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Category: phrase

Are you pulling my leg? Some more English idioms

In  the previous blog post we looked at some English idioms. Here are a few more.

A ballpark number
A very inexact number, a rough estimate.

A bed of roses
A comfortable, happy, trouble-free position or situation.

A piece of cake
Something that is easy to do.

Back to square one
Having to start from the beginning again because your previous attempt failed.

Bark up the wrong tree
Do something in a wrong way, take a wrong approach, make the wrong choice.

Break a leg
This idiom is used to wish someone good luck. It is said that actors are superstitious and that they do not want people to say ’good luck’ to them, because then the opposite might happen. The idiom probably comes from the German Hals- und Beinbruch (break your neck and legs).

Bring home the bacon
Earn money for one’s family.

Call it a day
Decide to stop doing something, especially when you are tired or bored.

Cost an arm and a leg
Be extremely expensive.

Cry wolf
Warn that there is a problem when there is none. If you do that too often, people will not believe you when there really is a problem.

Cut corners
Disregard the right procedure in order to save time or money, so that the result is bad quality or even illegal.

Cut to the chase
Get to the point without wasting time. The idiom is said to have come from the film world. Films often ended with a dramatic chase scene. Some screenwriters created unnecessary scenes that bored the audience. When a director said ’Cut to the chase’, it meant ’Skip the uninteresting stuff and go straight to the final scene’.

Face the music
Accept responsibility or unpleasant consequences of what you have done.

Hit the sack/Hit the hay
Go to bed.

Hold your horses
Slow down, be patient.

In the red
When you are in the red, you are in debt, you lose money. Accountants used red ink when recording business losses. The opposite expression in the black of course means ‘be solvent, have enough money’.

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings
Don’t be too sure that you know what the outcome will be. The idiom refers to opera. When the soprano (and in the old days sopranos used to be pretty voluminous) has sung her final aria, we know that the whole thing is over.

Let the cat  out of the bag
Reveal a secret, often without intention.

Like a bull in a china shop
This idiom is used about people who rush into a situation without thinking and clumsily destroy things in their way. It is also used figuratively about a person who is insensitive to other people’s feelings and says or does things that hurt them.

On the ball
Be alert and able to react quickly, be competent.

Pull someone’s leg
Make somebody believe something that is not true.

Put the cat among the pigeons
Say or do something that worries people or makes them angry.

Red tape
Rules or routines that are complicated and lead to delays or obstructions; bureaucracy.

Smell a rat
Suspect that something is wrong.

Spill the beans
Unintentionally reveal a secret.

Straight from the horse’s mouth
Information directly from a reliable source, from someone who has personal knowledge.

Take a back seat
Become less active or involved.

A woman is sitting in the back seat of a car. The image illustrates the idiom 'take a back seat' meaning 'become less active or involved'.
Taking a back seat

The elephant in the room
A problem or controversial issue that everybody in a group is aware of but nobody wants to talk about because it would be uncomfortable or embarrassing.

Through thick and thin
If you stay with someone through thick and thin, you do so for a long time even if there are difficulties.

Under the weather
Feeling a bit ill or sad.

Be careful when you use idioms!

An idiom is an expression that means something else than its separate words might suggest. Many idioms are peculiar to a specific language. Therefore, you should be careful when you try to translate an idiom from your own language into another.

There is a children’s game called follow the leader. One child is the leader and the others must follow and repeat what that child does.

Follow the leader has become an idiom meaning go along with, do as you are told, obey. In my native Swedish the saying is follow John. When I was young I worked as a farm helper in Wales. The farmer often took me and his family to various markets and fairs, where we could discover the latest in farm machinery, admire award-winning sheep and see fine displays of cakes and flower arrangements. The whole thing meant a lot of criss-crossing over large areas from one spectacle to another, and once when the farmer was hurrying along with the rest of us following in his footsteps,  I shouted, ”Now we’re following John!” I had no idea that the English expression is different, and since the farmer’s first name was John, I thought I was really witty. I always addressed him by Mr. Wrench and never called him John. His family must have thought that I was very impolite. 

