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Ailia's avatar

Does anyone know how to identify an idiom?

Asked by Ailia (1363points) December 2nd, 2009

I am currently looking for idioms in a book I have to read and I came across a sentence that looks like it has an idiom in it. Would you consider this an idiom; “I was, so to speak, numbered with the dead.” I am getting better at finding idioms but this one stumps me. Any suggestions?

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25 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

I would call that a figure of speech, although out of context, it is hard to tell.

An idiom is a group of words that have a meaning that is not clear from the context, such as “I’ll wait until hell freezes over.”

Jeruba's avatar

Here is one in your question:

came across

Keep talking and I’ll show you some more.

Ailia's avatar

@Jeruba Wow you’re really good at this. So would you consider my quote an idiom? The character who says that, doesn’t actually die so does that help?

gailcalled's avatar

You can wait until the cows come home and Jeruba will always give you accurate answers.

gailcalled's avatar

edit: a group of words that has…

AstroChuck's avatar

I work with a bunch of idioms.

Narl's avatar

Finding idioms can be a piece of cake, but sometimes your guess is as good as mine.

Ailia's avatar

@AstroChuck Do you mean idiots or actual “idioms?”

filmfann's avatar

Respect @AstroChuck ! I understand he is a man of letters.

Jeruba's avatar

> edit: a group of words that has…

@gailcalled dear, sorry, but nope:

Words that have a meaning. A group of them. Antecedent of “that” is “words.” “That” is the subject of the verb. Plural. “Words that have a meaning” is the object of the preposition “of.” The number, gender, and case of the noun modified by the prepositional phrase do not make any difference. The agreement has to be between the verb and its own subject, not some prior noun.

This is one of those constructions that are hard for a lot of people to get right.

I do know my grammar, but I am still learning new things. I’m by no means immune to error. But at least I can give better reasons for things than “That’s how I was taught” (by someone who maybe didn’t have it right in the first place, even if I did remember the lesson perfectly after all these years).

An idiom is just the way we say something—an expression that, as Gail says, can’t be derived from summing each of the components individually. It isn’t necessarily a figure of speech. “Come” is one of the most prolific words for idioms. Consider how we understand all these idiomatic expressions in a nonliteral way. That’s what an idiom is.

come across
—as Ailia used it
come across
—I promised him half the amount by Thursday, and now I have to come across.
come down with
—My son is coming down with a cold.
come up with
—How in the world did you come up with that idea?
come to
—When she came to, she was in a locked room.
come by
—He came by his reputation honestly.
come clean
—If you want my help, you’re going to have to come clean.

And so on.

DominicX's avatar


So, would that make “of course” an idiom? Because I never could quite figure out why it is worded the way it is (I looked it up, but before then, I had no idea). In my made up language, I have a single word that translates approximately to “of course”.

Jeruba's avatar

@DominicX, this is off the top of my head, but I don’t think so. I read that as a truncation of “as a matter of course,” meaning “routinely.” I would take the “course” in that instance to be metaphorical, thinking of a river’s course or any other course where something runs (i.e., like a path or route). I understand this expression to mean “yes, that is how it is (or would be) in the ordinary or expected way of things.” Again, I haven’t looked this up, so if you do, you may find a different explanation.

But I guess that once an expression is far enough away from its source, we may use it idiomatically without reference to its literal meaning. A similar example is the way we use “rather”: “Would you rather see a movie tonight or just stay in?” “I’d rather stay in.” We treat it as a quasi-verb!

Strauss's avatar

would this define an idiom:

A group of words which, when used together, has a discrete meaning independent of the meaning of the individual words”

SeventhSense's avatar

You’re pulling my leg. Go jump in a lake.

Jeruba's avatar

@Yetanotheruser, that’s pretty much the definition I’m using. Others may use some other definition.

Many figures of speech, clichés, and slang are idiomatic in this way, but not all of them. Some of the examples in this thread are clichés based on metaphor and other figures of speech. And some therefore do have a literal meaning (you can understand them literally, such as, just to pick an example, jumping in a lake). Much slang is really metaphor, and some of it is brilliantly metaphorical. Some of the richest extensions of the language come from slang (but that is another topic). Not all of it is idiom, though; some of it is straight substitution of a new term for an old one.

When you can’t derive the meaning of the whole expression from a knowledge of all the terms in the expression, that’s an idiom, as I understand it.

Also, to speak idiomatically is to speak the way people really use the language, irrespective of technicalities. For example, certain prepositions follow certain verbs in idiomatic speech. There’s no rule, exactly, and the preposition is not part of the verb, but that’s just the way we say it. Example: to result in. “Failure to attend class regularly will result in a poor grade.” I don’t see any logical, inherent reason why we couldn’t use a different preposition, say “at,” there, but we don’t. We who speak idiomatic English say “result in.

These are the kinds of things that English learners may have trouble with even if they’ve mastered all the individual words; the whole may be greater than (or just different from) the sum of its parts.

In the end, though, @Ailia is going to have to use the definition of idiom that her teacher is using if she wants to get credit for doing her assignment correctly.

marinelife's avatar

When I want to identify them, I usually rely on their calls since they have taken on protective coloration, making it hard to spot them in the wild.

colin's avatar

@jeruba: In this case, I would respectfully disagree with you re: the usage of “have” rather than “has”. In @gailcalled‘s sentence, it is the group of words that has a meaning. In fact, that is the whole point: the group (of words) has a meaning that is outside of the meaning of each of the words individually.

gailcalled's avatar

@colin: I, too, am still convinced that “group” is the subject of the sentence and (of words a modifier), A group of jellyfish is on the attack. Beware.

Jeruba's avatar

“Group” isn’t the subject of the sentence (your original sentence—that’s what we’re discussing, right?). “Idiom” is the subject of the sentence. The subject of the sentence is the subject of the main verb. The main verb is “is.” “Group” is a predicate nominative and has no main verb.

@colin, you have a point. Thinking it over.

Narl's avatar

A group of words that has… is correct @Jeruba

Jeruba's avatar

When it comes to grammar, dogmatic assertion will not do. Only reasoned explication will do.

DominicX's avatar


Yeah, about “of couse”, says it’s an idiom. I guess because it’s been separated from the original phrase.

mattbrowne's avatar

Oh, yeah, I think I know. Piece of cake. Adding up individual meanings doesn’t make sense in a given context. What does your question have to do with cakes?

Sarah85's avatar

i have a question about this

as a result , as a consequence

are they idioms??

How can I identify them if they are really idioms

SeventhSense's avatar

I would think that those would just figures of speech.
Idioms have more to do with popularized turns of phrase and generally they are completely indiscernible from the word’s inherent meaning. Your figures of speech above above can be read to be resultant as or consequential to. Idioms have come about strictly through common usage and don’t translate across different languages easily.
These are strong idioms.
Go jump in a lake. you’re crazy.
You’re pulling my leg.- you’re kidding me.
It is useless to cry over spilt milk- don’t regret the past and it’s mistakes
A house divided against itself can not stand.- Eventually you must make a decision/life choice about what you believe or you will be at odds with yourself. and of course it’s vulgar little stepbrother
Shit or get off the pot.

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