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Present Day Idioms And Their Evolution English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5484 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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It is said that idioms break either the rules of grammar or the rules of logic. Of these, the first kind, the ungrammatical phrases, made acceptable by usage, are the most obvious and in any old-fashioned book on good English will be found lists of “these wild creatures of talk, nailed up, like noxious birds and vermin, by the purists and preservers of your speech”. The phrase “it is me” is a familiar instance; other instances are “who did you see?”, “than who?”, “very pleased”, “try and go” (for “to try to go”), the split infinitive, the use of the superlative when only two objects are compared ,”the best” (instead of the “better of the two”) and phrases like “less than no time”, “more than pleased”, “as tall or taller than you” etc.

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Grammar, in the sense which we usually give to the word, that is to say not a mere neutral registration of what the speech-forms are, but a regulative ideal of what according to the laws of logic and analogy they ought to be, grammar in this sense is the neutral enemy of idiom, and continually preys upon it. The tendency of modern grammarians is to accept usage and to explain it by means of history and psychology, but older grammarians conceived that they had a higher mission. From the study of Latin and from a comparison of different European languages, they arrived at a conception of universal grammar, based upon the laws of logic and the constitution of the human mind; and this the grammarians of each country tried to impose upon their own language-to refine it to grammatical purity, to banish as far as possible its local idiosyncrasies, to do away with its anomalies and exceptions and to impose regularity upon it within its domestic economy. Owing to the efforts of these grammarians, a number of English idiomatic usages have been stigmatized as incorrect and driven from the standard speech. Of these, perhaps the most conspicuous is the double negative, which was perfectly correct in the time of Chaucer, lingered on till the age of Shakespeare and is still in current use in the speech of the vast majority of English people. Owing, however, to the logical, yet un-psychological, notion that doubling a negative destroys, instead of strengthening it, this idiom, although it was correct in Greek, and found in French, Spanish and Romanian is regarded as a gross vulgarism in modern English. So, also the double comparative and the double superlative, as we find them in Shakespeare’s “more better”, “more nearer”, “most boldest”, “most unkindest” are now considered most incorrect. But anomalous constructions of this kind are merely the natural results of preferred clearness of expression to logical symmetry.

Another idiom which was once correct, but which grammarians have succeeded in stigmatizing as a vulgarism is the expression “these kind” and “these sort” of things, although it is found up to the nineteenth century in many good authors and although “by these means” is still regarded as good English. “For to” joined with the infinitive is now a vulgarism, although it is found in the Bible “What went ye out for to see?” and in Shakespeare’s line: “Forbid the sea for to obey the moon”.

Weather we regard the elimination of these old idioms as a benefit or as a detriment to the language, the loss or gain in any particular instance is not perhaps of great importance. In one point, however, the attempt to enforce an ideal of grammatical purity on the language has inflicted upon it a serious injury. The point we refer to is the notion that it is illiterate and incorrect or at least inelegant to place a preposition or an adverb at the end of a sentence. It was Dryden, himself one of the most idiomatic English writers, who first expressed this notion. He tried to eliminate idioms of this kind changing “the end he aimed at” into “the end at which he aimed” and “the age I live in” into “the age in which I live”. This notion, that the preposition should precede the word it governs, that it is better to say “the man to whom I had written” than “the man I had written to” became little by little almost universally accepted. This notion still persists although the idiom is perfectly good English and has only been condemned because it was not found in Latin or in languages derived from Latin. Fortunately, the prejudice expressed in the school master’s phrase that “the preposition is a very bad word to end a sentence with” has not completely succeeded in banishing this “anglicism” (as it was called) from the language.

Several useful idioms have also succeeded in establishing themselves in spite of the opposition of purists and grammarians. The “compound possessive” as it is called, “someone else’s ” instead of “someone’s else”, the double genitive “a picture of the King’s” (which has a different meaning from “a picture of the King”) are now accepted as useful additions to the resources of the English language. So also the passive construction “the house is being built” (for “the house is building”) has become good English although grammarians protested against this irregular collocation of the present participle “being” with the past participle “built”. At present the battle rages about the split infinitive, which horrifies the old-fashioned grammarians, but is more dispassionately regarded by linguists of the modern school.