A family is walking in the gutter with sleeping mats over their heads to protect them from heavy rain.The image illustrates the idiom 'follow the leader' as a reminder to be careful when you use idioms.
Following the leader

Here are some English idioms with their equivalents in Swedish and some other languages:

Carry coals to Newcastle
To express that you do something that is redundant or completely pointless, you can say in English to carry coals to Newcastle. Since Newcastle is known for its coal, it’s meaningless to carry coals there. The French expression is porter de l’eau à la rivière (carry water to the river), and in Swedish it is gå över ån efter vatten (cross the stream to get water). The German idiom is Eulen nach Athen tragen (carry owls to Athens – the owl is a symbol of wisdom and there were many wise men in old Athens).

Beat around the bush
To say that you avoid doing or talking about something unpleasant or difficult, there is the English idiom beat around the bush. The corresponding Swedish expression is gå som katten kring het gröt (walk like the cat around hot porridge). There is a similar expression in German, um den Brei herumreden (talk around the porridge). In French the saying is tourner autour au pot (going around the pot). The Italians say menare il can per l’aia (lead the dog to the barn).

Foot the bill
If you ask someone to foot the bill, you want them to pay the costs. This is in German zur Kasse bitten (ask someone to come to the cash desk). In Swedish you have to betala kalaset (pay for the party) or stå för fiolerna (pay for the violins).

The straw that broke the camel’s back
This idiom means that something small will be the final action that causes a large and unwanted reaction. The Swedish equivalent is the drop that made the cup run over. Other European languages such as German, French, Italian and Spanish also refer to a cup that runs over.

Out of the frying pan into the fire
This is an expression saying that something is going from bad to worse. The Swedish saying is ur askan i elden (out of the ashes into the fire).

Kill two birds with one stone
This means that you can achieve two goals with just one action. In Swedish we say slå två flugor i en smäll (hit two flies with one swat). Danish and German are other languages that refer to flies instead of birds.

Miss the boat
If you are too slow to take advantage of an opportunity and it’s now too late, you miss the boat. In Swedish we say tåget har gått (the train has left).

Let the cat out of the bag
Inadvertently disclose a secret. The Swedish equivalent is prata bredvid munnen (talk beside your mouth).

Cost an arm and a leg
To say that something is very expensive is in Swedish kosta skjortan (cost the shirt).

IDENTICAL IDIOMS IN ENGLISH AND SWEDISH

Many idioms are almost identical in English and Swedish. The following are some examples.

Cast pearls before swine
Offer something to someone who does not understand it or want to use it

No smoke without fire
A rumour about someone is probably true

Play with fire
Do something risky that may harm you

Hit the nail on the head
Do or say something that is exactly right

Grab the bull by its horns
Directly take strong action to deal with a problem


Sleep like a log
Sleep very deeply without being woken by any noises

Strong as an ox
Be very strong

Like father, like son
Resemble a parent in appearance or behaviour

Sweep things under the carpet
Hide something that is embarrassing or wrong

Put your cards on the table
Be completely honest about your intentions

Eat like a horse
Eat a lot of food

Throw in the towel
Admit that you are defeated

You need to be careful when you use idioms. So, if you talk about a cat walking round hot porridge, a native English speaker will look very surprised.

You will find more English idioms here.

With respect to and in respect of

The two phrases with respect to and in respect of both mean regarding, concerning. While both are used in British English, in respect of is seldom used in American English.

With respect to your enquiry we can deliver the items by Friday.
The two novels are very different in respect of the development of their respective characters.

Both these expressions are used in formal writing. When we speak, we have other ways of expressing regarding, as you can see here.

To a non-native English writer, the use of prepositions in English is often confusing. In the phrases we are looking at here, we cannot change the prepositions and say, for example *in respect to (for the use of the asterisk see the comment at the end of this text).

To have respect for someone is to show consideration or respect towards a person or admire someone for their qualities, ideas, actions, etc.

She has great respect for her grandfather’s long experience.
I have no respect for people who keep interrupting others.

Could you care less?

To indicate that you are not at all concerned about something you can say I couldn’t care less.

I couldn’t care less if my old car broke down. I’ve been planning to buy a new one for some time now.

If his girlfriend left him, he couldn’t care less. He has found out that she is not his type.

So the phrase I couldn’t care less means that you don’t care at all.

