Idioms: Processing, Structure, and Interpretation

Idioms: Processing, Structure, and Interpretation

Idioms: Processing, Structure, and Interpretation

Idioms: Processing, Structure, and Interpretation


"The book draws on a lot of research, is friendly to the reader, and will be of good value to teachers."

Paul Nation, Victoria University of Wellington, Australia

This comprehensive, up-to-date, and accessible text on idiom use, learning, and teaching approaches the topic with a balance of sound theory and extensive research in cognitive linguistics, psycholinguistics, corpus linguistics, and sociolinguistics combined with informed teaching practices. Idioms is organized in three parts:

  • Part I includes discussion of idiom definition, classification, usage patterns, and functions.
  • Part II investigates the process involved in the comprehension of idioms and the factors that influence individuals' understanding and use of idioms in both L1 and L2.
  • Part III explores idiom acquisition and the teaching and learning of idioms, focusing especially on the strategies and techniques used to help students learn idioms.

To assist the reader in grasping the key issues, study questions are provided at the end of each chapter. The text also includes a glossary of special terms and an annotated list of selective idiom reference books and student textbooks.

Idioms is designed to serve either as a textbook for ESL/applied linguistics teacher education courses or as a reference book. No matter how the book is used, it will equip an ESL/applied linguistics students and professionals with a solid understanding of various issues related to idioms and the learning of them.


If natural language had been designed by a logician, idioms would not exist. They are a feature of discourse that frustrates any simple logical account of how the meanings of utterances depend on the meanings of their parts and on the syntactic relation among those parts. Idioms are transparent to native speakers, but a course of perplexity to those who are acquiring a second language. If someone tells me that Mrs. Thatcher has become the Queen of Scotland, I am likely to say: "That's a tall story. Pull the other one!" As anyone struggling to learn English will aver, stories cannot be tall--they have no height, and so the expression violates a restriction on the normal sense of the word. Similarly, to pull something is a physical event, and "one" is a pronoun that normally harks back to something that has occurred in the discourse. But I am certainly not inviting you to make any physical action. "Tall" has an idiomatic sense of improbable or farfetched. "Pull the other one" has an idiomatic sense that relates to another idiom: "to pull someone's leg," which means to joke or to tease someone. "To pull the other one" stands in for "to pull my other leg," and is accordingly an ironic invitation to tell me another joke.

A simple litmus, though not an infallible one, for whether a sense is idiomatic is to consider its expression in another language. An Italian speaker, for example, does not say, "Mi stai tirando la gamba" [literally, you are pulling my leg] to express the idea of a joke, but rather: "Mi prendi in giro." This expression is purely idiomatic. It does not have a literal meaning, though it clearly relates to: "Fammi fare un giro," which means you are taking me on a tour. Hence, some expressions have both a literal and an idiomatic meaning, such as "It's better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick," and others have only an idiomatic interpretation, such as "You're giving me the run around." All this linguistic . . .

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