Tag Archives: idioms

Why Teaching Idioms (Slang, Expressions) is Important in Business English

Like many of you I have a profile on the networking site LinkedIn. (You can find me at http://www.linkedin.com/in/communicationcoach )  One of the benefits of LinkedIn is becoming a member of a group related to our fields or interests.  I subscribe to a number of groups, and sometimes feel compelled to add my two cents to the discussions.  A few days ago was one of those times that I thought I could contribute.

In the group Business English Instructors, someone opened a discussion about President Obama’s recent slip-up when he mixed a Star Wars and a Star Trek pop culture reference together during a speech.  (The exact expression he created was “a jedi mind-meld.”)

This posting in LinkedIn led to a discussion amongst the members of the Business English teaching community to debate the virtues of teaching or not teaching idioms, slang and pop culture references in their BE (Business English) classes.

I felt that due to my direct experience with teaching idioms I should reply, and so I did.  Below is a copy of my comment on the subject, which may interest some of you:

“The question a teacher or trainer needs to ask is “what is the operating language of this location?”  When I was teaching English in China a long long time ago there was very little need for idioms to be taught. The focus was on getting students to pass exams and communicate on a certain level with other Chinese or some foreign teachers, in China. The operating language was ‘functional and academic’ English, for the most part, and I adjusted my conversations and teaching style to match.

But when I was asked to do manager training many years later in Moscow, Russia, part of the requested curriculum was to teach business expressions and cultural notes to the North American style of office communications. They ‘operated’ in English with North Americans and some British, and wanted to better understand their counterparts’ words and culture.

As a Communication Coach working mostly in Toronto and the surrounding area, a number of my clients are immigrants and foreign workers. Typically they have excellent hard skills and education, but often lack the soft skills we would like them to have to fit in. I know that sounds harsh, but it is an unspoken reality – we want them to understand us and our way of business communications here. This is the location. This is where business is done. You need to understand us and our way of doing things.

I often teach everyday and business idioms and expressions to clients, even if it is for just 10 minutes at the beginning of the session, as a warm up. They want to be better equipped for the water cooler as well as the boardroom. Ignoring idioms and pop culture references limits their ability to build relationships, to fully understand those around them, to join in the discussion, to understand the nuances and contexts of conversations, etc. Remember – I am talking about working here in Toronto’s business world, not overseas.

As a last morsel of food for thought, I’ll share this with you too: When my company created an English Communication Skills Assessment for a prominent police service to be used in conjunction with the hiring process, idioms and expressions were tested for, in addition to the usual suspects of grammar, spelling, reading comprehension, writing and speaking/listening. Why would we do this? Because we were told by senior training officers that they found it frustrating when they spoke to new recruits in a casual, informal way (i.e. with idioms and slang) and some newbies didn’t understand them, and it slowed down communication. When you think about the seriousness of policing, you might imagine how miscommunication could impact the lives and the safety of officers and the public.

I know on one hand it sounds too strict or maybe too much focus is being given to idioms, but I think when you consider how prominent idioms, slang, lingo and pop culture references really are, especially in an English-speaking operating country/company, you will realize the benefits of teaching them to those that could use the knowledge to improve their personal and professional lives.”

Some Sites to Learn Idioms (Expressions)

There is formal language and then there is informal or casual language.

For the school classrooms you need formal, i.e., ‘academic’ language.  For the lunch room and with your friends you need informal/casual language skills.

At work, especially if it involves an office, boardroom and the like, you need formal i.e., ‘business’ language skills.  Each job and career comes with a plethora of ISV (Industry-Specific Vocabulary), acronyms and lingo that you must learn to be successful.

Most people who speak ESL (English as a Second Language) Focus on formal language skills first, then ‘graduate’ to casual conversation, then if required learn Business English.

Do what you have to do to fit in, understand those around you, and succeed in your industry.

You may have a high TOEFL or TOEIC score, but how’s your understanding of casual chit-chat?  Do you follow TV and movies easily?  Do you follow casual conversations with your friends and co-workers well or do you get left out when they are not speaking about technical school or work stuff?