Therefore it seems strange to hear I could care less, which has grown in use, particularly in American English.

He was so tired that he could care less if the roof fell down on him.

To me this indicates that he actually has some concern left, so the statement is actually illogical; it implies that he still cares, that he still has worries. As a copyeditor I recommend that you stick to the original version with couldn’t.

A crashed car is being lifted on to a tow truck. The image illustrates the phrase I couldn't care less.
I couldn’t care less if I had to scrap my old car.

Don’t say too much!

Writers often say too much by adding unnecessary words. Phrases such as free gift and joint cooperation are examples of tautology (saying the same thing twice) or pleonasm (using more words than necessary). Words that do not add information are called redundant words. Get rid of redundancies!

Here are some examples of unnecessary words:

General consensus – if you have a consensus, all agree
Foreign imports – imports are always from another country
Unexpected surprise – it wouldn’t be a surprise if you expected it
Personal friend – if  you have a friend, you have a personal relationship. Someone who is not a friend may be an acquaintance
Past history – history is about the past
The two twins – would you expect them to be three?
Four different colours – if something comes in four colours, you can be sure they are different
Unsolved mystery – if you have solved it, it is not a mystery

I am sure you can see what’s wrong in the following examples:

Moment in time
Period of time
Few in number
On a daily basis
In actual fact
Sum total
Close proximity
Necessary requirement
New beginning
Advance planning
Outward appearances
The reason why
Return back

Combinations with together and each other are common – and unnecessary:

Combine together
Collaborate together
Join together
Merge together
Mix together
Blend together
Interact with each other

Another often unnecessary word is completely:

Completely surrounded
Completely empty
Completely unanimous

A man lying on a sun chair on a beach.
Completely alone? No, alone!

We might include end result and final outcome in the list of unnecessary words, but these combinations are acceptable, since it is possible to also talk about a preliminary result or a preliminary outcome.

Some abbreviations:

Since LCD means liquid crystal display, you should not write LCD display.

In PIN and ISBN, N stands for number – writing number after the abbreviation is pleonastic.

RAM means random access memory – don’t add memory.

UPC stands for universal product code and therefore you should not write UPC code.

ATM means automated teller machine – write only ATM.

Pleonasm is sometimes used as a rhetorical device for emphasis:

Each and every
Any and all
First and foremost
To all intents and purposes

Such emphasis is common in legal texts:

Null and void
Aid and abet
Fit and proper
Cease and desist
Sole and exclusive

Redundant words are so common that we often don’t notice them. Read your text with an eye on redundancies – and delete them!

Thesauri

A dictionary is a list of words and their definitions. A thesaurus (plural thesauri or thesauruses) does not give definitions of words but lists words grouped together according to their meaning.

The first modern thesaurus, published in 1852 by Peter Mark Roget, is still widely used. The book is organised according to ideas or concepts. You first look up a word in the index in the second half of the book, where you will find one or several synonyms for that word, each with a reference number. Under production, for example, in my copy of Roget’s I find the words product, production and dramaturgy. The first two words refer to section 164 and the third to 594 (having to do with drama and ballet). Here you can see a part of section 164 (the numbers before some of the words refer to further sections in the book):

A page from Rogets Thesaurus with the entry for the word production

You will notice the richness of expressions here. There are concrete words such as thing, designer and skyscraper and more abstract ones such as attempt, productivity and idea. When you use a thesaurus like this, you need to understand nuances in meaning.

Roget’s Thesaurus is also available online here.

Online you can also find the following:

en.oxforddictionaries.com/thesaurus
collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english-thesaurus
merriam-webster.com/thesaurus
and others.

The Longman Language Activator is in a way similar to Roget’s; it is based on concepts. However, it is called a production dictionary instead of a thesaurus – it will help writers produce their ideas. Here is a part of the entry on manager:

A page from the Longman Language Activator with the entry for the word manager

Often the word thesaurus is used to denote a dictionary of synonyms or any kind of dictionary.

You can see a comparison between different types of dictionaries here.

Dictionaries of collocations

A collocation is a combination of words that is natural to native speakers. In English the combination fast food is natural; *quick food does not sound right. In the same way, we say a quick meal and not *a fast meal (for the use of the asterisk, read at the end of this text).

