Idiomatic English

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In response to the “When to use ‘on’ and when to use ‘in” post about prepositions, Francesco Mapelli writes: I still don’t get the “He was not thinking well on that occasion.” Why is “in” wrong here?

At the risk of sounding unhelpful, the only answer to this perplexity is that on that occasion is idiomatic English and “in that occasion” is not.

On the other hand, we can say in that instance, while it would be unidiomatic to say “on that instance.”

In his renowned A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H. W. Fowler defined an idiomatic expression as one that is “natural for a normal Englishman to say or write.” He went on to say that idiomatic English is not necessarily grammatical or ungrammatical. Sometimes idiomatic usage agrees with stated rules, and sometimes it doesn’t. The two, grammar and idiom, are two separate categories. Sometimes they agree, and sometimes they don’t.

It is not necessary to understand an idiom. It is only necessary to accept it.

My beginning French students often exclaimed at French idioms like J’ai 17 ans (literally, “I have 17 years”). They wanted to translate such constructions literally, and then complained that the result sounded ridiculous in English. I worked very hard–usually unsuccessfully–to convince them that French is not some funny form of English. French is French, and in French, “J’ai 17 ans” is correct and “Je suis 17 ans” is nonsense.

Idiomatic expressions of every kind in Englsh are rapidly changing. Here are some examples from my collection of prepositional use in the media:

…living under borrowed time. (living on borrowed time)

Stonehenge has mystic appeal to the British people. (appeal for the English people)

On the other hand, we say “that picture appeals to me.”

…foreigners have been encroaching into Korean waters. (encroaching on)

The IRS is not concerned with the situations in which these minors will be returned to.

This one is ungrammatical as well as unidiomatic. It should read:

The IRS is not concerned with the situations to which these minors will be returned.

Several forces are at work to change English idioms. One is lack of attention to teaching traditional literature and usage in the public school classroom. School administrators as a group do not value language instruction. Many of them laugh off their own grammatical errors or lack of familiarity with literary classics by implying that such matters are the concern of English teachers only.

Few Americans read for entertainment. We are a film-oriented culture. Popular television shows like Seinfeld spread nonstandard regional usages such as “waiting on line” for “waiting in line” (in the sense of “waiting in a queue”).

Popular attitudes about personal liberty equate linguistic correctness with elitism or social oppression. Finally, to some extent, the grammatical conventions of other languages find their way into English by way of our diverse population.

In many ways a language shapes the thoughts of the people who speak it, but the speakers also shape the language. If enough people start saying or writing a certain expression, it will become idiomatic. The Stonehenge example above illustrates how idioms can change by analogy with other idioms.

Language is going to change from generation to generation in any case. If it changes too rapidly, the traditional literature is lost. Few read Chaucer for fun anymore. Shakespeare’s works must be studied with a glossary. High school students struggle with Great Expectations, and some entering college students have trouble understanding the essays of George Orwell.

Writers have a responsibility to read widely in the literature of the language in which they choose to write. They have the privilege of innovation, but, in the interest of continuity and comprehensibility, they can use the privilege judiciously.

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5 thoughts on “Idiomatic English”

  1. Raymart,
    An idiomatic expression is a turn of speech that makes sense in one language, but if translated literally into another no longer makes sense.

    Some examples: put out the cat, put out the light, take a walk, take a bath, take a moment.

    The use of English prepositions is largely idiomatic. It is almost impossible to formulate rules to account for the use of on, in, at, for example.

    Once I had a French guest who was telling me that he thought he’d lost his glasses when he bent over while exiting the plane. Only he translated the French idiom se pendre so what he said was “I bent myself.”

    That’s an idiom.

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