Idiomatic Expressions

In any language there are certain conventions of expression--ways of writing and saying things--that are not necessarily dictated by grammatical rules. But when these conventions are not followed, the results are considered poor diction, or bad writing.

Below are a number of so-called "unidiomatic expressions." An unidiomatic expression refers to a locution (statement or utterance) that native speakers of the language do not say in any dialect of the language. Unidiomatic expressions are one of the most common weaknesses we find in the prose of unpracticed writers.

Examples of unidiomatic English:

1. Although I agree to a few of Smith’s points, I must disagree to the majority.

2. An extraordinary willingness to compromise has been a common tendency throughout the Canadian history.

3. We can differ the transportation and ritual models of communication by contrasting the space-biased nature of one with the time-biased nature of the second.

4. These are the major theoretical points I intend on concentrating in this paper.

5. This teacher had no interest or respect for his students.


1. In number 1, the problem is the two uses of the word "to". The difficulty here is that English allows for a number of prepositions to fit idiomatically with the verb agree, but you must know when to use which preposition. For instance, you can use the word "to" but only in a sentence like this:

- She agreed to the conditions spelled out in the contract.

But, as if to make matters more confusing, you can also use the preposition "on", as in the following:

- I think we can all agree on the reasons the accident occurred.

In number 1 above, and as if to make things confusing beyond reason, the correct idiomatic English is neither of these prepositions! Instead, the correct word is "with":

- Although I agree with a few of Smith’s points, I must disagree with the majority.

2. Number 2 is confusing because although an English speaker would not use the word "the" in the expression "throughout the Canadian history," that same speaker would use the word "the" in a sentence like "I heard your sister is in the hospital." I say this is confusing because it all depends on which country you happen to be in at the time. If you traveled to England, for instance, you would more likely hear someone say "I hear your sister is in hospital." In Canada, when we make tea, we "put on the kettle," apparently referring to a specific kettle. In England, however, they "put on kettle," apparently referring not to a kettle, but to the act of making tea. Generally we find that Asian students have trouble with the English article "the," because their language often does not use a part of speech like our article. But we have to recognize that the idiomatic expressions I've just highlighted don't make the task of recognizing correct usage terribly easy. This is why we say that learning correct idiomatic English is a matter of learning to train your ear to what native speakers say.

3. The correct idiomatic wording in number 3 would be "We can differentiate between…".

4. Here we would say "…that I intend to concentrate on in this paper."

5. In 5, the preposition "for" does fit with "respect" ("respect for his students"), but it does not fit with "interest" ("interest for his students" is unidiomatic). Unidiomatic prepositions sometimes occur in compounded phrases like the one in this example. To avoid this problem, break the compound phrase into its two parts and check to see that the preposition works with both. If, as in this example, it does not fit, you need to write the sentence with the correct preposition attached to each part:

- This teacher had no interest in, nor respect for, his students.

The major difficulty for people learning English is that not only are there no specific rules for correct idioms, but logic seems to play little or no part in establishing correct idiomatic practices. If logic played such a role, we would probably "look down words in the dictionary", rather than "look up words in the dictionary"! After all, we rarely hold books over our heads while reading. (In fact, in Canada we say "It’s up to you what career choices you make", whereas in England, as Mick Jagger makes clear in Under My Thumb, they say "It’s down to you…"). This is why learning proper idiomatic expressions is really a matter of attentive listening and practice.

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