Back to: Module: Helping Students Read
Words and Phrases That Don’t Mean What They Say
Sometimes, knowing the meaning of each word isn’t enough for us to understand a passage. The words by themselves just don’t make sense. That’s because some phrases and sentences are used in roundabout ways. People use these roundabout ways of speaking and writing to communicate something more than (or something different from) what the literal words mean. This type of communication is sometimes called figurative language (or a figure of speech).
There are many types of figurative language—too many to review here—but we’ll cover a few examples. One example of a figure of speech we often use is exaggeration (also called hyperbole). For example, “I could eat a horse” does not literally express someone’s intention to eat a horse. But you might use the phrase to mean you’re very hungry.
Similes and metaphors are two other figures of speech. The phrase “he’s as strong as an ox” is a simile (a figure of speech that compares two things using words such as “like” or “as”). It’s a colorful way of saying that someone is strong.
Here’s another example: a rhetorical question. When we use a rhetorical question, we are actually giving our opinion about something. We do not expect the other person to answer. Here’s a brief illustration:
Person 1: I got a ticket for doing 75 in a 50-mile-per-hour zone.
Person 2: What were you thinking?
Some figures of speech have taken on special meanings over time. People have used these sayings over and over again. Everyone has learned them. These figures of speech are called idioms.
Here’s an old idiom you may have heard: “Marilyn goes to the mall at the drop of a hat.” This sentence has nothing to do with hats or with dropping anything. “At the drop of a hat” means that someone will do something immediately, at every possible chance. Marilyn loves going to the mall, and she goes there whenever she can. Where did this idiom come from? About 100 years ago, people lowered, or “dropped,” a raised hat to signal the start of a race or a fight. It was like a starting flag or starting shot. But it certainly doesn’t mean that anymore!
Not all idioms are old. Newer idioms are sometimes called slang. Slang comes into use fast and often disappears just as fast. For example, “throwing shade” at someone has nothing to do with physically blocking them from the light and making a shadow on them. It means insulting someone. When slang really catches on (by the way, “catches on” is itself an idiom!), it becomes a genuine idiom that everyone knows and uses.
Idioms can be very hard for English learners (ELs) to understand. ELs may have just learned the literal meanings of certain English words. They might have no idea that the words can be used in other special ways. All languages have their own idioms. Idioms aren’t unique to English.
Some students have learning problems that make it hard for them to compare ideas mentally. A lot of idioms compare one thing to something else that isn’t mentioned in the sentence. The reader has to use the clues in the sentence to figure out what the thing (or person) is being compared to.
Here’s an example: “Tom is a free spirit. He marches to a different drummer.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that someone is actually marching to the sound of drums. It just means that Tom does his own thing. Most other people act somewhat similarly, but not Tom. It’s as if he’s “marching to a different drummer” compared to everyone else.
Just for fun, see if you can figure out the hidden comparisons in these idioms:
- Karen doesn’t like to study, but she’s going to have to bite the bullet and get ready for tomorrow’s science test.
- When the new principal said that students need more time for recess, he was preaching to the choir.
The first example, “bite the bullet,” refers to the days before anesthetics, when wounded soldiers were often given a lead bullet to bite on during surgery. The second example points to members of a church choir, who are typically very devoted to their church and share its values. So, when ministers “preach to the choir,” they are telling people what they already believe or want to hear.