In addition to phrases of this kind, in which the laws of grammar seem to be openly flouted, many slighter anomalies are to be found in the idiomatic speech. Most of the idioms come from the popular vernacular which still preserves that grammatical freedom which was a characteristic of the older history of the language. Thus, in idioms, as in Elizabethan English, almost any part of speech can take the place and perform the function of any other part. The transformation of adjectives and nouns into verbs is a normal process in speech. In many idioms adverbs and preposition appear as nouns (whys and wherefores, ups and downs, ins and outs), preposition change into verbs (to out with, to up and) the verbs into nouns (on the go, in the know).Sometimes a passive meaning attaches to an active tense: much to seek.

Ellipsis is another characteristic of idiom; all constantly repeated adverbial phrases like “last night”, “this week” tend to lose their prepositions. In some like “no doubt” and “no wonder” the verb is omitted. In others like “at best”, “at least” the definite article drops out. Words like “to-day”, “to-night”, “to-morrow”, “o’clock” are terse idiomatic phrases which, owing to their constant use, have come to be regarded and pronounced as compound words.

One curious characteristic of many of the commonest idioms is the survival in them of obsolete words, words which are never used except in some special phrases. Examples of such words are: hue and cry, rank and file, to chop and change, to leave in the lurch, to take the toils, at bay, at beck and call, at loggerheads, not a whit, a pig in a poke.

In the phrases spick and span, tit for tat, jot or tittle two words which are meaningless by themselves combine together into idioms which everybody understands. In other phrases, archaic and poetic words which otherwise would never pass our lips are preserved in the colloquial speech: hither and thither, to and fro, use and wont, rack and ruin, a great deal, for the sake of.

Many obsolete meanings of familiar words are preserved in idiomatic phrases. “Mind” once meant “memory” and this meaning survives in the phrases to keep in mind, to call to mind, out of mind. It also had the signification of purpose or intention, which survives in the phrases to be of two minds, to know one’s own mind, to change one’s mind. The word “blush” preserves in the phrases at first blush the meaning of “glimpse” or “sight”; “pain” used to mean “punishment”, also “trouble”, “effort”. These meanings live on in the phrases like: pains and penalties, under the pain of death, to be at the pains to, to get for one’s pains. The word “brown” preserves its old meaning of “gloomy” in the phrase a brown study. The meaning of the idiom by degrees comes from the old use of degree for “step”. A few archaic grammatical forms like bounden duty, on bended knee also survive in idiom.

The second type of idioms, of logical anomalies, will be further discussed in Chapter IV: Types of Idioms. Classification


4.1. Grammatical Idioms

Idioms are “those phrases which are verbal anomalies, which transgress either the laws of grammar or the laws of logic”. Many idioms have two meanings, a literal and an idiomatic one, for example: to kick the bucket, to go to the country, to pull one’s leg. In such cases, only the context can give a clue as to which meaning is intended. In other cases, when a literal meaning does not make sense in terms of the world as we know it, the likelihood is that we are dealing with an idiom. This applies to to jump down someone’s throat, to fly off the handle, to rain cats and dogs. The same conclusion should suggest itself when an expression is formed in a way that is contrary to the syntactic rules of contemporary English, as in the definite articles in to kick the bucket and to fly off the handle or “one” in to pull a fast one. The definite article normally has the function of indicating that an item has already been mentioned or is considered unique in the context to the language community, while the pro-form “one” refers to a noun that must precede it. Neither of these conditions is fulfilled in the idioms cited.

More often idioms have been categorized from the point of view of grammar, according to their part of speech. We shall have:

Phrasal Verbs with Idiomatic Meaning:

Idioms of this type fall into three categories as follows:

verb followed by an adverbial particle:

a) used transitively the structure is: verb + direct object + particle:

E.g. The news got my mother down.

or verb + particle + direct object:

E.g. The news got down my mother.

b) intransitively the structure is: verb + particle:

E.g. He got down and approached us.

verb followed by an adverbial particle and a preposition:

a) used transitively the structure is: verb + object + particle + preposition +

prepositional object:

E.g. There is no need to take your resentment out on me.

or verb + particle + object +preposition + prepositional object:

E.g. There is no need to take out your resentment on me.

b) used intransitively: verb + particle + preposition + prepositional object:

E.g. You must face up the truth.

verb followed by a preposition:

a) used transitively: verb + object + preposition + prepositional object:

E.g. He got the child down the ladder.

b) used intransitively: verb + preposition + prepositional object:

E.g. He got down the ladder.

