Interacting With Literature: Idioms

Idioms are figures of speech that we hear or use every day that are not meant to be taken literally. They make it easy to say something in a meaningful and interesting way that someone else will immediately understand. Idioms pull on the idea of a common cultural literacy — that there are certain expressions we all share.

How to Identify an Idiom

Idioms are not intended to be taken literally. If an idiom is taken literally it will not make sense and at times could indicate a meaning opposite to the one intended.

Another common element of an idiom is that it follows a specific form. While idioms may employ the use of comparison, metaphor, or simile, a particular form of the idiom is always used, consistently.

For example:

It is raining cats and dogs.

We don’t say “it is raining toads and frogs,” though one might wonder why.

Understanding idioms is crucial to understanding literature — and in using the English language. By making use of idioms, we can efficiently convey what we mean using only a few words.

As literary devices, idioms have frequently found their way into literature.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Why Identify Idioms in Literature?

  • Broaden our vocabulary.
  • Develop our cultural literacy.
  • Become fluent in the English language.
  • Become a better writer by imitating great writers (great writers frequently use or invent idioms).
  • You got it! Create an idiom notebook. If you keep this same notebook throughout your life, imagine the collection of phrases you will accrue!
  • Keep it simple. Write down the idiom along with the meaning.
  • To help understand idioms, younger children can draw the literal meaning of the idiom on one side of Drawing and Writing Paper, and the accepted meaning on the other.
  • While it is easiest to teach idioms as your student comes across them, some will benefit from a short lesson. Use our free 20 Common Idioms download to get started.
  • Go on an idiom scavenger hunt. How many can you find? Write them down. Create a sentence or phrase as an example of each one.
Additional Resources

Idiom Sentence Unscramble

Identify the Idioms
Worksheet from

10 Idioms About Books

Proverbs and Idioms
Lesson plan from Core Knowledge.

6 Ways to Get the Most from Literature-Based Studies
Ideas for helping your student interact with what he reads.

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