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How to notice lexical chunks: idioms, catchphrases, sayings and phrasal verbs

Idiomatic language… isn’t it the most fascinating part of the English lexis? Something that gives colour, taste and texture to one’s speech or writing? (not sure I can use “texture”, though, but let it be) =) So let’s dive into it in today’s article. This is the second in the series about noticing lexical chunks. The first one was about collocations.

So, collocations, idioms, catchphrases, sayings and phrasal verbs are a type of formulaic language, in other words, language that consists of fixed expressions. In its turn it means that we learn them as units and not individual words. With idioms and phrasal verbs it’s especially important because some of them may be quite transparent (and the meaning can be deduced based on the individual words), but many are not, and we just need to know them.

For writing this article I’m using the series English Idioms in Use, English Phrasal Verbs in Use (Cambridge) and Idioms and Phrasal Verbs (Oxford Word Skills), both Intermediate and Advanced. So the examples are from there.


Before I deal with the types, usage and grammar of idioms, I want to share a quote from Idioms and Phrasal verbs that makes a very good point. Here (highlights in bold are mine):

“When people think of idioms, they tend to think of the more imaginative and colourful exampleskick the bucket, have a bone to pick with someone, full of beans, be barking up the wrong tree, etc. These vivid expressions can be extremely difficult to understand, so they are often the ones that teachers are called upon to explain in the classroom. It is also undeniably true that idioms – especially the more vivid ones – hold a particular fascination for some learners. However, there are thousands of idioms, less exotic and often more transparent than the ones above, which are of a higher frequency and probably greater value to the vast majority of learners. Here are some typical examples:

bear sth in mind, get your own way, by far, come in handy, fair enough, a happy medium, have your doubts about sth, hours on end, I thought as much, if all else fails, in all probability, last but not least, leave it at that, life’s too short, little by little, no wonder, not necessarily, odds and ends, on the surface, play a part in sth, rightly or wrongly, so what?, take it personally, that’s life, the sooner the better, to put it mildly, two years running, use your head, you’ll be lucky.

Some of these will appear so mundane that they often pass unnoticed as idioms. In some cases the meaning may be quite easy to guess, especially in context, but the same concept may be expressed in a different way in the learner’s mother tongue. So these expressions need to be learnt, and are equally deserving of our attention.”

This is something I hadn’t given much thought before I tried to find a text with idioms for this article. I looked at some horoscopes, which are usually said to be full of idioms, and nothing caught my eye, really. But they should be there, shouldn’t they? Well, maybe I was focusing too much on the vivid type and overlooked the second one. There is a chance I have long stopped thinking of the more mundane idioms as idioms – they are just fixed phrases for me. And what about you? What is an idiom to you? Do you also tend to take other fixed expressions for granted?

So if I look again, this time it may be better:

“More than likely you will be caught up in a wildly intense emotional drama if you aren’t careful, Leo. Try to stay calm and collected. Find a quiet, solitary place where you can relax. Your energy is there, but it may be more reserved and subtle on a day like this. Be the stable oasis in the raging turmoilMake peace with the people around you.” (Horoscopes, try for yourself =))

Although, I’m still not sure whether these are idioms or something more of metaphorical language… I don’t think that this sort of differentiation is very important – our task is not to compose a dictionary after all (and even dictionaries don’t always agree on what to consider an idiom), but to add something nice to our vocab.

Anyway, it may be useful to know the types of idioms to identify them more easily. They can be:

  1. Verb-based – take advantage of something, change your mind, get nowhere, be supposed to do smth;
  2. Prepositions phrases – in the blink of an eye, in that case;
  3. Nouns phrases – a bone of contention, a piece of cake, a stone’s throw;
  4. Similes (as+ adjective + as/ like + adjective) – as dry as a bone, drive like a maniac, as fresh as a daisy, fighting like cat and dog;
  5. Binomials (word + and + word) and trinomials (word, word + and + word) – rough and ready, black and blue, out and about, through and through; cool, calm and collected; blood sweat and tears;
  6. Idiomatic phrasal verbs – get through to smb, laugh smth off;
  7. Exclamations or short spoken phrases – don’t ask me, thank heavens;
  8. Sayings/ proverbs – nothing ventured, nothing gained, necessity is the mother of inventions (and I wrote more about proverbs and sayings here).