Time to evaluate your English language skills and maybe study more pop culture and more idioms.

Here are some random sites to learn idioms (there are many more out there!):

There are textbooks, Podcasts and eBooks too.

I put together an eBook of idioms!  Here are the links, in case you want to check it out:

Everyday English Idioms

Enjoy your idiom study!

Don’t Be Gormless! Gen Up on British Slang | Visit Britain – Shine from Yahoo! Canada

Don’t Be Gormless! Gen Up on British Slang | Visit Britain – Shine from Yahoo! Canada
Communicating when you travel to Britain should be easy. After all, it’s an English-speaking country. But you will quickly discover nuances of the language that could catch you off guard (and make it all too obvious that you’re not familiar with British culture). Not only can the accent be difficult to decipher for an unaccustomed ear, slang terms and phrases sometimes make you feel as if you need an English-English Dictionary.

For example, if you need a washroom in Great Britain, you might be better off asking for the loo. To report a stolen wallet, you’re going to want to talk to a bobby. If you’re sweet on someone and looking for a kiss or a bit more, across the pond you’re looking for a snog, and if you’re engaged, you’re busy. Chuffed means pleased, while cheesed off means peeved.

A lorry is a truck, and if one cuts you off in traffic, you may hear more colourful swear words than the four-letter invectives we use. A welly is a rubber boot, but “give it more welly” means putting in more effort or going faster in your car.

Most of us know “cheerio!” as a cheerful greeting or parting word (like the Hawaiian “aloha,” it can work in both directions).

But how many of us understand that when looking for a tailor-made suit, you should ask for bespoke, and a bird isn’t just a flying animal, it’s also a slang term for a woman? Knowing a few simple phrases and words may not seem like much, but when you’re out on the town and chatting with local blokes (guys), it can keep things from going pear-shaped (that is, very wrong) because of how gormless (clueless) you’re being.

Some British terms mean the exact opposite of what they mean here. According to Mike Etherington, author of “The Very Best of British: An American’s Guide to Speaking Brit,” if an event “went down like a bomb, then it would mean that the people really enjoyed it.”

Of course, slang terms in any language are constantly evolving and changing, so learning just a few things will only take you so far. In the UK, this is even more true given how quickly slang terms emerge.

The structure of Cockney rhyme slang, which originated in the east end of London, relies on taking a word, finding a few rhyming words (usually no more than two or three) to go with it and then abbreviating that phrasing down and dropping not only the original word but also the word that rhymed, leaving the original meaning clouded in mystery for the uninitiated.

For example, “stairs” becomes “apples” in cockney rhyme slang from the rhyming phrase “apples and pears.” Though that particular example is rarely used in common speech today, it is often cited to help explain how cockney rhyme slang works.

Things can get further complicated when the original word is a British slang word. Working backwards to find a rhyme that makes sense is tough if you’ve never heard the original term in the first place!
If all this seems like too much to gen up on (learn about), don’t get shirty. Half of the fun of traveling is meeting new people and learning about differences. As long as you’ve got an open mind and a smile, you’re unlikely to encounter any serious difficulties in communication.

But just so everyone is clear: Not every Briton has an Auntie Beeb. That’s just the affectionate nickname they’ve given to their national broadcaster, the BBC.

By Leigh Bryant
(Original post:  http://ca.shine.yahoo.com/blogs/visit-britain-ca/don-t-gormless-gen-british-slang-230446529.html )

My Way – Using ‘Way’ in Expressions and Idioms

In my/the way – someone or something is blocking your path, usually a physical obstacle.
“Your car is in my way.  Can you please move it so I can get out?”

My way – my style, according to my thoughts and plans.
“Frank Sinatra sang a very famous song where he talks about his life decisions, good and bad, and summarizes it all by proudly singing ‘I did it my way’.  Very inspirational song!”

