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Figures of speech and
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A Tough Nut to Crack
Figures of speech and the language learner

by Diane Nicholls

• Figures of speech
• Understanding figures of speech
• Avoiding mother-tongue 'interference'

• Using figures of speech correctly
• In defence of the learner

Figures of speech

Figures of speech are idiomatic expressions in which words are used figuratively, rather than with their literal meaning. When we say that somebody is in the soup, for example, we instinctively know that there is no real soup involved; just that the person we are talking about has a lot of problems. We are using a figure of speech.

This use of figurative language goes far beyond such fixed expressions as up the creek, in deep water, up a gum tree, and on a sticky wicket. A deep vein of figurative meaning or metaphor runs right through almost all that we say and write (including this sentence), with a vast proportion of individual words having both literal and figurative meanings. The adjective low, for example, means 'small in height or amount' and 'unhappy or lacking in confidence or hope'. This extension of the literal meaning of low to describe a state of mind is metaphorical and is mirrored in other adjectives for 'unhappy' such as down, downhearted, downbeat, downcast and depressed. High, upbeat, and uplifted, of course, are used metaphorically to describe the opposite state of mind. The Macmillan English Dictionary includes a section (LA8-LA9 in the British English and LA10-LA11 in the American English version) which has been designed to help learners to understand and learn to use this type of metaphorical language, and also provides more than 40 'Metaphor Boxes' throughout the dictionary.

In this article, rather than looking at individual words, we look specifically at idiomatic expressions and the challenges they present for non-native speakers of English, both when they are used by others and when they try to use them themselves. All of the idiomatic expressions in the article appear in the dictionary under the entry for the word in bold typeface. You may want to look these up and make sure that you have understood them.


Understanding figures of speech

Native speakers are usually so used to using figurative language that they are rarely made aware of how large a proportion of what they say and write is metaphorical. We should bear in mind that there is often a more straightforward, literal and, therefore, easier-to-understand alternative to an idiomatic expression which might be better suited for use when talking to a non-native speaker, at least until we have established the learner's level of fluency. For example, if you ask a learner of English What did you get up to this morning?, there is greater risk of confusion or complete misunderstanding than if you ask What did you do this morning? Unless the learner has already learnt the idiomatic phrasal verb to get up to sth, it is unlikely that they will be able to deduce that get + up + to = do, especially if they have learnt the meaning of the phrasal verb get up already and assume that there is some literal connection. I am not suggesting that we avoid using figurative language. That would not help the learner at all. But an awareness of how we use it will help us to use it sensitively, to check that we have been understood correctly, and to provide 'literal translations' for clarity when needed.

Also, since idioms and other metaphorical expressions are used more often in spoken language than in writing, mistakes resulting from mishearings are abundant: They had to batten down the hedges; I'm going to urge on the side of caution (see under err); They will have to hedge their weights.


Avoiding mother-tongue 'interference'

As in many other areas of language learning, interference from the figurative vocabulary of the mother tongue is also a common problem for learners. The temptation to translate a figure of speech directly from one's mother tongue or to assume that a particular figure of speech is universal is enormous. Many idiomatic expressions do not translate exactly from one language to another. Some simply have no equivalent in another language. I was once completely bewildered when warned by a French host: faut pas pousser mémé dans les orties. Translating this word for word gave me you shouldn't push Granny in the nettles, which left me none the wiser. It was eventually explained to me that he was warning me not to exaggerate or get too carried away. On another occasion, the same French person exclaimed to me in English I took my foot! He had translated a French idiom (prendre son pied = to really enjoy something) directly into English. I wonder whether direct translation from the mother tongue was what caused these puzzling pronouncements: vitriol has many fathers; when the boats rise, the ship floats. Certainly, you will not find them in any dictionary.

A related problem which learners need to be alerted to is that to achieve native-style fluency, it is important to strike a balance between figurative and literal language that approximates that of the average native speaker. The learner should not get carried away or go over the top, so to speak.


Using figures of speech correctly

Idioms are usually fixed expressions. They are best seen as indivisible chunks of language rather than as individual words grouped together. Native speakers learn them as prefabricated sentences or phrases and know not to alter them other than for comic or emphatic effect (as when up the creek is altered to create the impolite variant up shit creek). Learners, however, tend to see the individual words in such chunks as variable parts which can be moved around, supplemented or replaced, even in very small ways. The following examples show the learner mistakenly adding pronouns and determiners and replacing words with near synonyms, with unintentionally bizarre or comic results: I had my last laugh; We'll play it by the ear; He did a lot of thinking on the feet; I think I have gone up his nose; Keep your pecker high. You can look these up in the dictionary if you are not sure why they are wrong.

Metaphor mixing is a common native-speaker error. It seems to be in our nature to experiment or play with figurative language and the results are not always successful. A 'pure' metaphor takes a theme and follows it through to a logical conclusion; a mixed metaphor puts two or more different themes or images side by side in the same sentence. A hilarious collection of native-speaker-generated mixed metaphors and jumbled idioms is available at My favourite from this collection is: She grabbed the bull by the horns and ran with it.

Few learners would be adventurous enough to attempt to create the sorts of extended metaphors that native speakers are so fond of. Rather than following one figure of speech with another which fails to continue the same theme, they tend to mix metaphors internally – two metaphorical figures of speech are jumbled up into one:

Has somebody been crying over sour grapes? ( = cry over spilt milk + sour grapes)
You've got me on the camel's back (= over a barrel + the straw that broke the camel's back)
It is not cast-iron in stone (= cast in stone + cast-iron (sense 2))
I'm a guinea pig for punishment (= a glutton for punishment + guinea pig (sense 2))
It was like a red herring to a bull (= a red rag to a bull + red herring)

Another problem for the learner lies in the fact that figures of speech usually have a marked register, or level of formality, so that they are not always appropriate for a particular situation or type of exchange. Most often, figurative expressions are more informal than their literal alternatives. Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, overlooked this when training Eliza Doolittle to speak 'proper' English when at the races. Eliza successfully affects an impeccable 'upper-class' accent in order to fit in with the company, but she fails to maintain the correct register (and use of grammar) when she uses the idiomatic expression to do somebody in instead of the literal alternative: to kill somebody.

'My aunt died of influenza. But it's my belief they done the old woman in...'

Learners of foreign languages, too, must be careful to learn both the meaning and the register of a figure of speech before leaping ahead and using it.


In defence of the learner

If we stop to analyse our common figures of speech, as the learner must in order to understand and learn them, a lot of questions arise: What is a red herring, anyway? What is a burton and where do you go for one? What is dander and how do you get somebody's up? What is a snook and how do you cock one? And how do you know when you have come a cropper? Native speakers know what these expressions mean even without knowing the meanings of some of the often obscure and archaic words they include, but if we imagine we are hearing them for the first time, in a language we are not completely familiar with, it is easy to see the confusion they might cause or the mistakes that might be made in using them.