Idioms and Proverbs – Difficulties in Learner English

idiomsWhat are idioms?

Idioms are culturally specific sayings; they convey some wise idea or principle. Idioms are an easy way to express a feeling or sum up a situation. Idioms are figurative, not literal; the words cannot be taken literally but can be understood as a metaphor for some aspect of culture. There are over 25,000 idioms in the English language, with a large number of them being used daily either in conversation, news, movies, music, or television.

Examples of idioms:

  • A hot potato – meaning a disputed topic that is under discussion. The words alone have no meaning except in the context of the conversation.
  • It’s raining cats and dogs – meaning heavy rain.  These words cannot be taken literally; cats and dogs do not fall from the sky.
  • Cool as a cucumber – meaning to stay calm in a stressful situation.  Idioms are often alliterations.
  • Kick the bucket – meaning to die.  An off-shoot of this idiom is a bucket-list, which is a list of things to do before death.
  • Piece of cake  – meaning an easy task.

What are proverbs?

a penny saved

A penny saved is a penny earned.

Proverbs are long idioms.  While idioms might have a few words and may not contain a complete sentence, proverbs are one or several complete sentences.

Examples of proverbs:

  • A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush – meaning a small success is better than no success at all.
  • A chain is only as strong as its weakest link – meaning that a team member who is not performing will lower the performance of the whole team.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned – meaning that it is wise to save money.
  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder – meaning, encouragement for those away from family.
  • Actions speak louder than words – meaning, to follow through in action with what is said.


Idioms and proverbs are confusing to English second language students.

I am a student of the Spanish language.  I have often been wholly confounded with Spanish idioms.  What is meant by “Me estas tomar el pelo? “; this literally translates to “To take the hair.”  When I consult a dictionary of Spanish idioms, I find the meaning is: “Your pulling my leg,” which is the equivalent English idiom, meaning “You’re trying to fool me.”

My misadventures with Spanish idioms have given me an appreciation for the difficulties that foreigners have with English language idioms.

Food for thought

If most languages have an idiom like “It’s all Greek to me.”  Then what idiom do the Greeks use when they can’t understand something?  They say, “It’s all Chinese to me.”

What is the difference between a proverb and a saying or Aphorism?

A proverb contains a lesson or meaning that is consistent.  A saying is something that is often said in spoken language.  Sayings and proverbs are very similar; in practice, the words are interchangeable.  The definition of Aphorism: ‘a pithy observation which contains a general truth.’

What is the difference between a proverb and a platitude?

A platitude is a proverb that has been said so often that it is no longer interesting or thoughtful.

What does jargon mean?

Jargon can be defined as special words or expressions that have a specific professional meaning, and should not be confused with idioms or proverbs.  Jargon has literal, not figurative meaning. Examples of jargons are:

  • due diligence – meaning putting effort into research before making a business decision
  • left-wing: political jargon for liberal, progressive viewpoint
  • TD: military jargon for temporary duty
  • PD: educational jargon for professional development

What is slang?

Slang is a very informal language, often restricted to a context or group of people.  Idioms have a symbolic meaning and should not be confused with slang.

Examples of slang:

  • Y’all – meaning You all.
  • DIY – meaning Do It Yourself
  • Quid – meaning a Great British Pound
  • Bits and Bobs – meaning a collection of small things

The use of jargon, idioms, proverbs, and slang in blogs

The purpose of a blog is to communicate a message: the message should be clear, concise, and easy to understand for most people.

When writing a blog, I recommend considering the audience. If the intended audience is ‘the general public, then the content should be understood by people with limited comprehension of the English language.

Avoid using idioms, slang, and proverbs as they are confusing for those whom English is a second language. Slang is unprofessional and will lose your audience and credibility. An example of slang is ‘Y’all’ Meaning ‘You all.’

Jargon, especially technical jargon, should be explained. Acronyms need to be spelled in full. For example, do not assume that someone in a country like China understands the meaning of CBD, even if the meaning is generally understood in the United States. When I first saw the acronym CBD, I thought it meant ‘Central Business District.’ Do not assume the reader knows as much about the topic as you.

