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Do You Fumble on This Important Skill? January 28, 2009

Posted by lyndastucky in Communication.
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Americans use idioms and expressions on a daily basis in nearly every conversation.  It comes natural to us and we don’t even think twice about using them.  There are many categories of idioms from expressions using animals, food, and men and women among many more.  Just Google “Categories of Idioms” and you’ll find a lot to choose from.  One  of my favorite categories and perhaps spoken frequently in the workplace is sports idioms.  If you’re a native English speaker from the U.S., you probably understand most of these figures of speech even if you’re not a sports fan. But for most people from another country, these expressions can be very confusing. The listener may know nothing about the sport from which the idiom comes and may not be able to understand it in a business context.

Consider the following sentences:

  • Do you think we can strike a deal with this company or is it out of our league.
  • This is a no-win situation with Jerry. He’d like to call all the shots but I don’t think he’s playing with a full deck.
  • Can you give me the game plan and run the numbers? I only need ballpark figures now but once we’re in the home stretch, I’ll need the precise numbers.
  • Give me a blow by blow description of what occurred.  We just might be below par on this activity. 

We are less likely to say, “You have a reasonable possibility for success”  than  “You have a fighting chance.”  Or, people don’t  “do something seriously wrong,”  they “drop the ball.”  If English is a person’s second language, the meaning of these examples will be lost on them.  Even native English speakers may be unclear about the exact meanings of less frequently used expressions like “horses for courses” (suitable for one person but not another)  or “tale of the tape” (used when measuring things).

Are you sensitive to the idiomatic speech you use with people in the office?  Do you consider the possibility that your listener may not understand?  You could “keep them in the loop by explaining their meaning when used, especially if you notice blank stares.

Do you need to brush up on your use of idiomatic speech? There is a wonderful book called How to Play the Game: American English Sports & Games Idioms by Jean Henry. Being familiar with these sports idioms and many others can increase your understanding significantly and help you take your English to a new level!  You can also look for them in newspapers especially in the business sections.  Look them up on the internet so you understand their meaning and then try them out!  Idioms are colorful and make English more interesting and exciting.  Using them also helps the non-native speaker sound more native (if this is the goal). 

Properly using and understanding idioms is a high level language skill achieved well after a person masters grammar and vocabulary. Understanding this can help you to communicate better with your international colleagues and friends.

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