My way or the highway – expression that is an ultimatum.
“I’m sorry you don’t like my management style but at this company it’s my way or the highway.  If you can’t adjust, then you’ll have to leave the firm.”

On my way – about to leave a place or begin a journey
“I just got your message asking for help and I’m on my way.  I’ll be there soon.”

Up your way – very casual expression indicating geographic proximity
“Yesterday I was north of the city, up your way, and thought about stopping in for a visit but then I realized I didn’t have the time.”

Can you think of any others?  Please add them with a short definition and even an example sentence in the comments section below.  Thank you!

15 Most Butchered Phrases in the English Language

Compared to other languages, English isn’t particularly complex. But do other languages have nearly as many similar sounding words and phrases? We’ve all made the mistake of consistently butchering a phrase or two, not realizing it until someone had the nerve to correct us. Unless you couldn’t care less about sounding silly, it’s wise to double check the ones about which you’re unsure. Listed below are a few of the most commonly misheard and misunderstood phrases — those pesky egg-corns and malapropisms that have multiplied through the years. Avoid these at all costs.

1.     “I couldn’t care less” — not “I could care less:”

It should be noted that phrases do evolve, and the new way of saying them can become the accepted colloquialism. There is some debate as to whether or not that should be the case with “could care less,” which is recognized by the Oxford Dictionary. Even still, the phrase doesn’t make sense, as it means that you care at least a little bit. If you couldn’t care less, then you couldn’t care at all. There’s a clear difference.

2.     “A moot point” — not “A mute point:”

According to Merriam-Webster moot means obsolete, essentially meaning when someone makes “a moot point,” it’s completely worthless to debate. The words sound alike and the incorrect phrase somewhat makes sense — if you can’t hear a point, then what’s it worth? — But it would be wise to mute the “mute” completely if you tend to use the phrase.

3.     “For all intents and purposes” — not “For all intensive purposes:”

This phrase originated in 16th century England when King Henry issued the Statute of Proclamations, which was “to all intents and purposes,” allowing him to modify it at his discretion. Eventually it morphed into “for all intents and purposes,” meaning “in effect.” The use of “for all intensive purposes” has increased in the Internet era, though documented use of it occurred during the 19th century.

4.     “Nip it in the bud”– not “Nip it in the butt:”

There’s quite a difference between stopping something before it flowers and biting someone’s bum. One refers to ending a problem before it grows into something bigger; the other is an action that would cause problems.

5.     “Without further ado” — not “Without further adieu:”

Ado means “fuss.” Adieu means “farewell.” From those definitions, you can probably deduct which makes more sense. Think Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It was much ado about nothing when you stayed up all night worrying about the results of the exam you eventually found out you aced.

6.     “Pique one’s interest” — not “Peak one’s interest:”

Some may assume “peaking one’s interest” is correct because you’ve reached the highest point of their interest. However, “pique” is the correct verb in the phrase, as it means to excite or arouse. In this case, your curiosity has been stimulated.

7.     “Deep-seated belief” — not “Deep-seeded belief:”

Something that’s “deep-seated” is situated far below the surface, according to Merriam-Webster. Of course, a deep seed would also be situated far below the surface. Grammarist.com states the correct phrase comes from horseback riding; not gardening or farming.

8.     “Champing at the bit” — not “Chomping at the bit:”

When you’re “champing at the bit,” you’re showing impatience. But it seems that the authorities of the English language — such as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary — have shown patience with the use of “chomping at the bit,” which is now more common than the correct phrase, despite the fact that the substitution is inexplicable.
(NOTE from Ric – the authors seemed to have missed the idiomatic understanding that this phrase ‘chomping at the bit’ refers to a horse that is biting the piece of rubber in its mouth (the bit) which is attached to the reins.  That is why we say ‘chomping’.)

9.     “Never ceases to amaze me” — not “Never seizes to amaze me:”

“Seize” means “to take possession of,” “to attack or overwhelm physically,” or “to bind or fasten together with a lashing of small stuff,” according to Merriam-Webster, so it obviously doesn’t belong in this phrase. Nor should it replace “cease” in “cease and desist” or “cease fire.”