We would like to add some remarks on this type of idioms:

1. Phrasal verbs cannot be separated by adverbs. We can say either: He put on his coat quickly or He quickly put on his coat.

2. Some phrasal verbs can be used with certain classes of object, for example: to throw something away, to call someone up.

3. Some phrasal verbs have different meanings with different classes of object. For example: to take clothes off means to remove, to undress while to take people off means to imitate, to mock.

4. Some particles are used with constant meaning. “Up” often implies completely.

E.g. He ate up his dinner.

With add, break, burn, chew, clean, count, drink, eat, tear, wash “down” often implies to the ground.

to drop by = to pay a casual visit;

E.g. I promised James to drop by if I had time and I was in the neighborhood.

to fall for something = 1. to like something very much;

E.g. I do not know what happens, but you always fall for the most expensive clothes when you go shopping.

2. to be tricked into believing something;

E.g. I wish my husband would not fall for all this sales talk. He has just spend a fortune for a useless thing.

to give something away = 1. to distribute something free of charge;

E.g. Unfortunately, she put on too much weight and she did not fit in her clothes anymore, so she decided to give them away.

2. to betray something;

E.g. After she confessed the terrible mistake she made, she asked me not to give her secret away.

to look down on someone =to regard someone as inferior;

E.g. Edward is a snob who looks down on people with a working – class background.

to put up with someone/ something = to tolerate/bear something;

E.g. As she could not put up with his behavior anymore, she decided to leave him and get the divorce.

4.1.2. Verbal Idioms or Verb-Noun Combinations:

Nouns used idiomatically in verb – noun combinations often have a plural as well as singular form: to run an errand or to run errands.

E.g. Paul often runs errands for his mother, like posting letters and buying groceries.

In some verb – noun combinations both verb and noun are used idiomatically: to take heart, to lose heart.

E.g. He has a weak nature. He loses heart whenever things go wrong.

to cook the books = to change a firm’s accounts or records to one’s own advantage, often to take money out unnoticed;

E.g. Apparently, he had been cooking the company’s books for years to meet his gambling losses.

to mind one’s own business = not to interfere in the affairs of others;

E.g. Jim asked me how much I earned, so I told him to mind his own business.

to face the music = to meet the consequences (bad) of some action;

E.g. In your situation, it is better to apologize and face the music than pretend that nothing happened.

to get the sack = to be dismissed;

E.g. The manager warned the employees that if they kept being late for the office, they would get the sack.

to make one’s point = to present options convincingly;

E.g. Although there was a short presentation of the problem, the director made his point.

4.1.3. Verb-Noun-Preposition Combinations:

Idioms of this type take an object: to set fire to something, to take pity on someone. In most of the idioms the noun keeps its literal meaning and only the verb and preposition are used idiomatically: to play tricks on someone, to take pride on something, but occasionally the noun is used idiomatically: to give rise to something, to take exception to someone/something. There are two kinds of idioms of this type: invariable and variable. Variable idioms are: to play a trick/tricks on; to have an effect/effects on; to bear the cost/costs of; to bear the grudge/grudges against.

to pick holes in something = to criticize something or find fault with something unnecessarily;

E.g. It is easy to pick holes in my method of teaching the students, but you can suggest a better way of doing it?

to turn tables on someone = to reverse the situation so that one’s rival/opponent loses his advantage and becomes weaker;

E.g. Do not lose hope, you can still turn the tables on you, the evaluation is only on Saturday.

to make fun of something/someone = to mock or tease;

E.g. His colleagues used to make fun of him because his ears stuck.

to throw the book at someone = to reprimand someone for not having done something the correct or official way;

E.g. This time he threw the book at me for not showing him the report before I send it to head office. Usually, he does not want the trouble of having to read them.

to get the hang of something = to find out or understand how best to do something that requires physical or mental ability;

E.g. Driving may be difficult in the beginning, but once you have got the hang of it, you will find it more comfortable than walking or taking the bus.

