Have you ever had a conversation with someone that you thought was in English… at least the words were in English, but you had no idea what the other person was trying to say? Then, very likely, the other person was using idioms, or expressions, that were unfamiliar to you. An idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable based on the usual meaning of the individual words. The English language has hundreds of idioms, which can be quite confusing, but are important to understand in order to improve spoken English.
Particularly in the workplace, communication breakdowns can occur when one person is using idioms that another person doesn’t understand. The speaker may not even realize there is a problem because, if the listener is a second-language speaker, he or she may understand the literal meaning of all the words, but get confused by the new meaning when the words are used in an idiom or expression.
Let’s look at the word hand, for example. This word typically refers to the body part at the end of your arm, but when paired with a preposition, such as up, over, out, down,or to, the meaning changes completely.
Read over the paragraph below. I’ve highlighted every expression using the word hand. Try to figure out the meaning from the context, and then check yourself with the definition list below. Have fun!
I’ve got to hand it to you, Bob. That was, hands down, one of the best written handouts I’ve seen. I understood exactly who is responsible for each part and who is hands off on this project. Details like that come in handy. I will hand out assignments at the next meeting and I’ll ask Mary to give me a hand with the proposal. We’ll hand it over to the purchasing department by next Wednesday. John got the heaviest load,so before it gets out of hand and he throws his hands up in despair, tell him to call me. I’ll give him a hand to make sure we get everything finished on time.
- hand it to you -congratulate you for a job well done
- hands down – without question, easily
- handout – informal written document containing information pertinent to a project or meeting
- hands off – not involved
- come in handy – helpful
- hand out – give out or distribute
- give me a hand – help someone
- hand it over – turn over responsibility or possession
- out of hand – not controlled
- throws his hands up – gets frustrated
- give him a hand – help him out
So, how did you do? Did you figure out what most of them meant? If you did, give yourself a hand ( a round of applause or congratulations for a job well done)! If not, read back over it a few times and improve your spoken English by trying to use some of the idioms in your conversations this week. You can feel confident that your workplace communication will improve as you master the meanings of these expressions.
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