How to Identify Errors in Idiomatic Expressions

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  • 0:01 Expression in Language
  • 0:32 Idioms
  • 1:52 Analyze the Preposition
  • 2:52 Reuse the Idiom
  • 3:58 Trust Your Instincts
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

You use idioms constantly. They are a dime a dozen! But what are they? How do you know if you've used one incorrectly? Watch this video lesson to soothe all your concerns about idioms.

Expression in Language

Communication is of utmost importance within our society. We rely on the expression of our ideas for everything, ranging from ordering fast food to running our government.

Language is the tool humans use to accomplish this complicated task. Each culture has developed a language to suit its specific needs and purposes. Thus, each culture has expressions particular to those people. This lesson will explore idioms, which are some of those particular expressions.


In broad terms, an idiom is defined as an expression particular to one specific culture or language. To understand what that means, we will look at the two types of idioms.

The first type can be narrowed to a phrase that is not logical, but has an understood meaning that differs from the literal meaning. Since the literal interpretation of the phrase is not the true meaning, this type of idiom will not translate to other languages. For example, if you were about to go on stage to perform Shakespeare, I might tell you, 'Go break a leg.' Do I literally mean I want the bones in your leg to break? Of course not! This is an idiom in the English language that really means 'good luck.' If I were to translate this into French or Spanish, the underlining meaning will not be understood. Other examples include 'pulling your leg' and 'letting the cat out of the bag.'

These first types of idioms are usually easily used within a culture without much error. Most errors with idioms happen with the second type of idioms. The second type can be defined as a culturally accepted way of wording something. Some examples of these idioms include 'could have,' 'agreed on' and 'concerned about.'

For the rest of this lesson we will discuss how to avoid the common errors with these types of idiom.

Analyze the Preposition

You might have noticed from the examples that this type of idiom usually consists of a verb and a preposition. Remember, a verb is an action word and a preposition is a word that shows relationship or location. Jump, throw, think and dream are all verbs because they show the action. To, through, on and in are all prepositions because each shows relationship or location.

The most common error to make with idioms is using the wrong preposition for that verb. For example, look at this sentence: 'The students agreed in the best way to solve the math problem.' Can you spot the error in the idiom? The culturally accepted way of phrasing that is 'agreed on.' The sentence should read, 'The students agreed on the best way to solve the math problem.'

If you feel you have made a mistake with your phrasing, look at the preposition you used. Most likely you have used the wrong one and changing the preposition will take care of your error.

Reuse the Idiom

If you feel the idiom is wrong, but you are having trouble deciding if the preposition is the problem, then try this second tip: reuse the idiom. This means to try to use it in another phrase or sentence. For the example above, try writing another sentence about agreement. For instance: 'We agreed in the proposed plan.' Does that make sense? You should see that it sounds better to write, 'We agreed on the proposed plan.'

The key for this strategy is to make sure you keep the intention of the idiom the same in your new sentences. If you change the meaning, then the preposition might indeed be different and reusing the idiom will not help you identify your error. For example, if I made the sentence 'I agree with you on the plan,' then the intention of the idiom has changed. 'Agreed on' and 'agreed with' have slightly different intentions. The first sentence needed an idiom to show a group of people agreeing, but the second idiom showed one person agreeing with another. This change of meaning makes a huge difference.

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