Vol. 4. No. 3 R-3 May 2000
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Mastering Idiomatic English: Adjective Phrases
Loretta S. Gray (1999)
Chicago: National Textbook Company
Pp. v + 89
ISBN 0-8442-0470-6 (paper)
US $7.95

Mastering Idiomatic English: Noun Phrases
Loretta S. Gray (1999)
Chicago: National Textbook Company
Pp. v + 90
ISBN 0-8442-0473-0 (paper)
US $7.95

Mastering Idiomatic English: Prepositional Phrases
Loretta S. Gray (1999)
Chicago: National Textbook Company
Pp. v + 90
ISBN 0-8442-0472-2 (paper)
US $7.95

Mastering Idiomatic English: Verb Phrases
Loretta S. Gray (1999)
Chicago: National Textbook Company
Pp. v + 90
ISBN 0-8442-0471-4 (paper)
US $7.95

Idioms Organiser
Jon Wright (1999)
Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications
Pp. 296
ISBN 1-899396-06-3 (paper)
UK 8.95

Whenever I ask my students where their difficulties in learning English lie, they invariably give me one of two responses: they either say that they have trouble with verb tenses, or they reply that they do not have enough vocabulary. As language teachers, we try many methods to help students increase both their passive and their active vocabularies. One of the most effective ways for students to incorporate new words and expressions into their language is through the study of idioms and idiomatic expressions. Indeed, the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms (1993) states in its introduction that the "accurate and appropriate use of English expressions which are in the broadest sense idiomatic is one distinguishing mark of a native command of the language and a reliable measure of the proficiency of foreign learners" (p. x). That is, once students are able not only to understand idiomatic expressions, but also to produce them, we can say that they have attained a high level of second-language proficiency. [-1-]

How, then, do we go about teaching idioms? How do we point out the various kinds of idioms to our students? Should we simply touch on a number of expressions, or go into them in depth? Are idioms best taught by examining their grammatical form or through vocabulary domains and related meaning? The books included in this review take two different approaches to the presentation of idioms. The first series, Mastering Idiomatic English, includes four volumes, each of which examines idioms based on their grammatical form: adjective phrases, noun phrases, prepositional phrases, and verb phrases. Each volume contains fifteen units, each of which deals with a different subject, such as school, work, or travel. In fact, the choice and arrangement of subjects seem somewhat baffling, although the author contends that the idioms are presented in order of difficulty in the volumes on adjective phrases and noun phrases. I find it hard to see how unit 1 of the volume on adjectives, "Enchantment," which contains such combinations as bewitched by or beguiled by, is more difficult than unit 8:,"Hobbies," containing such expressions as curious about, full of, or interested in. A number of topics are also repeated throughout the various volumes; for example, the subject of unit 4 in the volume on adjective phrases, "Work," can also be found in unit 7 of the volume on noun phrases, "Employment," and units 3 and 12 of the volume on verb phrases, "Working Together" and "Business."

The four volumes share a common purpose, structure, and organization. They are topic-based workbooks designed for high intermediate to advanced ESL students. In each unit, the phrases to be studied are listed alphabetically. Each idiom is clearly presented, and includes either a definition ("for once: on one occasion," Prepositional Phrases, p. 1), or a general demonstration of use ("play about something or someone," Noun Phrases, p. 11), as well as an example of the idiom in use ("The children begged for ice cream," Verb Phrases, p. 21). Recognition exercises allow the student to understand the meaning of the idiomatic phrases, in general by means of fill-in-the-blank exercises. A number of pattern exercises give the student the chance to practice the grammatical patterns of the phrases, and a set of exercises on question formation helps them manipulate idioms in questions, an area which is appreciated by many students, as question formation often poses difficulty for them. Each unit closes with a (too-brief) task which asks students to use the idioms in natural, "real-life" situations related to the topic of the unit. Each book has a complete answer key, which is a very welcome inclusion in such a workbook, so that students can complete the exercises on their own and monitor their progress. An alphabetical index appears at the end of each text.

I "field-tested" the idioms from unit 2 ("Surprise") of Adjective Phrases in an upper-intermediate class. The students read about two authors who had traveled to countries that were unfamiliar to them. The students were to use phrases such as awed by, astonished by, overwhelmed by, and surprised by to describe the reactions of these writers (e.g., "Mark was overwhelmed by the differences between China and the United States"), as well as their own reactions to the readings (e.g., "When I read about Mark's trip, I was awed by his ability to communicate with the Chinese"). I found that by directing the students to specific vocabulary, they were able to incorporate the forms of adjective phrases as well as the meaning of the idioms into their conversations. [-2-]

Of all the types of idioms, perhaps those that are made up of a verb plus another element are the most difficult for students to master. For one thing, students need to be clear on the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs (something I took for granted until my advanced grammar students pointed out that they had never learned about this topic in their first language). As well, the separation of the verb from the particle may be optional in some cases, or obligatory in others, or forbidden in still other cases. All of these variations present difficulties to students, who are primarily concerned with the meaning and use of the idioms.

The volume which is concerned with verb phrases takes these difficulties into account. Of its 15 units, the first five deal with verb plus preposition combinations, which some may claim are not idioms per se in that the meaning of the combination is not different from the meaning of each word separately. However, it is useful for students to learn that in English we wait for someone or listen to something (whereas in certain languages we merely *wait someone or *listen something). The exercises in these units would be helpful, then, in allowing students to practice those sometimes tricky and to them, seemingly arbitrary verb + preposition combinations.

