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TOEFL Tip #75: What Kinds Of Idioms Does TOEFL Want

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 8, 2010

You can find many webpages and books promising to teach you all the important idioms necessary to score high on the  TOEFL iBT writing section, but the kinds of idioms they are teaching are not really what TOEFL is looking for. In all fairness, it’s not really the writers’ or publishers’ fault. I guess they saw the word “idiom” somewhere on an ETS TOEFL document (I think the Official Guide to the TOEFL mentions “idioms” in its grading rubric), and decided to write a book or a website about idioms.

But one has to remember that there is a wide range of “idioms” in English. On one end of the spectrum you have idioms like, “it’s raining cats and dogs”. These are more metaphorical in nature. Dogs and cats are not really coming out of the sky. The image of dogs and cats suggests VIOLENCE (because dogs and cats typically fight each other). So this idiom means that the rain was very violent.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, you have phrasal verbs such as “look up”, as in “I looked up a word in the dictionary”.  This is not quite as metaphorical as “it’s raining cats and dogs”, but it does still (like the metaphoric idioms) mean something different from what the actual words say. When you LOOK UP a word in the dictionary, most likely your eyes are LOOKING DOWN at the dictionary. So the “up” doesn’t mean “over your head”. In fact, the “up” means nothing at all on its own. What the “up” does is change the meaning of the word “look” from “see” to “research”. When you look up a word, you are “researching” its meaning.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the quirky parts of the language that do not have a dependable system of rules to justify them, most notably: articles, prepositions, and word forms. Why do we get IN a car, but ON a bus? Why do we TALK ABOUT or DISCUSS work, but we do not DISCUSS ABOUT work?  And what’s the difference if I like “the flowers” “a flower” or “flowers”. Even more frustrating, why do colleges offer a degree in “communications” but not a degree in “communicating”?  There are no rules to help you here. Or, if there are rules, they are so dependent on logic and context that you have to be a philosopher more than a grammarian to get it right.

The uses of language on this end of the idiom spectrum are often talked about in terms other than as idioms. They are called (as I identified them above) articles or prepositions or word forms. And even if I were to agree and say that they are not proper “idioms”, their use is, nevertheless, idiomatic. And these are the “idioms” that will help you score high on the TOEFL.

To recap: I’ve identified three types of idioms: metaphoric idioms (“it’s raining cats and dogs”), phrasal verb idioms (“look up” as in “to research”), and what I will call “idiomatic conventions” (I got ON the bus and TALKED ABOUT my relationship). And what I’m arguing is that most TOEFL idiom books focus on metaphoric idioms, whereas you would be better preparing yourself if you focused more on phrasal verb idioms and idiom conventions.

Let’s face it. If you try to cram a metaphoric idiom into your TOEFL essay, it most likely will sound silly or forced. For example, if you’re writing about how you prefer having a guarantee instead of having a possibility, you could try to fit the expression “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” into your essay, but what if in the process, you mess up all the more subtle idioms and write, “the bird on my hand makes the same as a couple by the bush”.  YOUCH!  So, how many points do you think you’re going to get because you 1/2 memorized an idiom. Not many.

I’m sure some of you are saying, “But what if I memorize the idiom and use it correctly?”  Okay. let’s say you do just that. What you might have then is a beautiful idiom surrounded by a bunch of writing that is full of mistakes in conventional idioms or phrasal verb mistakes. In addition, how many metaphoric idioms will you have to have memorized to be sure that you’ll have the perfect idiom for the essay prompt you get on test day?  This just seems like too much work for too little payoff.

Therefore, we at Strictly English really encourage you to focus your attention on the two non-metaphoric idiom categories. If you can get those right, TOEFL graders won’t care about  the lack of metaphoric idioms. All of our highest scoring students do not use metaphoric idioms. Instead, they have a solid understanding that students get “final grades at Boston College” and not “final scores at The Boston College” and that their friend “took ill late Sunday night” and not that their friend “made illness in the Sunday night”. THESE are the idiomatic parts of the language you need to be focusing on and not that some Boston College student “aced his finals” or that your friend “puked his guts out”. As admirable as these metaphoric idioms are, I think you’ll go coo-coo burning the midnight oil trying to pigeonhole each metaphoric idiom so that you’ll knock the socks off of your TOEFL rater!


Categories: TOEFL Preparation,Writing

5 comments so far. Leave a comment.

  1. Jessica Ojeda

    wrote on August 10, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    WOW! What good news for folks getting ready to take the TOEFL. My husband will take it next year and I’m very thankful for the information you’ve shared with us in this post.

    I’m actually and English teacher and when I go over written assignments with my students, I find that it’s very common for them to have errors when they try to use a metamorphic idiom. They either mess up one or two words and the whole thing loses meaning or they just use the idiom in the wrong context. I always advise them to write what they know is correct instead of trying to be fancy. I try to get my students to cut out the fanciness and stick with the basic because that’s when it sounds the most natural. I tell them, “Write as if you were talking,” but unfortunately, many of them don’t listen to me and they continue to sound like a foreigner.

  2. Strictly English TOEFL Tutors

    wrote on August 11, 2010 at 6:54 am

    Thanks for the reply Jessica. It really is a struggle! Keep up the good teaching!

  3. StrictlyEnglish | Blog » Understanding idioms: it’s a piece of cake

    wrote on February 3, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    [...] in August, we wrote a blog article that identified three different kinds of idioms: metaphoric (for example, [...]

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