Test your understanding of idioms

Welcome to your Idioms quiz

Makes my hair stand on end
Make yourself at home
Get cold feet
Do me a favour
Do your homework
Giving the cold shoulder
You have crossed the line
Beat around the bush


Many language curriculums do not adequately cover idioms.  Curriculum designers should include idioms and recognize the need for non-native speakers to learn about idioms.

The best way to learn idiom is complete emersion in an English speaking environment.  The use of idioms is so pervasive that when asked, a local might use an idiom to explain an idiom.


If you’re an English teacher in Japan, you probably expect to have hardworking, diligent Japanese students paying rapt attention to your lessons. However, even with all of your hard work, you will find it challenging to explain idioms in the English language.

Idioms and proverbs are confusing to foreigners for reasons such as,

  • They are culturally specific sayings
  • Convey a wise idea or principle in an abstract phrase.
  • They are an easy way to convey a feeling or sum up a situation, without proper explanation.
  • They are figurative, not literal; foreigners may try to understand the idiom literally.

Idioms and proverbs are used so often that people forget that they are using them consequently. English learners will have difficulty with the following:

  • They will be left for dead  (unable to understand)  in a conversation unless they know the reference being used.
  • In conversation with a foreigner, an English speaker might not know that they are misunderstood; they have left their audience ‘up the creek without a paddle’ (without the proper understanding).
  • They might find English too confusing and often a bunch of gibberish (incomprehensible).

English learners will need to spend a lot of time learning idioms and proverbs.  English Second Language curriculum should be designed with a large section covering idioms and proverbs. Idioms are necessary if the students are being prepared to live in an English speaking society.

I recommend Michael Swan’s book Practical English Usage as a reference for English language idioms and proverbs.

idiom flashcards

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  • You might also enjoy our “Idioms” Fun Deck Cards, also featured on Amazon

Aaron Skudder


  1. Hallo there Aaron, 

    I have been learning English for a good deal of time now and I can say I am still learning although lots of terms are hard for me to understand. I am not a native English speaker and I desire to know English completely. Thanks for clearing up the difference between idioms and proverbs because it was one of my biggest problems. Now I have seen how different they are and I will keep practicing and using the words many times so that I can understand them well. Thanks again.

    • What is your first language?  Do you have examples of idioms in your native language?  It is interesting to compare idioms in different cultures.

  2. Thank you for explaining idioms and proverbs. I did not know that much about These figures of speech until now. I mean I had heard of things like this but I did not know what they were called. I have been speaking English most of my life, so I could imagine how this is subject would be complicated for non-native English speakers.
    Thanks for also explaining slang and platitudes. I knew about slang but I did not know about platitudes. Your quizzes are very helpful in learning these tricky figures of speech.

    • How did you score in the quiz?  Have I made the quiz too easy?  Or do you think foreigners would struggle with the questions?

  3. I must confess, although I know quite alot about English language, I’ve gained some more knowledge from reading this post. Most people really don’t understand what idioms are and have sometimes caused controversy is so many situations. As I’ve learned here I’ll inform my kids about this post also si they can benefit from it. 

  4. Thanks for this educative article, English idioms and proverbs expressions are an important part of everyday English. They come up all the time in both written and spoken English. Because idioms don’t always make sense literally I guess one will need to familiarize  with the meaning and usage of each idiom. Although that may seem like a lot of work, but learning idioms is fun, especially when you compare English idioms to the idioms in your own language.

    • Is English your first language?  I am curious about idioms in other languages, do you have any to share?

  5. This post is very informative.  I knew the definition of aphorism, but its official definition is hard to grasp.  Yours was easier to understand.  

    When reading, I enjoy seeing an idiom used by a writer skillfully because as a non-native English speaker, I’m interested in how the literal meaning of an idiom contrasts with its actual definition.

    Here’s an example of an idiom from my native language, it literally means “a hole in my pocket,” but it actually means, “I don’t have money.” lol

    Great article, Aaron!

    • English is confusing.  There are many ways of saying something, different words that mean similar things and identical words that can be different things based on context.

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