10.  “Reap what you sow” — not “Reap what you sew:”

To “sow” is “to plant a seed for growth especially by scattering, ” according to Merriam-Webster. To “reap what you sow” is to get what you deserve — whatever grows is the outcome of sowing. A shirt or sweater would be the outcome of sewing.

11.  “Once in a while” — not “Once and a while:”

“Once and a while” yields 6,320,000 results on Google and a handful of results on Google News. It’s a common error, but most people seem to recognize the correct phrase from the incorrect phrase, as “once in a while” yields a hefty 58,000,000 results.

12.  “In layman’s terms” — not “In lame man’s terms:”

A layman is someone who lacks specialized knowledge on a topic. If you’re discussing football, and a layman enters the conversation with useless opinions, then it would be totally lame, man. But it wouldn’t be correct, or nice, to label him a “lame man.”

13.  “In the midst of” — not “In the mist of:”

The distorted version of “in the midst of” is a mondegreen, a term for when someone mishears or misinterprets a word. “Midst” and “mist” sound very much alike, but obviously shouldn’t be substituted for one another. “In the midst of” means “in the middle of” or “in the process of,” and has nothing to do with getting wet unless water or mist is inserted after the phrase.

14.  “Off the beaten path” — not “Off the beat and path:”

Venturing away from the path most taken can be an offbeat move, but you’re not venturing “off the beat and path.” That little bed and breakfast 20 miles south of the interstate is “off the beaten path.”

15.  “Out-of-body experience” — not “Outer body experience:”

You can go into “outer space” or have an “out-of-body experience,” a sensation in which you float outside of your body, but you can’t have an “outer body experience.” Keep that in mind if you ever choose to retell the tale of your traveling soul.

Office Talk – Expressions

“The Office” can be used to mean any job or typical day.  You do not actually have to work in an office.
John comes home tired, looking stressed and burned out.  His wife asks:  “Hard day at the office?”
He replies:  “Oh yeah.  We’ve got a new manager/supervisor/accountant/secretary/etc. causing me grief because…”
Once again, John doesn’t necessarily have to work at an office.  It can be any job, white collar or blue collar, volunteer, etc. that he is coming home from.

I have also heard that there is a bar/pub called “The Office” so that when your wife or husband asks “where are you now?” you can honestly say “I’m (still) at the office!”

“Office Politics” refers to power positioning at your place of employment and the perceived route to career success and promotion.  You have to have a good relationship with those in a position over your career.  It also refers to the idea that you should get along with others at work, and not burn any bridges’ (damage any personal or professional relationships).  

“I’ve been here for 14 years – but I still can’t speak English well!”

This is what I heard today over the phone from a potential client.  She does not have a thick accent but she does has one.  She sounds fairly confident and certainly intelligent.  She has a couple of degrees and valid work experience.  So what’s the problem, right?

She sometimes feels shy when she is in a group of Canadians.  She is not sure what to say and if she says something is it appropriate or not.  She is not as confident as she would like to be.

Like many she starts to think it is because of her accent, but as we chat longer over the phone she begins to understand that her level of formal English, both academic and professional,  have taken her so far, but not far enough to truly mingle stress-free with the native Canadians.  What does she need?

After admitting that she doesn’t have any native English-speaking friends to hang out with (she spends time only with people from her community – the exact community is not important for this story) I tell her that she needs to study, learn and integrate pop culture and idioms more to help increase her comfort.

It almost sounds too easy and so she resists, but it will not do her any good.  Language, any language, not just English, is a reflection of the culture.  Textbook English starts you off but to improve fluency you need to be able to speak about current affairs, get pop culture references and retort back to idioms.

Reducing your accent will benefit you if you have a thick accent, and there is nothing wrong with spending time to work on it even if it’s pretty good already, if you so choose.  But please do not neglect the amount of fluency that comes from informal chit-chat, especially through idioms, slang, colloquialisms, and pop-culture references like movies, comics, heroes, books, etc.

