LINGUIST List 11.2065

Thu Sep 28 2000

Disc: Kirk: Corpora Galore

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. David Minugh, Re: 11.1986, Disc: Kirk: Corpora Galore

Message 1: Re: 11.1986, Disc: Kirk: Corpora Galore

Date: Thu, 28 Sep 2000 09:50:39 +0200
From: David Minugh <>
Subject: Re: 11.1986, Disc: Kirk: Corpora Galore

Concerning the discussion by Ron Sheen and Joybrato Mukherjee about
idioms, triggered by my article in John Kirk's Corpora Galore (2000,
from the 1998 ICAME conference).

My original comment about avoiding idioms as clich�s stems both from
personal experience from EFL teaching at Stockholm and views of other
EFL teachers, together with comments such as that of the Collins
COBUILD Dictionary of Idioms: "...the evidence in The Bank of English
suggests that [idioms] are also very common in journalism and
magazines, where writers are seeking to make their articles and
stories more vivid, interesting, and appealing to their
readers. Idioms are often used by both journalists and politicians as
shorthand ways of expressing opinions or conveying ready-made
evaluations. While such use of idioms is often criticized and
dismissed as 'clich�', suggesting that the speaker or writer has
nothing interesting or original to say, it is also true that idioms
help speakers and writers to be fluent and to get their opinions
across effectively" (1995:vi).

 I don't have empirical data on whether EFL teachers in general
discourage learning about/use of idioms. In favor of teaching them,
there is the weak argument that books such as the CDI do sell and that
mono- and bilingual dictionaries invariably include idioms. Various
language columns in newspapers also comment on idioms, as do normal

 A much stronger (non-supported) trumpet blast in defense of idioms
is to be found in the opening of the General Introduction to the
Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms: "The accurate and appropriate use
of English expressions which are in the broadest sense idiomatic is
one distinguishing mark of a native command of the language and a
reliable measure of the proficiency of foreign learners" (1993
[1983]:x). Given the relatively low frequency of idioms, this may seem
strong, indeed.

 There is, however, also the question of salience, on two
levels. First, a given idiom may be crucial to the understanding of a
given text, as when in a Tom & Jerry cartoon from the 40s, Jerry
cowers behind a black nr 8 pool ball while Tom aims the queue at
him-and American children (may be supposed to) know that Jerry's
"behind the eight ball". Second, a given idiom may be part of the
discourse in a given household or community, a high-frequency marker
of social identity in that particular speech community. At a national
level, Richard Nixon's "Sock it to me" had the same function, while
"The X doth protest too much" is perhaps still a similar cultural
 My conclusion as a teacher is that (especially university) EFL
students need to have metalevel (i.e. linguistic) knowledge about
idioms and their various forms and functions, but that it is rarely
possible to predict which individual idioms may be passively useful,
let alone actively so. (Incidentally, I'd say that Joybrato Mukherjee
and Ron Sheen used one idiom each in their responses...) But this is
in a sense only a subset of the larger problem of learning vocabulary
and cultural knowledge, where predictability diminishes as items
become rarer. At our department, we try to finesse this by testing
vocabulary and idioms from a wide range (the first 15,000 items of the
Bank of English, idioms listed in CDI or ODEI), but only requiring
students to succeed with a fairly low number of items.

David Minugh at the University of Stockholm, Sweden

David C. Minugh			Phone: + 46 8 16 36 11
Director of Studies			Fax: + 46 8 15 96 67
Department of English 
University of Stockholm
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