An idiom is a group or sequence of words whose meaning cannot be deciphered logically through our knowledge of the constituent words in the group. It possesses a unique meaning and must be learnt as a whole. For instance, when we say that John is on the ball, we do not mean that he is standing on the ball, but that he does his job well. When we say that Ngozi gets my goat, we do not mean that she brings my goat to me, but that she is a constant source of annoyance to me. When we tell somebody to hang fire, we do not mean that the person should put fire on a hanger but that he should wait for a while. Hence, to explain an idiom by considering the meanings of the individual words in it is to miss the mark. The idiom must be seen as a fixed expression with a fixed meaning.

Semantically, an idiom conveys a unit of meaning just as a single grammatical element does. It may be replaced by a single word but it usually does not possess the inflectional qualities of a single word. For example, nook and cranny (everywhere) cannot be pluralized to nooks and crannies, neither can from top to bottom (completely) be changed to read from tops to bottoms, nor can tooth and nail (fiercely) read teeth and nails. However, the verb in any idiom (as many idioms are made up of verbs and nouns) may be inflected for tense, but its noun is not usually inflected for number.



Certain factors influence the style of use of idiomatic expressions. The use of idioms involves a number of considerations. It entails the user’s familiarity with the language, the accurate knowledge of the expression and the appropriate situation. Therefore, relationship becomes a determinant factor in the formating and use of idiomatic expressions. It shows the connection between one person and another, one idea and another, one feeling and another or a particular work and another, and could be considered in the following ways:

1. Individual relationship: In a language, community speakers who have common interests belong to the same group or professional body, association, society, club, age grade, etc. Each group often uses expressions peculiar to the group alone. This relationship is also seen among correspondents. It is affected by the level of intimacy between the individuals in the group. Where there is intimacy there is relaxed atmosphere. If the relationship is remote the atmosphere is official.


a) A group of students may use the following expressions:

  • To cut a figure – to appear splendid.
  • To get through – to pass.
  • To give a chance – to give opportunity.


b) A group of law enforcement agents commonly uses:

  • To ride a hobby – to follow a favourite pursuit.
  • To hold good – to be valid according to law.
  • To hold oneself in readiness – to be in a state of preparedness.


c) Religious organizations use these expressions:

  • to look up to a person – to respect a person.
  • alpha and omega – beginning and the end.
  • the Lord of creation – God.


d) Academicians love to use these expressions:

  • maiden speech – first speech.
  • to hold one’s head high – to bear oneself proudly.
  • to hit the nail on the head – to touch the exact point in question.


2. Emotional Relationship: Emotional relationship depicts strong inner feelings. It portrays the reflection of the extent of seriousness, detachment, hatred, fear, love etc. It shows whether or not the feeling is imposed by an occasion. for instance, one’s feeling when one is presenting a paper in a workshop differs from his feelings in a farewell speech to a friend. Idiomatic expressions on these occasions differ in that one is official and serious, the other is casual and personal.



There are basic categories of idiomatic usage. These are classified into four areas, viz:

1) Formal Expression: Formal expressions are mainly seen in written work than in speech. The relationship is a distant one. The tone is usually serious and high; eg:


2) Informal Expressions: Informal expression relates personal and intimate feelings. The atmosphere here usually is modest. Examples of such idioms are:




There are essentially four types of idioms. ” These are:

1. Pure Idioms: They are those expressions whose meanings cannot easily be guessed. Their meanings are never mixed with any other. They are clear and distinct.


  • blow the gaff.
  • kick the bucket.
  • kiss the rod.
  • jump the bail.


2. Figurative Idioms: They are those expressions whose meanings cannot be interpreted literally. Rather they have deeper and imaginative interpretations.


  • Look before you leap.
  • Love laughs at locksmiths.
  • To build castles in the air.
  • All hands should be on deck.


3. Restricted Collocations or Semi-idioms: They are usually two word expressions with figurative interpretations.


  • Answer back.
  • Absorbed in.
  • Sleep over.
  • Chicken out.
  • Put on.
  • Set out.


4. Open Collocation or free Expression or Loose Collocation: In this aspect, there are two main elements. They are verbs plus objects. Each element is used in a literal sense. So, each one of them is re-combinable.


  • Fill the sink.
  • Fill the bucket.
  • Fill the basin.


  • Drain the sink.
  • Empty the bucket.
  • Empty the basin.



Idioms are not easy to classify because they are very numerous. It is better to learn each idiom as you come across it than to depend on a rule of thumb.The easiest and safest way to understand and assimilate English idioms is to read good books (dramas, novels, poems, and biographies) written in idiomatically correct English, and to pay close attention to the idioms in use. However, we can attempt to classify idioms under the following headings:

  1. Noun Idioms.
  2. Verbs Idioms.
  3. Adverb Idioms.
  4. Prepositional Idioms.
  5. Conjunctional Idioms.
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