Pop Quiz:
Who is Princess Leigh?
What is a Hobbit?
Where does ‘Gotham city’ come from?
Name a friend of Harry Potter.
What’s the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek?
Name a few main characters from Friends, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons.

I could go on but for now if you can answer these questions easily then you are not living with your head in the sand, and you probably enjoy North American culture.  If you are having problems answering my questions, then you probably have difficulty with small talk and in social situations in general with native English speakers, especially us North Americans.  Borrow some books, rent some dvds, and watch some more TV.  If you have friends to join you – all the better.  Create a study group and have fun while you learn.  It’s worth the investment of time to learn some pop culture, and who knows, you might actually have fun learning it!  🙂

Random Canadian English

Hi folks,

I originally compiled this list of Canadian English for a workshop I did recently for an organization that helps new immigrants settle and learn job skills, but I also think this list is great for people that visit Canada for business or pleasure. I know there are words and phrases that I’ve missed, and there may be some regional disagreements with this list, but it should serve it’s purpose, and maybe even generate some fun discussion that leads to a deeper understanding of Canadian language and culture. Enjoy!

“Aboot” – Despite what American T.V. and films suggest, we do not mispronounce “about” like this. Maybe 2% of the population might, but as a general rule – nope.

Can – instead of washroom, bathroom, toilet, lavatory, WC, loo, etc.
Canuck – A slang term for a Canadian, but we don’t take offense!

Chocolate bar – instead of candy bar.
Double-double – a cup of coffee with two creams and two sugars. ‘Tim Hortons’ coffee shop  lingo. If you want just one cream and one sugar, you have to ask for “regular”.

Eh? Said often to get agreement, clarification or confirmation. Americans say “huh?”
Hoodie – A hooded sweatshirt.
Hogtown – old name for Toronto. The kids say T.O. or T-dot.
Homo milk – whole milk with a fat content greater than 2%, usually 3.25%.

Hoser – Nickname for a blue-collar Canadian popularized by Bob and Doug Mackenzie characters from SCTV and “Strange Brew”. Not generally spoken these days.
Hydro – synonym for electrical service, as in “Did you pay the hydro (bill) yet?”

Inuit – our Northern natives/aboriginals. We don’t call them “Eskimos”.
Joe Blow – Means any random person, like John Q. Public or any Tom, Dick or Harry.

Keener – an “eager beaver”, someone who is diligent and works (too) hard!
KD – Kraft Dinner – macaroni and cheese in a box. Americans call is “Mac N’ Cheese”.

Line-up – instead of saying “line” or “queue”. Used as a compound noun and verb.
Loonie – Canadian one dollar coin, that has a picture of a loon (bird) on it.

Mickey – no, not the mouse. This is the name for the small, pocket-sized bottle of booze.

Newfie – a person from Newfoundland, that tends to be the brunt of a lot of jokes. In today’s politically correct world, this is considered insulting and no longer acceptable to use.
Pissed – can mean angry or drunk.
Pogey – old name for (un)employment insurance given by the government.
Pop – Instead of “soda pop” or “soda”. Also slang for beer, made popular by Hockey Night in Canada personality Don Cherry on The Coach’s Corner.
Poutine – french fries topped with cheese curd and covered with hot gravy.

Puck-Bunny – a girl that likes hockey players, as in a “groupie”.
Runners – running shoes. We don’t often say “tennis shoes”, “trainers”, “sneakers” or “joggers”.

Shinny – means pond, river or street hockey. A.K.A. a game of pick-up.
Ski-Doo – used generically to refer to any snowmobile.
Snowbird – a Canadian who spends the winter in the south, like in Florida. This is also the name of our national team of airplanes that perform at air shows.
Timbits – donut holes sold at Tim Hortons or “Timmy’s”. By the way, Tim Horton was an ex-NHL hockey player who started the first Tim Hortons shop in 1964 in Hamilton.

