

11. To [At] one side of the factory stands the office.

12. By [Judging by] the report, I think the territory overworked.

13. He is full of hatred against [for] discipline.

14. He is full of rebellion for [against] discipline.

15. There is the same difference in [between] these men.

16. He is inadequate for [to] the job.

17. The office is in the proximity of [to] the factory. [Omit the first the.]

18. It is not so much what you say but [as] how you say it.

19. It is not what you say as [but] how you say it

20. He is different than [from] the rest. [Different than is a very common error in idiom.]

21. He is different than [from what] the others are.

22. This coffee is different and better than the other. [Write, This coffee is different from the other, and better.]

23. Our customers want to know our opinion on [as to] what course they should take.

24. The management of a department store is exceedingly complicated as compared to [with] that of a small shop.

§ 74. 1. After all, the is needed before morning, evening, forenoon, afternoon, week, month, spring, autumn, but not before day, night, summer, winter. This is a matter of idiom, perhaps of idiotic idiom, but it should not be overlooked. All the morning, all the evening, all the forenoon, all the afternoon. All day, all summer, all winter. Say enter school and enter college, but not enter grammar school, or enter high school, or enter university. Enter the grammar school and enter the high school are the preferred forms.

2. Certain other miscellaneous errors of idiom will be found in the exercise. The student's intelligence will enable him to correct them without special directions.

§ 75. There is one matter of idiom in the larger sense that should be spoken of before we proceed to the next subject. We may call it logical idiom. Note the following equations: to be=to be a way=a way where=where a means=a means when=when an act=an act

Therefore in constructing definitions, approach the equa-tional form as closely as yon can.

Good form of definition

Bad form of definition

To be honest is to be happy.

To be honest is being happy.

To jump is to spring up.

To jump is when you spring up.

To cancel stamps is to make them void.

Cancelling stamps is where you make them void.

Cancelling is making void.

Cancelling is to make void.

To write it down is to remember it.

To write it down makes you remember it.

Writing it down makes you remember it.

Writing it down is to remember it.

This principle will be found applicable in many situations. You may not consciously be forming a definition, but you may be incorporating a definition unconsciously in your sentence. The exercises will make this clear.

Do not hesitate to appropriate and use a racy idiom wherever you find it. There is vigor in such phrases as the following: stick at nothing, come at, win through, pitch on a means, hit on a device, get at, etc., etc. Very often they are as strong as slang; without the odium attaching to slang. Break in is as strong as butt in, and far less offensive.

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