The next nine units of this volume present verb plus adverb particle combinations. Phrasal verbs are identified as intransitive (I) or transitive (T) with the following added information, as necessary: Sep = may be separated; Sep (OB) = must be separated; Insep = inseparable. Each of these idioms is presented with its grammatical specificity and a short definition: "ask someone over (T-Sep) (OB): to invite someone to one's house for a short visit"(Verb Phrases, p. 26). Since the idioms are presented according to vocabulary domains (such as "dating"), and not according to grammatical categories (such as in terms of intransitive idioms with particles), the students might find it difficult to discern the peculiarities of each idiom. Perhaps an appendix could be included in later editions, in which the idioms could be organized according to grammatical categories [1].

The final unit in this volume presents multi-word verbal idioms, such as brush up on, keep up with, and look forward to. The chapter, and the book as a whole, would have been stronger with the inclusion of the rules for the position of adverbs in these idioms; whereas one can say "I look forward greatly to my vacation", one cannot say "*I look forward to greatly my vacation." Nowhere in the book are these rules explained. [-3-]

Finally, concerning Mastering Idiomatic English, all of the idioms contained in its four volumes are common, recognizable North American phrases. I had difficulty finding any idiomatic expressions in this series with which I was unfamiliar.

However, this was not the case with the British book on idioms, Idioms Organiser: Organised by Metaphor, Topic and Key Word. I was both amused and bemused in my reading of this book. The introduction to the student is clear, concise, and important. The author, Jon Wright, correctly points out that words "don't come singly" (p. 3) but also in groups, thus the need to study idiomatic expressions. Wright insists that students be clear on the notion of metaphor, that language can be used in a non-literal way, and that they understand that idioms have grammar.

Idioms Organiser is divided into four main sections, each of which ends with a review unit: Areas of Metaphor (13 units); Individual Metaphors (33 units); Topics (39 units); and Key Words (29 units).

An introductory unit answers the questions, "What is an idiom?" (an expression which is fixed and recognized by native speakers), "What is a metaphor?" (one idea which stands for another), "Why are idioms and metaphors so important?" (because sometimes the metaphorical use of a word is more common than its literal use), "Can you translate idioms?" (usually not), and "Are idioms spoken or written English?" (both). The last section of this unit contains an alphabetical index of expressions grouped according to main word.

The one hundred and fourteen two-page units that follow present the idioms in a variety of ways. The first section, Areas of Metaphor, contains units which practice idioms from subject areas such as "Time is Money" (unit 1) or "People are Liquid" (unit 12). For example, unit 2, "Business is War," introduces students to expressions such as to take a lot of flak, to set one's sights on, or marching orders to show how military language is often used in the workplace. The units open with a fill-in-the-blank exercise to determine the literal meaning of each idiom; the students are to choose the correct answers from a list provided. Other fill-in-the-blank, word choice, or sentence-writing exercises follow. Each unit ends with a short review section. Answers are provided in the answer key. The review units consist exclusively of fill-in-the-blank exercises.

Section 2 groups idioms according to their individual metaphors: animals, colour, parts of body, metals, temperature, and so on. These units would be quite amusing to teach, and students would appreciate the wealth of vocabulary provided. Animal idioms (unit 14), for example, include the familiar ants in one's pants, let the cat out of the bag, and having a bee in one's bonnet. Unit 17 on "Breaking" idioms includes a chip on one's shoulder, to break up, and to shatter someone's confidence. Because the idioms are grouped according to meanings, the various grammatical forms are lumped together, unlike the presentation of the series Mastering Idiomatic English, in which the idioms are divided according to grammatical form. [-4-]

Section 3 arranges idioms according to topics: Advice, Family, Health, Money, and so on, and section 4 according to key words: idioms containing the word all, point, thing, and so on. All in all, the book contains over 1800 idioms that intermediate and advanced students can practice.

Idioms Organiser is illustrated throughout with line drawings, most of which depict the antics of the British in their workplace, and some of which might be considered "politically incorrect" to a North American audience. As well, many of the quotes in sidebars are specifically British, with references to particular British institutions, political parties, and the current Prime Minister, Tony Blair. For European and British teachers and students, this would probably be appropriate, but perhaps a North American edition could be created to adapt some of the references. On a more important note, some of the idioms included are unfamiliar to English speakers on my side of the pond, or they may be recognized as British, but rarely used by North American speakers of English. These include the home straight (p. 28), swan around (p. 41), a smashing person (p. 44), the cat among the pigeons (p. 49), don't get your knickers in a twist (p. 50), a second bite at the cherry (p. 59), and it knocked me for six (p. 91), among others. Knowledge of these idioms would be useful even to non-British native speakers of English who are planning to spend some time living or working in Britain. As the saying goes, "When in Rome . . ."

In all, these books are helpful additions to a teacher's library. Teaching idioms requires a multi-faceted approach. Sometimes, a teacher needs to explain the grammar of idioms, such as the difference between separable and non-separable verbal idioms. On other occasions, a list of idioms belonging to the same general category of meaning or metaphor is called for. Students generally like to learn groups of idioms in this way, and I have found that they are always amused to learn idioms such as those dealing with, for example, parts of the body (green thumb, all thumbs, two left feet, cold feet, and so on) all together in such a group. Both the Mastering Idiomatic English series and Idioms Organiser are good choices for idiom workbooks for in-class or at-home use.

End Note

[1] One very complete workbook for the study of idioms according to grammatical categories is the excellent Practice With Idioms by Ronald Feare (Oxford, 1981).

Sorel Friedman
Université de Montréal

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