It’s important to remember that most idioms are fixed in their form and it cannot be changed, so we need to use them accurately: e.g. to clip someone’s wings (not to cut), the tip of the iceberg (not the top), be at a loss for words (not of words). So when learning idioms, it makes sense to repeat them at least 5 times out loud to yourself to get your tongue around them and remember them precisely.

How to use idioms

Well, it’s tricky. Many idioms are informal, so we should use them carefully and definitely should not overuse them. By the way, this is one of the reasons Oxford combined idioms and phrasal verbs in their book: “A relatively short passage of text – a practical necessity in most language-teaching materials – does not normally produce nine or ten naturally occurring phrasal verbs, but it can easily yield that number if the target language includes both phrasal verbs and idioms.”

However, it’s good to know what idioms are used for. Then, maybe it will be easier to notice them in these contexts and use them accordingly. So they are used (I’m lazy and I’m copying this from English Idioms in Use Advanced Unit 2):


  • For emphasis, e.g. ‘The singer’s second album sank like a stone.’ [failed completely]
  • To agree with a previous speaker, e.g.

A: Did you notice how Lisa started listening when you said her name?

B: Yes, that certainly made her prick her ears up. [start listening carefully]

  • To comment on people, e.g. ‘Did you hear Tom has been invited for dinner with the prime minister? He’s certainly gone up in the world!’ [gained a better social position – or more money – than before]
  • To comment on a situation, e.g. ‘The new finance minister wants to knock the economy into shape.’ [take action to get something into a good condition]
  • To make an anecdote more interesting, e.g. ‘It was just one disaster after another today, a sort of domino effect.’ [when something, usually bad, happens and causes a series of other things to happen]
  • To catch the reader’s eye. Idioms – particularly those with strong images – are often used in headlines, advertising slogans and the names of small businesses. The writer may play with the idiom or make a pun (a joke involving a play on words} in order to create a special effect, e.g. a debt of dishonour instead of the usual debt of honour. [a debt that you owe someone for moral rather than financial reasons]
  • To indicate membership of a particular group, e.g. surfers drop in on someone, meaning to get on a wave another surfer is already on. This kind of group-specific idiom is outside the focus of this book.

[end of quote]

So once you’ve noticed an idiom, think why is it used there? And in which cases would it be easier for you to use some idioms?

Where to find idioms

They are common in everyday conversations, so you’ll hear a lot of them in series. I’ve also noticed a lot of them in The Archers (the world’s longest-running drama on BBC Radio 4). Although, here again you need to be careful, because idioms may be specific to the age of the speaker and to the variant of English (English Idioms in Use Advanced Unit 7)

How to notice lexical chunks: idioms, catchphrases, sayings and phrasal verbs, image #3

So my strategy with idioms is to know lots of them, to take notes where they are used, and, when in the language environment (I haven’t been to an English speaking country yet, unfortunately), to take some time to listen carefully and observe what’s being used around before adding the most colourful idioms to my speech. But I’m probably using a lot of “more transparent” idioms/ fixed phases without noticing it.

You’ll also see idioms in popular journalism (horoscopes are part of it). However, they are also found in more formal contexts, such as lectures, academic essays and business reports. Interesting, isn’t it? Idioms do come in all shapes and sizes. For formal idioms see Unit 41 in English Idioms in Use Advanced.

For learning purposes, there’s a wonderful podcast The English We Speak by BBC Learning English which focuses on spoken expressions, including idioms. There are quite a lot of modern ones, the podcast is aimed at the Intermediate learners and above and is generally quite fun.

There’s a lot more to say about idioms, their metaphorical meaning, where they come from and the new ones, but I’ll leave it up to your curiosity. The books I mentioned above are easily found on VK and you don’t really have to treat them as exercise books. It may be just a interesting read first.


“A catchphrase is a phrase or expression recognized by its repeated utterance. Such phrases often originate in popular culture and in the arts, and typically spread through word of mouth and a variety of mass media (such as films, internet, literature and publishing, television, and radio).” (Wiki)

Examples: I’m lovin’ it, Just do it, Diamonds are forever.

I won’t stop much here because I think catchphrases are culture specific and may be useful mostly if one wants to fit in (I’m remembering Suits and how Harvey and Mike are always exchanging quotes from movies), but it may be pretty difficult to prepare for such use in advance, especially if one is not a big fan of pop culture.

Have a look at 150 Movie Lines and Catch Phrases, if you’re interested.

Phrasal verbs

Are phrasal verbs more or less tricky than idioms, what do you think? How do you feel about using them?

