Idiom & idiomatic - their meaning and usage

Discussion in 'English Only' started by maxiogee, Mar 26, 2006.

  1. maxiogee Banned

    On a recent thread I disagreed with someone on the idiom-ness of a certain phrase and I wondered out loud about what we here mean when we say that a phrase is an idiom or is idiomatic.

    To me an idiom is an expression the meaning of which is not deducible from the words involved -> He flew off the handle.
    Proverbs mean more than they say, but what they say is still valid, nonetheless -> A stitch in time saves nine.

    Beauty is only skin deep might be a proverb, but I doubt it, and it's definitely not an idiom, by the definition I provided.

    Equally, to me idiomatic means containing or denoting expressions which are natural to a native speaker. It does not cover dialect expressions or 'mispronunciations'.

    How do others see these words? Are we all singing off the same hymn sheet?
  2. heidita Banned

    Madrid, Spain
    Germany (German, English, Spanish)
    As usual for you a very difficult post.

    I can only contribute that I have a whole list of "idiomatic expressions"

    to be fit as a fiddle
    to be as drunk as a lord

    and then the denomination isn't correct. According to your definition they would be proverbs.

    Well, well, let's see what others have to say.
  3. Kelly B

    Kelly B Senior Member

    USA English
    These are my impressions - I'm not sure whether they are technically correct.

    To me, idiomatic means that the expressions come naturally to, or are common among, native or regional speakers of a language. They may or may not be correct.

    I view idioms as the broad group of fixed expressions. To me, a proverb is an idiom, but many idioms are not proverbs.
  4. bartonig Senior Member

    UK English
    Is not Beauty is only skin deep an aphorism (defined in Merriam-Webster as a terse and often ingenious formulation of a truth or sentiment usually in a single sentence)? I would not say it is in any way an idiom or idiomatic or even proverbial.
  5. Nevermore Senior Member

    British English, England
    I don't really agree with that - neither of those mean anything literally (how fit is a fiddle), so I think his definition would make them idioms.

    Linguistically speaking, an idiom is a phrase which doesn't follow the principle of compositionality. This says that the meaning of any phrase is composed of the 'sum' of the meanings of the words that make it up - instead, an idiom's meaning is known through convention. This, I think, is basically what you had as your definition of an idiom, so I would say you're correct.
    A proverb, on the other hand, is any saying that has gained credence by being well-known. This is therefore a very wide category, and can include sayings that have a literal meaning ("A stitch in time saves nine") as well as those that have to be interpretted figuratively, and could therefore also be idioms - "A cold April the whole barn will fill". The true opposite of an idiom (which is figurative language) would, I think, be literal language.

    Edit: bartonig, an aphorism is normally held to be a particularly well-styled proverb, so would also be a proverb.

    Hope that's helpful.
  6. marget Senior Member

    "I can't carry a tune in basket"! Honestly I can't sing, but for me, an idiom is an idiomatic expression. Idiom is the noun and idiomatic is the corresponding adjective. In French, when I teach "idioms", we refer to them as "expressions idiomatiques". That's what I'm trying to say.
  7. coquita Senior Member

    Far, far away from home...
    Español (Argentina)
    I was hoping that someone could explain to me the difference between an "idiomatic" and an "informal" expression. Any examples would be great…
    Thanks in advance!:)
  8. scotu Senior Member

    Paradise: LaX.Nay.Mex.
    Chicago English
    Idioms are the special phrases that go beyond words and grammar to give a language its specific pecularities. An idiomatic English expression is "kick the bucket". You cannot translate the words "kick" and "bucket" and make sense of this idiom which means to die. Informal language is idiomatic, formal language would avoid the use of idioms. Much of this forum is really about understanding the idiom.
  9. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    Formal language does not avoid idioms, per se.
    There are many idioms used in formal language.

    For example:
    To take silk.
    Try to translate that word for word!
    It means to be appointed a Queen's Counsel [type of senior lawyer]

    Called to the bar
    This does not mean it's your turn to pay for the drinks.
    To be called to the bar means for a lawyer to be admitted to practise in the courts.
  10. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    I disagree with this statement, which seems to imply that informal language and idiomatic language are one and the same.

    Idiomatic language is as you describe. Informal language can be idiomatic, but it need not be. "How are ya?" is informal for "How are you?" but there's nothing idiomatic about it. Informal language is simply relaxed, colloquial language that is not always appropriate in formal registers.

    Furthermore, formal language is certainly not bereft of idioms. "To rest on one's laurels" and "to strike a chord with somebody" are just two idioms that occur to me that I could very well imagine hearing or reading in formal settings.
  11. coquita Senior Member

    Far, far away from home...
    Español (Argentina)
    Thanks scotu, brioche and elroy! Now I understand the difference.
  12. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Idiom is not the same as informality. Nor does it have to do with consciously crafted simile or metaphor-- like "kick the bucket."

