At the end of the day, will you be as sick as a parrot, or over the moon? How (not) to use idioms in IELTS….

In this post, I want to address the subject of using idioms in the IELTS speaking test. This is something that a number of students have been asking about recently and I want to say a few words about how, and how not, to use them.

Before we get going, my first point is that I am only referring to the speaking not the writing section. I would avoid using idioms in writing as they are relatively informal and are only appropriate for speaking whereas the writing section requires you to be using more formal academic English.

So first, what is an idiom?

You probably know this one, an idiom is a group of words that when taken together has a meaning different from the words individually. An example or two night be, “sitting on the fence” = being unwilling to make a decision between two choices. Or, “hit the nail on the head” = saying exactly the right thing. So, idioms are often metaphorical, not literal, they are symbolic. If you try to understand “hitting the nail on the head” without being aware of this and how idioms work, you will have a very hard time in doing so, with possibly embarassing/disturbing consequences. The upshot is, you have to learn them and not try to work them out for yourselves, every language has some, in Prague where I live now, the Czechs have some that it is impossible to work out from dissecting the individual words.

Why to use them?

Well, in the IELTS you need to show certain language features to get a high score. As the criteria says, to get at least a 7.0 you need to use “less common and idiomatic vocabulary……”. Using idioms correctly is one thing that distinguishes a native speaker of a language from a learner of that language. As an aside, I should say that I almost never use them, I prefer to say exactly what I mean, not use metaphor. However, being that as it may, the IELTS has decided that you need to show your ability to use them. No use moaning, the IELTS is what it is, if you want the score, you have to play their game by their rules (to use an idiom).

How (not) to use them?

One thing I need to mention regarding idioms and other sayings, expressions, collocations, etc, is that if you are not 100 per cent certain of how a particular word/phrase is used, you should not use it. Many times I have heard people say things that are totally inappropriate and unnatural, out of place, not in collocation, whatever, just to try and show their lexical ability. If the context is wrong, you will not gain marks, on the contrary you will lose them. As a general rule then, I tell my students to play it safe. Only use something uncommon if you have seen/heard/read it before and it fits the context.

Also, I have met some people who seem to think that the more complex, and complicated words and structures they can stuff into their speaking the more marks they will get. Not so. All they succeed in doing is to sound forced and unnatural, and as you have no doubt heard before, if the examiner thinks you are simply reciting a memorised answer, you will be penalised accordingly. So, no memorisation please! For example, I was talking to someone last week and they more or less had an answer to a part two topic composed entirely of idioms. This sounded somewhat bizarre to say the least, and they were a little surprised when I mentioned this. I know you are supposed to include them, but most natives would only use one or two at any given time, not an entire speech composed of idioms.

Let me try to think of an example. This is not what they said but it should give you an idea.

“Ok, I want to talk about a time when I had a dinner with my friends. This happened about a year ago. First of all, I was really down in the dumps about being fired from my job. I was looking for a promotion but I really missed the boat on that one and was fired instead. You know, I was feeling as sick as a parrot. Anyway, as it happened it was a blessing in disguise as I got a better job later on. In fact I was over the moon but that was a week or so later. So, me friends decided to cheer me up and as we know actions speak louder than words and to prove this they took me to dinner. They tried to tell me that every cloud has a silver lining and that I would be back on my own two feet in no time but I thought they were just pulling my leg. So, as I was saying…..”

Hmmm, do you think the examiner would think that sounded natural and unforced? Me neither.

So what should you do?

You can memorise some of the most common idioms and make sure you know precisely when to use them. As I mentioned above, you get a high score when you use appropriate and natural language in the right context, so just memorising some idioms and hoping the examiner asks you a question where you can use them is not a good idea. This might adversely affect your fluency score for example. Once again then, only use an idiom when you know it is suitable for the context and if it doesn’t sound forced.

To give you some ideas, I have put a few pretty general idioms below as examples, there are many websites where you can find lists of these things so do some research and see what you can find. What you can do is to listen to some podcasts, watch films and TV and listen to the idioms that they use in those. Be aware of the context, and if you use them, do so sparingly.

Over the moon– to be extremely pleased or happy.

I was over the moon when I passed my driving test.
Once in a blue moon– happens very rarely.

AI only see my parents once in a blue moon.
A piece of cake– very easy.

Passing my driving test was a piece of cake.
A drop in the ocean– a very small part of something much bigger.

It was only a drop in the ocean in terms of the overall budget
Actions speak louder than words– it is better to actually do something than just talk about it.

Actions speak louder than words, I hate it when people just talk about doing something.
Back to the drawing board– when you attempted to do something but failed and have to try again.

I failed my driving test again, oh well, back to the drawing board.
Put all your eggs in one basket-put all your money or effort into one thing.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You should try lots of different things I think.
The in thing– something fashionable.

The new iPhone is really the in thing at the moment.
The real McCoy– genuine or not fake.

I don’t think her new handbag is the real McCoy.
Off the top of my head– saying something without thinking first.

Off the top of my head, I’d say about 2 or 3.
Run of the mill– average, ordinary

Blackberry phones are very run of the mill these days.
Soul mate– someone you trust very deeply.

My husband is not just my lover, he’s my soul mate.
Down in the dumps– sad.

I was really down in the dumps after my girlfriend left me.
Found my feet– to become comfortable doing something.

Starting a new job was difficult as first, but I soon found my feet.
Set in their ways– not wanting to change.

My parents are quite traditional and set in their ways.
Go the extra mile– do much more than is required.

I decided to go the extra mile and move to England to really perfect my English.
A hot potato– a controversial topic.

Capital punishment is a hot potato in my country at the moment.
Miss the boat– miss an opportunity.

I sent my application in late and I think I missed the boat.
Costs an arm and a leg– really expensive.

Those shoes must have cost an arm and a leg.
Sit on the fence– to be undecided.

I haven’t made my mind up about that issue, I’ll have to sit on the fence.
Fresh as a daisy– someone who is lively and attractive, in a clean, fresh way.

My sister has been travelling for almost 24 hours, and she’s still as fresh as a daisy.
Couch potato– spending too much time on the internet or watching TV.

My uncle is such a couch potato! He often spends his days watching TV.
Full of beans- a person who is lively, active and healthy.

My 6 year old nephew is full of beans! He has more energy than three adults.
A bad egg- someone who is untrustworthy.

My neighbour is a bad egg. I don’t trust him.
Down to earth- someone who is practical and realistic.

My friend is so down to earth, he is so focused on his study.
Party pooper- A person who is gloomy, and having no fun at a social gathering.

I’m so sorry to be a party pooper, but I have to get up for work tomorrow.
Eager beaver- a person who is hardworking and enthusiastic.

My colleague drives me crazy! She is such an eager beaver that she always volunteers for overtime.
Throw in the towel- Give up.

I’ve spent too much time on this project to throw in the towel now.
Get a head start- Start before all others.

Let’s get up early tomorrow to get a head start on this project

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