There are many possible types of collocations, such as noun + verb, verb + noun, verb + adverb, adjective + noun etc.

Some examples:
A broad overview (adjective + noun)
Carefully examine (adverb + verb)
A wedding reception (noun + noun)
The companies merged (noun + verb)
Fully aware (adverb + adjective)
Whisper softly (verb + adverb)

Many collocations are combined with verbs:
We say make a mistake and do business, not *do a mistake and *make business.

Here are some examples of other collocations with verbs:

Take a look, take notes, take a seat
Keep calm, keep in touch, keep a promise
Get ready, get lost, get the message
Come back, come into view, come to a decision
Go swimming, go abroad, go bankrupt
Catch a bus, catch a cold, catch fire
Run a factory, run wild, run up a debt
Set up an agency, set an example, set the table
Launch a product, launch an offensive, launch into an attack
Pay attention, pay tribute, pay a visit
Break the ice, break into tears, break even
Have lunch, have a rest, have a surprise

Some printed dictionaries of collocations:

Cambridge English Collocations in Use
Longman Collocations Dictionary and Thesaurus
LTP Dictionary of Selected Collocations
Macmillan Collocations Dictionary
Oxford Collocations Dictionary
The BBI Combinatory Dictionary of English

You can get these from your bookshop or, e.g., Amazon, Bokus or Adlibris.

Online you can find these:

freecollocation.com
ozdic.com
wordreference.com
sketchengine.eu

The following is an entry in Oxford Collocations Dictionary. It shows you what adjectives, verbs and nouns go with the word production and gives examples of phrases.

The entry for the word production in Oxford Collocations Dictionary

When you are not sure of which words go well together, check a collocations dictionary. It will help you write more accurate English and it will help you vary your language.

You can find a comparison between different types of dictionaries here.

Regardless and irrespective of

To have regard for means to respect, pay attention to. If you are regardless, you do something despite everything; you do it anyway, nevertheless. Regardless also means not taking into account.

We’ll go fishing, regardless of the weather.
Regardless of the time of day, he would promptly come to help me.
Regardless of the threat, they went on.

Another way of expressing that something is not affected by something else is to use irrespective of.

This applies to all students, irrespective of nationality.
We came to the same result, irrespective of what method we used.
Irrespective of whether a text is long or short, it needs copyediting.

The meaning of not being affected by something may lead Swedish writers to use the word independent (Swedish oberoende) in sentences like the ones above. However, independent means separate, unrelated, autonomous or self-sufficient. Use irrespective of instead.

Regarding regards

The phrase *in regards to (with a plural -s) seems to appear frequently (for the use of the asterisk read the comment at the end of this text). Even if it is common in texts by both native and non-native English writers, it is not correct.

When you want to refer to something, you can write in regard to or with regard to. Both phrases mean concerning. However, you have other alternatives:

regarding
in this regard
as regards
in respect of
with respect to
with reference to
relating to
on the subject of
in connection with
concerning
about
as for
re

Read about with respect to and in respect of here.

The verb regard can also mean look at, have or show respect for, think of with a particular feeling. The corresponding noun is used in phrases like the following:

I have great regard for his work.
Give my regards to your family.
Best regards.

Compare to or compare with?

The word compare is used with to or with. Both are correct, but there is a difference in meaning. We use compare with to put two or more things beside each other and look for differences and similarities. We must use compare to when we want to suggest that two things are similar:

Some historians compare him to Churchill.
Stockholm has been compared to Venice.

If you refer to both similarities and differences, use with:

Compared with last year’s result, we see a huge difference this year.

Most writers do not know the difference between compare with and compare to, or they don’t care. In American English, to is more common. But you, as a good writer, will of course know the difference.

As a writer I might compare myself with, say, Bruce Chatwin (and realise that I am vastly inferior to him), but I would never dream of comparing myself to Bruce Chatwin (implying that I might be as good a writer as he was).

So the little boy in the image above may compare his belly with his mother’s: ”Look, mummy, your tummy is bigger than mine!” But he may just as well compare his tummy to his mother’s and say, ”Look mummy, I’ve got a tummy too!”

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