    "Depend on" is an idiomatic phrase. It could as well be "depend of" or, even more logically, "depend from." The reason the pronoun "on" is used is purely one of idiomatic usage.

    Idiom in its more complex forms does overlap with "colorful" expression-- is "Bob's your uncle" an idiom? I think not. Are the simple set phrases we use, like "many's the time" and "to talk out of school," idiomatic? we could quibble. There's an element of "idiom" in the popular (rather than strictly grammatic) sense to adages, clliches and vestiges of archaic speech from past forms of English.

    But strictly speaking, idiom is the "explanation" of the arbitrary and peculiar choice of one form over another, and comes into play most often in prepositional phrases and phrasal verbs. Why does "piss off" mean go away and "piss away" refer to wasting your money? Purely idiomatic.

    In other words, "it's idiomatic" most always means, "because that's the way we say it."
  13. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    Really well put, Fox. You have clarified a lot of things for me.
  14. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    Post #2 confused 'idiom' with 'idiomatic'.

    Fox said it well: " In other words, "it's idiomatic" most always means, "because that's the way we say it." "

    Idiomatic writing and speech is nothing more than the way a language is commonly used by native speakers. An idiom is a phrase that has a special, and often non-literal, meaning.

    I just joined a thread in which people discussed the translation of an Italian phrase to English. Someone suggested "in the beginning" which was not idiomatic, as the original text was quite informal. A BE speaker said 'early on' and this was fine. An AE speaker wrote 'at first'. Both of these latter two were keeping with the way people speak and write at a particular level of register and style. "In the beginning" was perfectly correct in terms of accuracy and grammar, but it was not idiomatic in this particular case.
  15. scotu Senior Member

    Paradise: LaX.Nay.Mex.
    Chicago English
    Thank you Brioche, elroy, foxfirebrand and cuchuflete for expanding my explaination and understanding of the subject. I guess I oversimplified in my attempt to make a complex subject simple.
  16. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    You are assuming that grammatical = idiomatic.

    This is not the case.
    "Can you tell me how I go to the station?" - correct + not idiomatic
    "Can you tell me how I get to the station?" - correct + idiomatic

    If something isn't idiomatic, it doesn't mean it's wrong, and there is a grammatical error to find.

  17. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    My understanding was, if a native speaker wouldn't use it then it's not idiomatic.
    To me, you described the exact reasoning behind why it's not idiomatic and then said you didn't know if it was or not, and it kind of confused me a bit.
    Is my understanding of 'idiomatic' here wrong?
  18. jasperjane Senior Member

    Casalmaggiore, CR
    English - American
    I suppose I would say that "Can you tell me how I go to the station?" Would be idiomatic if anyone actually used it. But since no one says it that way, it's not idiomatic.

    Does that make sense?
  19. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    Perfectly:) That's what I understood by idiomatic. Nobody uses it so it's not idiomatic.
    It's just because you mentioned that no speaker would ever say it (I agree) and that for me, means it's not idiomatic, but you didn't seem sure, so I wasn't sure if I had misunderstood.
    But it seems we agree now:D
  20. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    I disagree with this completely. Not only is the sentence perfectly correct and usable, but it is also completely idiomatic.

    I suspect there is some serious confusion here about what the word "idiomatic" means. Here is a definition from the Free On-line Dictionary:

    To describe an expression as "idiomatic" means that it is a natural and typical example of the way that native speakers might express the idea.
  21. desert_fox Senior Member

    I would take idiomatic as only being understood by native speakers in a particular region...something that you wont find in a dictionary.

    Hey man, thats a cool car. Now I can see the non-native speakers looking up the word cool, and trying to figure out if the car is cold or something.
  22. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    No, "idiomatic" means (and here is the Merriam-Webster definition) "of, relating to, or conforming to idiom"; the defintion of "idiom" is
    In this case, what is meant is (b): "Idiomatic" means "of, relating to, or conforming to the syntactical, grammatical, or structural form peculiar to a language."
  23. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    I just want to clarify that nobody disagrees with GWB's definition, it's the main meaning we all know. I just believe it has taken (on WR) its own meaning, that I have questioned quite a lot over the past few months but then just accepted what they meant and joined the club by using it. Judging something as 'perculiar' to a language is such a complicated and completely subjective thing it's hard to arrive at a definitive definition, surely language is only perculiar in comparison to others, to which others? From the same language family that has the same form? Would something be perculiar to a German speaker that might be to a Japaneese speaker? Maybe not.

    That's my problem summed up with that word anyway, the only things I can see as obviously idiomatic, are phrases such as "a kettle of fish", things that are completely obvious to not have the same meaning when translated literally......... with a 'get/go' thing, it's quite subtle, and co-incidently in this regard to the word idiomatic certainly is 'a different kettle of fish'.


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