So by a phrasal verb we understand a verb with one or two particles, e.g. look after (a child) and look forward to (the holiday). So because of the particle(s) it’s pretty easy to notice them. But be careful not to mix them up with prepositional phrases – compare: look (where?) out of the window (not a phrasal verb) and look out (for what?) for limited sales offers (look out is a phrasal verb).

Types of phrasal verbs

Intransitive (don’t take an object) – the sun comes up in the east, the noise of the train died away.

Transitive (do take an object). These can be separable (= you can separate the verb and the particle), e.g. I picked my parents up / picked up my parents and drove them to the airport. If you use a pronoun in the place of the object, it should go between the verb and the particle – I picked them up.

With inseparable phrasal verbs the object or its replacing pronoun goes after the particle – I’ll look after the children/ I’ll look after them. Three-part verbs are generally inseparable.

This distinction, separable or inseparable, is given in dictionaries as “pick smb/smth up” or “look after smb/smth”.

Some other interesting things about phrasal verbs

1. Most of them are of Anglo-Saxon origin and they have more formal, one-word equivalents of Latin and French origin, e.g. put forward and propose, come across and encounter, pick up and acquire. So you can make corresponding lists of these pairs.

2. Most phrasal verbs are common in less formal English, e.g. in songs, film titles, newspaper headlines, popular journalism. However, some of them are quite formal and used in lectures, essays and business writing (Units 33-35 in English Phrasal Verbs in Use Advanced). So when you look up the verb in a dictionary, pay attention to its register (sometimes it’s given) and to the context in which it’s used.

3. Some phrasal verbs are quite transparent in meaning, but many of them are idiomaticand, what’s worse (or more interesting?) may have different meanings“for example, you can pick something up from the floor, you can pick up a language or bad habits, the weather can pick up, you can pick up a bargain, a radio can pick up a signal, the economy can pick up, you can pick up a story where you left it, you can pick someone up in your car. Sometimes the meanings are clearly related, some being more literal and some more metaphorical.” (English Phrasal Verbs in Use Advanced Unit 1).

4. It’s also important to pay attention to the collocations of a particular phrasal verb (same book, Unit 5), e.g.

  • positive or negative things – be riddled with problems or hit on a good idea),
  • People, things or both (both as subjects and objects) – go off Mark/ cheese, keep up with the boss (but not the exam system); I have to dash off – ok, the car dashed off – not ok.
  • Situations – sail through exams – ok, sail through breakfast – not ok.

5. Personally, I find it extremely confusing to learn phrasal verbs that have the same base verb, e.g. look for, look after, look up. And I never recommend it to my students. I’ve seen, though, exercises like this in Objective Proficiency, but the aim there, if I understand it right, is not to learn the verbs, but to structure them, and structuring them around the base verb is one of the ways. Still, I find it confusing.

Instead, a good introduction to phrasal verbs is to learn more about the meanings of different particles first, e.g. – up, off, around. It helps to acquire the feeling of them, plus, in many cases these particles don’t change the meaning of the base verb, but clarify the direction of it (like prefixes in Russian) or intensify it (ask around, finish up).

Learning phrasal verbs that belong to the same topics, e.g. money, is another approach. I like it even better because mostly our vocab is organised associatively in the brain, and here we have a clear association – a topic, for which there can be found examples and situations in one’s personal experience, and verbs. Learning by functions, e.g. agreeing, or concepts, e.g. making progress are two more ways, but they are similar to the one about the topic, in my view. All these approaches are all well defined by the way the books are organised.

6. Finally, for Advanced students it’s interesting to look at phrasal nouns (letdown, warm-up, backup) and phrasal adjectives (ongoing problems, a broken-down fridge and worn out shoes).

And, the final note. This article is called “Noticing lexical chunks” for a good reason: to be successful at learning them, especially idioms and phrasal verbs, you do need to have a good passive vocabulary and understand them first, I’m convinced of this. Extensive reading and listening, the one where you understand almost everything, are what helps here.

Because, if you open a book on idioms or phrasal verbs and most of them look completely new to you, I don’t think it will be helpful. It’s a nightmare that kills one’s motivation. I’ve been there and I wouldn’t wish it for anyone who’s learning English. Idiomatic language is the icing on the cake, it should arouse our curiosity and fascination for the language, and not be the source of misery.

That’s it from me!

Photo by American Heritage Chocolate on Unsplash

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