idioms


First of all, sorry for the long delay between posts. As you may have guessed, I took the summer off. Now that school is back in session, I hope to update this blog 1-2 times per week. Ok, back to work.

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In English, when we are ready to sleep at night we say we are “going to bed.” When we are preparing to sleep, it is very common to say we are “getting ready for bed.”

What time do you usually go to bed?
How long does it take you to get ready for bed?

Because of this special meaning, the prepositions can be confusing.  “In bed” means that you are under the covers and (usually) ready to sleep.  If you are not ready to go to sleep (or under the covers), we use “on the bed”

While I was in the bed, the phone rang. (NOT COMMON)

While I was in bed, the phone rang. (idiomatic usage)

The children were sick in their beds all week. (NOT COMMON)

The children were sick in bed all week. (idiomatic usage)

Many women think it is romantic to be served breakfast in their beds. (NOT COMMON)

Many women think it is romantic to be served breakfast in bed. (idiomatic usage)

I was sitting on the bed when the phone rang. (OK – literal usage)

I like to study on my bed. (OK – literal usage)

Children like to jump on their beds! (OK – literal usage)

As you can see in the examples, you should not use an article (a/an/the) or other determiners (my, your, this, that, etc.) when you use “bed” with this special meaning of sleeping (usually with the prepositions “to” or “for”.  You will also notice that this usage is never plural.)

However, when you use the preposition “on” it is common to use determiners and plurals.

There are many questions in English that start with “what do you do?”

What do you do for fun? (What are your hobbies?)

What do you do for exercise? (How do you exercise?)

What do you do after work?

What do you do on the weekend?

All of these questions ask about a person’s habits or routines. However, the most common “what do you do” question is:

What do you do?

This question has a special meaning: what is your job? In my last post, I called phrases like this hidden idioms – common phrases that have been shortened and have a different meaning than expected. (The full phrase is “What do you do for a living?”)

How should you answer this question?  The most common answer is to reply with your job title:

I am a professor.

I am a businessman.

I am a hairdresser.

We do NOT say “My job is a professor.”  Another way to answer the question is to describe your job duties:

I teach English at Korea Nazarene University.

I sell accounting software to local businesses.

I cut hair at a salon.

Finally, if you are unemployed, a common euphemism is: “I’m between jobs.”

“She’s expecting.” This is what I call a hidden idiom. The full phrase is so common that it has been shortened into an idiom. The full phrase is “She’s expecting a baby.” In other words, she’s pregnant. In fact, the title of a very famous book about pregnancy is, “What to Expect When You Are Expecting”.

This idiom is especially confusing to ESL students because it appears ungrammatical! In normal usage, the verb expect must be followed by an object.

She is expecting a phone call.

He was expecting his friend to meet him.

The dog expects you to throw the ball.

The only time expect(ing) is used without an object is when it is used as an idiom. Additionally, this idiom is often used when talking about a woman’s weight.

Sarah looks like she’s gained some weight. Is she expecting? (Is she pregnant?)

Also, when talking about pregnancy, “child” is often used instead of “baby”.

The happy couple was expecting their first child. (not baby)

They’re expecting a child in June.

Finally, a common euphemism for a miscarriage is “lost the baby” (“child” is not used).

She was expecting, but she lost the baby. (not child)

After she lost the baby, she became very depressed.

The addition of -gate to a word is a reference to the Watergate scandal which led to the resignation of President Nixon. Watergate is the name of the hotel complex where 5 men tried to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Ever since this scandal, the suffix -gate has been added by the media to a keyword or topic to refer to a related scandal or controversy.

The most recent “-gate” controversy is Spygate in which the New England Patriots football team was caught videotaping the defensive signals of the New York Jets during their game on Sept. 9, 2007.

I’ve been away quite a while… I got swallowed up at the end of the semester, was home for a few weeks, and just finished an English camp here on campus. The kids are fun, but I’m glad I teach university students 🙂

Now, for a new entry based on a comment from my about page. (If you are reading this blog and have a question, please leave a comment or send an email. I’ll do my best to answer it.)

When “at large” is used together it has a special meaning. It is often used to talk about criminals or wild animals that are out in the public and not caught:

The criminals who robbed the bank remain at large. (They haven’t been caught yet.)

The tiger that escaped from the zoo is still at large.

It is often used with the verb “remain” or the adverb “still”. If a person or animal is at large, people are trying to catch them.

“At large” can also have a different meaning. When “at large” is used after a title or position it means “among the people” or “not limited to a specific area or district”.

  • A “reporter at large” is a reporter that travels around and reports from “among the people”. They do not have a certain story that they have to report about.
  • An “ambassador at large” does not work at 1 country, but instead deals with 1 problem.
  • A “delegate at large” is elected from people of an entire state or area – as opposed to smaller districts

Finally, when “at large” is used after a group of people, it means “in general”

The people at large did not trust the new government.

Many students don’t know about the world at large.

Any more questions? Please let me know.

In English, we often say “catch a cold.” For other illnesses we often use the phrase “come down with.”

I caught a cold from my sister.

If you catch a cold, you should drink lots of liquids and get lots of rest.

He came down with the flu.

I haven’t been feeling well lately, I think I’m coming down with something.

When we don’t know the reason for the sickness, it is very common to say, “I’m coming down with something.

If you catch a cold or come down with any minor sickness in Korea, many Koreans will ask you if you have gone to the hospital! This sounds very strange to Americans. First, for colds and other minor sicknesses, many Americans do not see a doctor. They will take some medicine and stay home. Second, in America, it’s very common for a doctor to work in an office apart from the hospital. So, it’s much more common to say:

Have you been to the doctor? (CORRECT)

Have you been to the hospital? (WRONG!)

You should go to the doctor. (CORRECT)

You should go to the hospital. (WRONG!)

The only time we go directly to the hospital is for an emergency. Any other time, we go to the doctor first. If we need a test that the doctor cannot perform in his office or if we need to have surgery or another serious treatment, then we will go to the hospital.

This is translated directly from Korean: “매운 음식을 잘 먹어요”

The grammar is correct. The problem is we don’t say this in English. It sounds very strange. In English we would say, “Do you like to eat spicy food?” or “Can you eat a lot of spicy food?”

To answer the question, you could say, “Yes, I like to eat spicy food.” or “Yes, I can eat a lot of spicy food.”

To answer “no” you might say, “No, I can’t handle spicy food.” or “No, spicy food doesn’t agree with me.”

When used in this way, handle means to endure a situation or circumstance. It is usually used negatively, with “not.”

He couldn’t handle the roller coaster. It made him sick.

You can’t handle truth.

The idiom “not agree with” is used with food. It means that the food makes you sick or nauseous. It is only used negatively, with “not.”

The fish I ate last night didn’t agree with me. I was up all night.

This restaurant’s chili doesn’t agree with me. It always gives me diarrhea.

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