Bending over backwards to hit the nail on the head

Posted by on July 15, 2013

© Photodisc / Getty ImagesHave you got a bee in your bonnet about idioms? Do you bend over backwards to find opportunities to use them? If so, be careful not to go overboard; otherwise you might be at risk of putting your foot in it.

Many idioms are colourful and attractive, and can be a striking and economical way of expressing meanings, but they need to be approached with caution, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, if you use too many idioms in close proximity – like I did in the first paragraph above – the overall effect can be unintentionally comic.

Secondly, you might sometimes find that there’s an idiom on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite remember all the details, and instead of saying, for example, You’re pulling my leg, you say You’re pulling my legs. It’s a tiny difference, but it’s nevertheless likely to provoke a giggle in the person you’re talking to. The trouble is that the more advanced you become in your use of idiomatic language, the higher are people’s expectations that you’ll get it exactly right.

Thirdly, there’s the matter of pronunciation. Although some idioms have variable stress patterns, others are fixed – for example:

keep your HAIR on (not: keep your hair ON)
stick your NECK out (not: stick your neck OUT)
a CHIP on your shoulder (not: a chip on your SHOULDER)
have a BEE in your bonnet  (not: a bee in your BONNET)

These are also, it might seem, minimal differences – so is insistence on the correct stress patterns a case of splitting hairs, or making a mountain out of a molehill? Well, no, it isn’t, because non-standard stress patterns can fail to convey the intended idiomatic meaning, with potentially comic results. You’ve got a chip on your SHOULDER, for example, sounds like a hint to a messy eater.

Fourthly, colourful image-rich idioms such as a finger in every pie and hit the buffers draw a disproportionate amount of attention to themselves, and perhaps mislead us into neglecting the importance of plainer, less flamboyant but probably more important idioms such as After you (when inviting someone to walk through a door ahead of you, for instance) or Speaking (in response to “Can I speak to …..” on the telephone) or I’m all right, thanks (meaning “I’ve had enough to eat or drink; I don’t want any more, thanks”).

And that brings me to a final point. A few years ago, I went to a pub in England with an international group of teachers. One of them was a such an exceptionally skilful speaker of English that I don’t think anyone would have guessed that she wasn’t a native speaker. When I asked her what she’d like to drink she said “Oh, I’m all right, thanks”. The idiom itself was perfect, but what she evidently didn’t realise was that it isn’t considered acceptable to go into a pub and just sit there without a drink. Fortunately the barman didn’t hear. In fact, ironically, it’s probably more acceptable if someone says something like “I no want drink” in a clearly foreign accent; in that case they can’t necessarily be expected to know the norms of behaviour in English pubs. But the more like a native speaker you sound, the higher the stakes are and the more likely you are to ruffle people’s feathers.

So by all means grasp the nettle and enjoy the challenge of learning and using idioms, but bear in mind that you might be opening a can of worms, and that you might not always quite hit the nail on the head.

Comments (4)
  • Interesting point about the stress patterns! That had never occurred to me before and it makes a huge difference with some idioms.

    Posted by Joanne Mason on 15th July, 2013
  • One of the fun things about idioms is how flexible they are (despite sometimes being called fixed expressions). In fact many of the most folksy ones are rarely used straight but rather alluded to (‘every cloud, as they say’) or messed around with: one of my favourite exploitations when I was researching this area was ‘You can lead a girl to Vassar but you can’t make her think’ (requires familiarity not only with English idioms but with the US higher education system for full understanding, but that’s kind of the point). But woe betide anyone with less than perfect English who tries to play around with an idiom; it will just be assumed that they have got it wrong, like your teacher in the pub, and they will most likely be corrected by some well-meaning native speaker.

    Posted by Liz on 16th July, 2013
  • Interesting and amusing.

    Posted by Donald Rutherford on 30th July, 2013
  • […] Bending over backwards to hit the nail on the head – Have you got a bee in your bonnet about idioms? Do you bend over backwards to find opportunities to use them? If so, be careful not to go overboard; otherwise you might be at risk of putting your foot in it. […]

    Posted by Ivan Pesin - Links: Dec 24 on 24th December, 2013
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