Writing Tips by Gary Speer

Tips for writers, musing about writing and life

Idioms are fun but make language learning a real challenge

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Idioms are fun for writers but they make language learning a real challenge for everyone.

I love learning about language, words, and all that relates to writing and speaking. I took two years of Spanish in high school and seriously considered majoring in Spanish in college. When I started college, I found the school’s Spanish instructor was a native of Venezuela, and more than half the Spanish class were Basques — those mysterious and wonderful people who are natives of a mountainous region on the border of Spain and France (I think). One week of understanding nothing beyond the rapidly spoken phrase, “Senor Speer,” quickly discouraged my Spanish language pursuit.

I’ve always been intrigued, though, about linguistics and languages. One of the things I did learn from my rudimentary Spanish studies, and my rudimentary English skills — as well as two years of Greek in college — is the importance of idioms: Phrase or expressions that mean something different from what the words actually say. If you aren’t a native speaker of a language (in my case that language is English), it is sometimes bewildering to understand the radical differences in meaning a word or phrase has when used idiomatically. For example:

“Yeah, it was a second marriage for him. He brought a lot of baggage into it.”

Means something entirely different than:

“Yeah, it was a second marriage for him. He brought a lot of luggage into it.”

The words “luggage” and “baggage” are synonyms. But in this idiom, you cannot use them interchangeably. In the first sentence, the guy is carrying a lot of emotional problems, entanglements, any number of difficulties into his second marriage. In the second sentence, he apparently owns a lot of suitcases, briefcases, etc., that he can share with his new wife.

One of the real difficulties for anyone learning a language is learning the abundance of idioms in that language. As a writer, if you are writing in a language you’re learning, you would do well to run your writing (see — another idiom) past a native speaker to check out (another idiom) your idioms to be sure they ring true (one last idiom).

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