4.1.4. Verb-Preposition Combinations:

This category of idioms resembles the phrasal verbs, but it is different. Intransitive verbs can be linked to noun objects by specific prepositions:

E.g. I am going to the station.

In this example, the preposition is used literally like in many other cases. But prepositions can also be used idiomatically:

E.g. I depend on my parents for the time being.

The most common intransitive verbs followed by specific prepositions are: to abound in, to approve of, to begin with, to belong to, to beware of, to care for, to confess to, to consist of, to differ from, to hope for, to insist on, to interfere with, to laugh at, to listen to, to refer to, to send for, to shout at, to vote for, to wait for.

E.g. She says she does not believe in astrology, but she always glances at her horoscope.

This argument can only result in a fight, so we had better change the subject.

When you are in a city and do not know how to get to a place, it is better to ask for directions than wander in the streets.

The accident was so terrible that she never recovered from the shock.

The last task of the exam required that the students should comment on a literary fragment.

All transitive verbs have a direct object and many can be linked to a second noun object by a preposition. Here is a list of common transitive verbs followed by specific prepositions: to arrest someone for something, to beat someone at something, to borrow something from someone, to challenge someone to something, to charge someone for something, to congratulate someone on something, to forgive someone for something, to help someone with something, to impose something on someone, to invite someone to something, to lend something to someone, to praise someone for something, to rescue someone from something, to respect someone for something, to rob someone of something, to spoil something for someone.

E.g. Everybody was aware he was lying in the trial and finally the judge accused him of perjury.

There is no need to find excuses. I have no blamed you for anything.

I was wasting my time trying to convince him of the uselessness of his efforts.

If he had known they would suspect him of plotting against them, he would never deal with them.

“My dear, I think we could have a civilized talk instead of throwing objects at me”, said the husband to the angry wife during an argument.

Some intransitive verbs may be linked to several different nouns by specific prepositions:

E.g. Of course we cannot go on like this. You do not agree with me about a single issue.

I shall speak to you no more until you apologize to me for hurting my feelings.

Nobody is happy to work overtime, but if you complain to the boss about it, you will only make matters worse.

You can quarrel with me about this matter until you are blue in the face because this time I am determined to do things my way.

There is another type of expressions from this category, based on verbs and which are common and one can expect to hear them in natural, everyday conversation:

to come true = to happen in fact;

E.g. If all dreams come true, people would be better and happier.

to jump to conclusions = to draw hasty conclusions without knowing all the circumstances;

E.g. “Do not jump to conclusions! I came into your room to open the window, not to search it.”

to give someone a ring = to telephone someone;

E.g. He promised to give us a ring as soon as he got there, but he never kept his promise.

to stir up trouble = to cause trouble;

E.g. Julie likes to stir up trouble. Yesterday she told my sister she had seen her fiance kissing another girl.

to go blind = to lose one’s sight;

E.g. The doctor advised him to watch TV from further distance and not spend so much time in front of the computer unless he wanted to go blind.

4.1.5. Prepositional Idioms:

Prepositional usage in all languages contains much that is peculiar and arbitrary, the relations to be expressed by prepositions are often so vague and indefinite, that many times one might seem logically just as right as another, and it is only “that tyrannical, capricious, utterly incalculable thing, idiomatic usage which has decreed that this preposition must be used in this case, and that in another”.

A few instances will illustrate the arbitrary character of English use of prepositions; we tamper with, but we tinker at; we find fault in a person, but we find fault with him, we act on the spur of the moment, but at a moment’s notice; we are insensible to, but are unconscious of; we say for long, but at length-not at long, although “at long” was once an English idiom. So we now say on earth, when in earth was the older usage, as we see in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done in earth, as it is in Heaven”.

