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TOEFL Tip #85: Understanding Idioms: It’s A Piece Of Cake

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 3, 2011

Back in August, we wrote a blog article that identified three different kinds of idioms: metaphoric (for example, “it’s raining cats and dogs”), phrasal verbs (for example, to LOOK UP means “to research”), and idiomatic conventions (articles, prepositions, and so on that may not be properly called idioms, yet their usage is definitely idiomatic). The advice in that post was that your focus should be on the second and third category of idioms, because you will use many more of those in the Writing and Speaking sections of the TOEFL than you’ll use of metaphoric idioms.

Although Strictly English still encourages you to avoid metaphoric idioms when writing and speaking on the TOEFL, you do need knowledge of them because they often appear in the Listening sections of the test, and only the Listening section. That is, the listening section will have common phrases in English (idioms) that use colorful or descriptive language to make a point. These phrases are not meant literally; instead, they make a comparison by drawing a picture in your mind (that is to say, they use metaphor). Metaphoric idioms are always in the questions that start with the instructions to “listen to part of the lecture again.” The question will then replay part of the lecture when the teacher uses an idiom.

Here are two common metaphoric idioms in English:

• The female manager was angry that she had hit a glass ceiling at her company.
• “The groundhog isn’t batting much more than fifty-fifty (when “predicting” if winter is over).” (This example comes from the 2nd edition of the Longman TOEFL prep book)

You can figure out idioms like these by thinking about the separate pieces of the phrase, and seeing how they might work together.

Glass ceiling: The first thing to do is VISUALIZE a glass ceiling. You’re looking at the ceiling in your living room and it’s glass. You think that’s pretty because you can see the birds flying over your head and you can see the clouds go by. So is a glass ceiling a *good* thing? Well our sentence says that the female manager felt ANGRY. So that’s a bad thing. How can this beautiful ceiling be bad? Therefore, we might have to think about it differently. Let’s imagine you’re a child walking past a candy store, and you see chocolate, and cake, and licorice in the shop window. You want it, but you can’t have it because the glass is separating you from the candy. See, glass can both (1) let you see what you want and (2) be a barrier to having it. So now we understand the “glass” part of “glass ceiling”, but why is it a ceiling and not a window or a floor? Well, now we have to think about the difference between a floor (which is below us) and a ceiling (which is above us). The manager is looking UP to see the ceiling. Just like the child wants the candy, the manager wants to go “up”. But what does that mean? Does she want to fly in a plane? No. She wants to go *up* at work. She wants a promotion. So just like the child who sees candy and is denied it, the female manager can see a promotion but is denied it. This is why we use the term glass ceiling when talking about minorities. Very often women, or homosexuals, or racial minorities, are denied the ability to get a better job, even though they can see the possibility of having that job.

Batting fifty-fifty: Start with batting. Which sports in the United States use a bat? Only baseball. What do you do with the bat in baseball? Swing at the ball; sometimes you hit the ball, sometimes you miss it. The more often you hit the ball, the more likely you are to score a run for your team. If you don’t hit the ball very often, you’re not a good baseball player. Now on to fifty-fifty. If something is split 50-50, that means it’s divided in two equal halves. When you combine the image of swinging at a baseball together with the idea of something being split in two equal halves, you see that batting fifty-fifty means that you hit the ball about half of the times you swing at it, and you miss about half of the times. So, by extension, someone who correctly does something about half of the time is batting fifty-fifty. If the groundhog isn’t batting much more than fifty-fifty when predicting that winter is over, that means the groundhog is right in its prediction more often than it is wrong, but only by a little bit. Maybe the groundhog is batting 55-45.

So, if you have a question on the TOEFL with a metaphoric idiom you’ve never heard before, try to figure out the literal meaning behind the words. We know that you can’t think through a metaphor as carefully as the explanations above when you’re actually taking the TOEFL, because of its time limits, but (1) if you practice doing this when reading and listening in general, then you’ll get faster for the test and (2) writing out the thought process is MUCH SLOWER than the thought process itself. If it takes 3 minutes to read one of the explanations above it might only take 45 seconds to think about it. PLUS you have the four answer choices to help guide you in your thinking. Practice idioms, and soon you’ll take to them like a duck to water!


Categories: Listening

3 comments so far. Leave a comment.

  1. StrictlyEnglish | Blog » The Year In Review

    wrote on December 30, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    [...] and news about a change to Speaking Task One. The Listening section also featured posts about using metaphoric idioms, and listening to public radio. In the Writing section, we discussed how less is more, touch [...]

  2. kyanzad

    wrote on June 12, 2012 at 3:12 am

    Good Time
    why does the writer of this page interpret the “MUCH MORE” as “A LITTLE BIT”?
    Thanks a lot.

  3. Strictly English TOEFL Tutors

    wrote on June 12, 2012 at 6:02 am

    Excellent question! Saying that something “isn’t much more than” something else (My dog isn’t much more than 60 pounds) is an idiom that is used a lot like saying that something is “a little bit more than” something else (My dog weighs a little bit more than 60 pounds).

    The “isn’t much more” construction works because the “not” mitigates the “much” — ordinarily, you expect a large quantity from something described with “much.” To say that there’s “not much” of it is to reduce the scale or quantity of what you’re describing.

    Both phrases are useful when you’re making an estimate, and have some concrete information to work with, but not exact numbers. This is how “isn’t much more than” is used in this post.

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