Idiomatic Expressions (Overview)

An idiom (or, idiomatic expression) is an expression whose meaning is not easily understood based on its words alone.

So, if English is not your first language, you should not be upset if you find yourself stumped when you hear something you suspect is an expression - especially if it's an idiomatic expression.

2 Layers of Meaning

Idioms have two layers of meaning.  To decipher an idiom, you must recognize and understand the meaning of both layers.

Literal Meaning:

The initial, basic meaning of the idiom, based on the words used, and what they mean in a literal sense.

Idiomatic Meaning:

The underlying message, lesson or advice offered by the idiom; the meaning of the overall expression, in a broader sense.

Sample Idiom

Here's an example of the analysis WhiteSmoke will provide weekly in its English Expressions blog series!

Put the cart before the horse.

Literal Meaning:
At first glance, this idiom might not even register as anything out of the ordinary. Yet, the advice given actually makes little sense – horses should be placed before carts, not the other way around. The idiom suggests the reverse of how things should be.

Idiomatic Meaning
Reverse the natural order of things.  Try something new. Be innovative.

Lost in Translation

Idioms, like expressions, often don’t translate into other languages. That's why WhiteSmoke is here to help!

Of course it’s possible to have a literal translation of the words in an idiom, but the meaning is often warped or lost once the idiom is removed from its original language. That is because the meaning or messages offered by idioms are often tied to a specific culture (or, a specific language). Of course, it's possible to learn a language without learning idiomatic expressions. So . . .

What's the Point of Idioms?

Learning about English idiomatic expressions will not only expose you to these "life lessons", but it will enrich your command of the English language.

Often, they offer advice or suggestions on better ways in which to live or interact with others.  They can be considered "deep" or "life lessons."  For this reason, the cryptic nature of idioms contributes to their depth, and significance.  Telling someone to simply "think innovatively" might not be as effective as rehearsing the idiom "Put the cart before the horse." 

Idioms require a moment of hesitation, to ponder their meaning. Once the underlying message behind an idiom emerges, it causes one to pause and consider the truth behind the saying.  

The more familiar with idiomatic expressions you become, the more likely you can incorporate them into your own English writing and/or speech - should you find an appealing situation in which to use one.  They are often impressive, and enjoyable to share!