Prepositional usage not only varies from age to age, but it is also different in different classes, and also in the various countries where English is spoken. Thus, the choice between in a ship or on a ship is a difference between sea – and land – usage. In America, they speak of getting on or off a train, in England of getting in or out of it; up to time is the English idiom, on time the American. The difference is one of usage; either is correct from the point of view of grammar.

Prepositional idioms fall into several categories as follows:

Preposition-Noun Combination:

In this case prepositions are used idiomatically: in cash, under consideration, at fault, on fire, by hand, in person, on schedule, on strike, in theory.

out of place = inappropriate (a remark);

E.g. His remarks about archaeologists, wasting the country’s money, were quite out of place.

on the rocks = in a critical state, in a serious trouble, failing;

E.g. Their company has been on the rocks before, but it always survives.

against all odds = in spite of great opposition or disadvantages;

E.g. Mason knew that in trying to save the company from ruin, he was fighting a losing battle, but he carried on against all odds.

to the letter =exact in every detail;

E.g. We carried out your instructions to the letter, but we could not find the error in the programme.

by chance = unintentionally or unexpectedly;

E.g. I did not know Judith was spending her holiday at the seaside, so I met her by chance on the beach.

Preposition-Adjective-Noun Combinations:

in the long run = over a long period;

E.g. for now you are comfortable with temporary jobs, but what will happen in the long run when you have got married and had a family to support?

on thin ice = in a dangerous, precarious position or situation;

E.g. Remember that we are on thin ice with the maintenance contract. One wrong move and we lose it.

behind closed doors = in private; without the press or members of the public being present;

E.g. The preliminary hearing of the case was behind closed doors.

in hot water = in trouble; facing punishment;

E.g. You will be in hot water when your mother finds out you have knocked the heads off her nicest roses.

at short notice = with little advance learning;

E.g. I am afraid nobody could have done the report on such short notice. You know, Rome was not built in one day.

Preposition-Noun-Preposition Combinations:

Idioms in this category are followed by a noun or gerund, except “in order to”, which is followed by a verb.

in spite of = despite;

E.g. Dave was determined not to give up when he was so close to his dream in spite of all difficulties.

in touch with = communicating/able to communicate with;

E.g. I wish I could give you the information, but I have not been in touch with Madeleine for years and I do not know where she lives now.

in return for = as compensation for;

E.g. She thanked him with tears in her eyes and asked him what she could do in return for his great kindness.

on account of = because of;

E.g. The employees of the factory decided for the strike on account of the low wages.

on behalf of =as a representative of;

E.g. Before accepting to speak on behalf of all new employees, Mark made sure he knew all their requests and proposals.

4.1.6. Adjectival Idioms:

This kind of idioms are in the fact adjective-preposition combinations: afraid of, anxious about, aware of, capable of, close to, different from, faithful to, glad of, kind to, proud of, ready for, similar to, sorry for, superior to, useful to, worthy of.

Many adjectives are derived from past participles: broken, lost surprised. When they are used as participles, they are followed by the preposition “by”.

E.g. I was surprised by the news.

As adjectives, they are followed by various prepositions:

E.g. I was surprised at his behavior.

Here is a list of adjectives derived from particles: accustomed to, addicted to, alarmed at, ashamed of, based on, covered with, interested in, satisfied with, shocked at, surprised at. Many adjectives are used in more than one adjective-preposition combination.

E.g. made of: This clock is made of brass.

made from: Brass is made from copper and zinc.

concerned about: I am concerned about your help.

concerned for: I am concerned for your safety.

engaged to: My sister is engaged to the boy who lives next door.

engaged in: she is engaged in medical research.

annoyed at: I was annoyed at his stupidity.

annoyed with: I was annoyed with him.

angry with: He was angry with me.

angry at: He was angry at my laziness.

familiar to: this place is familiar to me.

familiar with: I am familiar with this place.

grateful to: I am grateful to you.

grateful for: I am grateful for all your help.

Adjectives with similar meanings are often followed by the same prepositions:

E.g. surprised at, amazed at, astonished at, startled at.

Attention should be paid to adjective-preposition combinations so as not to be confused with the passive forms of verbs followed by specific prepositions:

E.g. Children are prohibited from smoking.