Toboggan – What we call our sleds and sleighs that we ride down the snowhill.
Toonie – the Canadian two-dollar coin. Two loonies equal a toonie!
Toque – a knitted winter hat.
26er – 26 imperial fluid oz alcohol – the big bottle!
2-4 – “two four”- a box containing 24 beer.

Washroom – commonly used instead of saying bathroom, lavatory, WC, loo, etc.

Zed – the last letter of the alphabet is pronounced “zed” instead of “zee”.

Help with Watching & Talking HOCKEY!

As you watch the 2010 Winter Olympics, there is not a sport more exciting to Canadians than Hockey. Watch the games and learn more with this vocabulary. Ask a Canadian or American to explain the ones you do not know. Enjoy!

The Referees or “Refs”
The Linesman/men
The Players
The Forwards
The Defense
The Goaltender
The Goalie
The Netminder
The Fans
The Coach
The G.M.
(General Manager)
The Announcer
The Enforcer
The Captain (C)
The Assistant (A)

A Slap/Wrist shot
A Face-off
A Period
A Tie-game
Overtime/Sudden Death
The Net
The Puck
The Stick
An Assist
The Boards/Glass
The Rink
A Scrap
Power Play
A Shoot-out

Shoots (the puck)
Blocks(the shot)
Ices (the puck)
Kill a Penalty

Unsportsmanlike Conduct
2-minute Minor
4-minute Major
(Double Minor)
5-minute Major
10-Minute Misconduct
Game Suspension

He/She leads in points/goals/assists/penalty minutes
He/She picks it up
It’s cleared down the ice
He/She plays the puck (around the net)
He/She ices the puck
He/She wins the draw
He’s/She’s knocked down/out
S/He shoots, S/he scores!
Oh what a save!
S/He Flashes the leather!
What’s the score?
Just wide of the post
It hit the crossbar
Dropped the gloves
Fires a rocket
Ran (him/her) into the boards
It’s the go-ahead goal
They blew a 3-0 lead

Idioms from Farm Animals

“Horsing around” – means to be fooling around, wrestling or playing physical games.  Little kids are often told to stop this by parents. E.g. “You boys stop horsing around outside and come eat your dinner!”
“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” – means to be so hungry that you can eat a lot of food.
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” – means that you can guide someone to the answer or to a good solution to their problem/situation, but you cannot force them to do the thing that you recommend.  E.g. John:  “Did Jimmy quit smoking yet?”   Barb:  “No.  I showed him pictures of cancer victims and everything, but you know what they say, you can lead  a horse to water…”
“Work like a horse” – means to work hard.

“Dog-tired” – means to be very tired, just like a panting dog.
“Dogging me”: – to ‘dog’ is to pursue.  Just like a hound dog chasing a deer, we can say that a person or issue is dogging us or hounding us.  E.g. “The boss keeps dogging/hounding me about that report that’s due at 5pm, so please help me out and give me your notes!”
“Sick as a dog” – means to be very ill.  We get a wet nose, just like a dog!
“Lazy as a dog” – means to be lazy.
“Work like a dog” – means to work hard, like a sheep dog.

“You’re (a) chicken” – means to be afraid or to be a coward.  E.g. “You won’t go into that old haunted house because you’re (a) chicken!”  Notice that you can use this word as a noun or adjective.
“Cocky” – from the British English name ‘cock’ or what the North Americans call a rooster.  The attitude displayed by the male chicken on a farm is ‘cocky’ because he walks around as if he owns the place!  Calling someone cocky usually means that they are over-confident or arrogant.

“Pig out” – means to eat like a pig, and consume a lot of food in a short amount of time.
“Pig-tails” – the cute hairstyle that girls wear when their hair is separated into two ‘pony-tails’ on each side of their head, thus looking like two bouncy curled-up pig-tails.
“Pig-headed” – means to be stubborn.  We can also say ‘bull-headed’ to mean the same thing.

These idioms are up-to-date and ready to use in everyday life, or in the office.  They are the same idioms I teach my clients and students.  Enjoy!