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Use idioms at IELTS when pigs fly

Is it wise to learn as many idioms as you can?

by | Aug 4, 2019 | Speaking, Tips, Writing

To get a high score at IELTS, some suggest that IELTS candidates should learn as many idioms as they can and try to use them for IELTS Speaking and Writing tasks. We disagree and say this is too risky; not to mention that the time is better spent on learning another technique.

What is an idiom?

A group of words that has a special meaning that is different from the ordinary meaning of each separate word. For example, ‘under the weather’ is an idiom meaning ‘ill’.

  • You look a bit under the weather.

(Ref. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English)

Risk #1: Register

As far as register (level of formality) is concerned, most idioms are used in informal speaking and writing while IELTS Writing tasks require a more formal and serious approach. See examples below:

  • Jack is still finding his feet as a sales rep in this new company. (tries to feel confident in a new situation)
  • Last year, Martha was given an ax. She is seeking a job in other states. (she was fired)

Risk #2: Connotation

We know that idioms carry a second, hidden meaning, but what we need to be aware of is that along with the meaning, they also carry a positive or a negative connotation. See an example below:

  • Jessy and Natasha are really talkative. They keep talking till the cows come home. (for a very long time)

Depending on the situation, this can sound either like a compliment or a complaint.

Risk #3: Rigidity

Another risk is in word arrangement. All the words must be exactly in their own position without any changes whatsoever. Take a look at this example:

  • We cannot afford to have another argument with dad. It’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.(to avoid restarting an old argument)

Any forms other than this is simply wrong:

  • let the sleeping dogs lie.
  • let that sleeping dog lie.
  • let a sleeping dog lie.
  • let sleeping dogs rest.

Risk #4: Context

Probably, the most crucial element in using idioms is context. To use an idiom, the situation must be right. Unfortunately, you cannot replace any idioms with their meanings.

We know “when pigs fly” means “never”. You should employ it when it absolutely fits, i.e. if you employ it when the situation is not right, people may infer another meaning or get confused. See this example:

  • I never go to work by SkyTrain. (it explains a routine activity)
  • When pigs fly, I go to work by SkyTrain. (This means you are either afraid of or angry with SkyTrain that you decided not to travel by it ever)

Risk #5: Frequency

Don’t forget that idioms have a low frequency usage since you must wait until the situation is absolutely right and the idiom you want to say fits the context perfectly. These pre-requisites are so delicate that make it hard to use many idioms in your speech.

As we said earlier, because idioms are mostly informal, it is hard to use them in IELTS Writing tasks, and now in addition, you cannot say more than few (maximum 3) idioms in IELTS Speaking session as it is only 11 – 14 minutes long. Pushing its usage will result in flowery and colorful language which is not at all natural; hence, you will lose marks.

To sum up, the risks involved in using idioms are too high. You must be careful of the context, meaning, word order and priligy to buy associate facial expressions to convey the exact meaning; otherwise, you risk committing errors. This would be an added burden on your brain when it is busy analyzing the task, dealing with grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

So what should be done to improve your speaking and writing? There is a fascinating language resource that many are not aware of or do not take seriously!

Give beautiful Collocations a try:

Using collocations instead of idioms has 2 main advantages: 1- it is easier to learn and 2- it grants you natural-sounding English.

It is simple to learn beautiful collocations. In many cases, all you need is to add one more word before or after the word you know. Chances are the word you add is not new to you, so all is left for you to do is to simply know that this combination exists.

Collocations also help you speak naturally. The words that go together are used by native speakers all the time. They expect to hear them when other people speak. Remember that you should always give IELTS what it wants i.e. the examiner wants to hear or read the collocations with the words you already used.

If you still want to know more about collocations, I suggest you read IELTS Juice’s lesson about collocations.

About the Author

About the Author

CEO and Co-founder of Juice Academy

Mehdi Safavi is a Cambridge certified English teacher (CELTA Grade A), IDP-trained IELTS expert, Sussex Downs College TESOL with 17+ years of teaching & teacher training experience. More about him →


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