An idiom is a combination of words that has a meaning that is different from the meanings of the individual words themselves. It can have a literal meaning in one situation and a different idiomatic meaning in another situation. It is a phrase which does not always follow the normal rules of meaning and grammar.
To sit on the fence can literally mean that one is sitting on a fence.
I sat on the fence and watched the game.
However, the idiomatic meaning of to sit on the fence is that one is not making a clear choice regarding some issue.
The politician sat on the fence and would not give his opinion about the tax issue.
Many idioms are similar to expressions in other languages and can be easy for a learner to understand. Other idioms come from older phrases which have changed over time.
To hold one’s horses means to stop and wait patiently for someone or something. It comes from a time when people rode horses and would have to hold their horses while waiting for someone or something.
“Hold your horses,” I said when my friend started to leave the store.
Other idioms come from such things as sports that are common in the United Kingdom or the United States and may require some special cultural knowledge to easily understand them.
To cover all of one’s bases means to thoroughly prepare for or deal with a situation. It comes from the American game of baseball where you must cover or protect the bases.
I tried to cover all of my bases when I went to the job interview.
Most idioms are unique and fixed in their grammatical structure. The expression to sit on the fence cannot become to sit on a fence or to sit on the fences. However, there are many changes that can be made to an idiom.
Some of these changes result in a change in the grammatical structure that would generally be considered to be wrong.
To be broken literally means that something is broken.
The lamp is broken so I cannot easily read my book.
To be broke is grammatically incorrect but it has the idiomatic meaning of to have no money.
I am broke and I cannot go to a movie tonight.
There can also be changes in nouns, pronouns or in the verb tenses.
I sat on the fence and did not give my opinion.
Many people are sitting on the fence and do not want to give their opinion.
Adjectives and adverbs can also be added to an idiomatic phrase.
The politician has been sitting squarely in the middle of the fence since the election.
It is for these reasons that it is sometimes difficult to isolate the actual idiomatic expression and then find it in a dictionary of idioms.
A phrasal verb is a verb which is a combination of a verb and an adverb, a verb and a preposition, and a verb with an adverb and a preposition. It can have a literal meaning that is easy to understand because the meaning is clear from the words that are used in the phrasal verb itself. It can also have an idiomatic meaning which cannot easily be understood by looking at the words themselves.
The following examples contain a literal meaning and an idiomatic meaning:
to run around (something) – to run in a circle around something
The dog ran around the fire hydrant.
to run around (somewhere) – to go to various places to do something
I spent the day running around downtown.
to run into (someone or something) – to hit or crash into someone or something
The car ran into the truck on the busy street.
to run into (someone) – to meet someone by chance
I ran into my friend in a restaurant yesterday.
to run along with (someone or something) – to run beside or at the same pace as someone or something
The dog ran along with the bicycle.
to run around with (someone) – to be friends and do things with someone or with a group
The boy is running around with a bad group of people.
Some idiomatic expressions are made with a phrasal verb plus some other words. These words are used in a fixed order to give an idiomatic meaning.
to run (verb) around (adverb) like a chicken with its head cut off – to run around with what seems to be no purpose
I ran around like a chicken with its head cut off as I tried to prepare for my holidays.
A proverb is a short saying or sentence that is generally known by many people. The saying usually contains words of wisdom, truth or morals that are based on common sense or practical experience. It is often a description of a basic rule of conduct that all people generally follow or should follow. Proverbs can be found in all languages.
money doesn’t grow on trees – money is not easy to get and you must work hard for it
The girl’s father often says that money doesn’t grow on trees when she asks him for money.
the early bird catches the worm – arriving early gives one an advantage
My boss always comes to work early because he believes that the early bird catches the worm.
the pen is mightier than the sword – writing and ideas are more powerful than the use of force
The pen is mightier than the sword and a good idea or strong beliefs will defeat the strongest army.