4.1.7. Noun Phrases:

Such idioms are usually derived from metaphors:

a drop in the ocean = a very small amount (in comparison to another very large amount);

E.g. Mr. O’Neill donated two hundred pounds to our hospital charity. A very generous donation, but unfortunately only a drop in the ocean-we need half a million.

a home from home = a place at which one feels very welcome, happy and comfortable, as in one’s own home;

E.g. We enjoyed visiting Aunt Maud and Uncle Leonard. They are just like my parents, so their house is a home from home.

the law of the jungle = the principle that the strongest and most unscrupulous will survive and do well in a competitive situation;

E.g. It is all very well having a degree in business administration, but you don’t learn the law of the jungle at university.

pie in the sky = a promise of better things that is unlikely to be fulfilled;

E.g. When the Prime Minister talks about reducing unemployment by fifty per cent within three months, everyone knows it is only pie in the sky.

the writing in the wall = an event or indication which points to impending dangers, misfortune or difficulty; a warning of bad things to come;

E.g. The sleep drop in sales orders was recognized as the writing in the wall. The firm immediately began to diversify.

4.1.8. Idiomatic Pairs:

a) Pairs of opposites indicate lack of precision: more or less = approximately; sooner or later = eventually; now and then = occasionally; inside-out = with the inside facing outwards; upside-down = in the wrong side up.

b) Pairs of identical words indicate either repetition or gradual change: on and on = continuously; over and over again = repeatedly; step by step = gradually (in stages); word for word = exactly; face to face = confronting.

c) Pairs of similar words joined by “and” come from lyrical or semantic similarities: safe and sound = safe and without damage or injury; fair and square = fair and honest; up and about = out of bed and active; by and large = generally speaking; wear and tear = damage from ordinary use.

From the point of view of grammar, idiomatic pairs fall into:

Pairs of adjectives:

alive and kicking = well and active;

E.g. I had a letter from Rod. He’s still very much alive and kicking, working on an Australian sheep farm.

cut and dried = settled, decided, final (arrangements, plans, opinions etc.)

E.g. Our holiday arrangements are all cut and dried. We are going to Crete for the last two weeks in August.

free and easy = casual, relaxed; unconcerned about social convention;

E.g. I hope it won’t be formal dress for dinner in the hotel – I like to be free and easy when I am on holiday.

safe and sound = unharmed;

E.g. after his three months’ trip on foot through Africa, our son is glad to be back home safe and sound.

slow but sure = slow but good;

E.g. He does not rush things. He is a slow but sure worker and the end product is always worth waiting for.

Pairs of nouns:

body and soul = physical and mental energy;

E.g. Bob puts body and soul into his community work. He loves every minute of it.

one’s bread and butter = one’s means of earning money/making a living;

E.g. He only paints for pleasure. He earns his bread and butter as a photographer.

ifs and buts = excuses;

E.g. No ifs and buts, just do the work and tell me when it is finished.

the ins and outs = intricate details often difficult to explain and understand;

E.g. These ins and outs of the British parliamentary system are often difficult for foreigners to understand.

touch and go = critical, close to both success and failure, life and death etc.;

E.g. Greg is in a critical state after the accident. They say it is touch and go.

Pairs of adverbs:

here, there and everywhere = in many different places;

E.g. “Could this bag belong to Roger?” “Oh, yes, quite possibly. He leaves his stuff here, there and everywhere.”

in and out = coming in and going out several times;

E.g. Colin wants to speak to you. He has been in and out all morning looking to see if you were in your office.

loud and clear = very clearly;

E.g. “It is a bad telephone line. Can you hear me?” “Yes, loud and clear!”

more or less = approximately, roughly; practically;

E.g. “Is this the sort of design you were thinking of?” “Yes, more or less”.

to and fro = one way and then the other, up and down;

E.g. That poor man is very nervous, he has been walking to and fro in the corridor for and hour. His wife is expecting twins!

Pairs of verbs:

do or die = to make the greatest possible effort, or fail. Used when referring to a final attempt or to a one-and-only opportunity;

E.g. Colin is taking a university entrance exam tomorrow. He knows it is do or die, so he has been working very hard.

forgive and forget = to be prepared to be reco


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