Wordplay: how to decipher English phraseological units

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    Ah, these phraseological units… On the one hand, they give color and expressiveness to speech, but on the other hand, they can cause confusion and misunderstanding, especially for those who are just starting to learn English. We will try to clarify what these set expressions are, how they are formed and how to use them correctly in speech. And, of course, we will confirm the theory with interesting examples.

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    What are phraseological units?

    Phraseological units are stable expressions that cannot be translated literally, since they have their own meaning, which differs from the meanings of individual words in the expression. This is an integral part of the English language, they are found in dialogues, letters, books, etc.

    Phraseologisms can be formed in different ways. Some of them have historical roots or are associated with specific cultural and social contexts. For example, the expression to break the ice (to break through the ice) arose in those days when ships used an ice ax to break through the ice cover. Even centuries later, this expression is used in everyday speech.

    Other phraseological units arise with the help of metaphors and symbols. Consider the expression to be over the moon (to be in seventh heaven). It expresses happiness, and its origin is associated with the idea that somewhere at the very top of the universe is the seventh heaven, the sacred territory of the gods and angels.

    Some phraseological units are nothing more than a play on words. For example, to have a frog in one’s throat (speak with a scratchy throat). This expression means that a person has health problems. But its origin is due to the fact that the voice, when tickled, resembles the croaking of a frog.

    How to avoid misunderstandings

    English phraseological units must be memorized only as integral expressions, always check the meanings in the dictionary, pay attention to examples of use, avoiding translating them into words.

    So, the expression to let the cat out of the bag has nothing to do with cats (cat) and bags (bag), but was formed at one time due to the fact that sellers at fairs used bags with cats instead of real goods to deceive buyers. If you use this expression, you must remember that it means to give away a secret or expose someone’s plans, not to free a furry pet.

    In addition, phraseological units can have different levels of formality. Most of them are more suitable for colloquial speech. For example, in the meaning of starting something, the expression to get the ball rolling is more informal than to commence proceedings. Therefore, it is important to keep track of what is appropriate to use in a friendly conversation, and which expressions are best avoided in business documents.

    Phraseologisms can have different degrees of use depending on the region and culture. To take a rain check (reschedule to another day) is a very popular phrase in the US, but may not be familiar to native English speakers from other countries.

    Therefore, in order to avoid misunderstandings when using phraseological units, it is important not only to know their meaning, but also to take into account the context, the level of formality and the dialect of the interlocutor with whom you are communicating.

    TOP 10 English phraseological units

    Bite the bullet – do something through force; experiencing something unpleasant, but necessary.

    I know the exam will be tough, but I have to bite the bullet and study hard (I know the exam will be difficult, but I have to bite the bullet and study hard).

    Break a leg – wish you good luck.

    Break a leg at your audition tomorrow! I know you’ll do great (Good luck at the audition tomorrow! I know you’ll do great).

    Cut corners – to do something dishonestly or of poor quality.

    If you cut corners on this project, it won’t turn out well in the end

    Drive someone up the wall – annoy someone.

    My sister’s constant singing drives me up the wall (My sister’s constant singing drives me to white heat).

    Hit the nail on the head – hit the bullseye; accurately define or understand something.

    You hit the nail on the head – that’s exactly what I was thinking (You hit the nail on the head – that’s exactly what I thought).

    Pull someone’s leg – tease someone.

    I was just pulling your leg – I’m not actually mad at you (I was just fooling around – in fact I’m not mad at you).

    Spill the beans – tell the whole truth; reveal someone’s secrets.

    I can’t believe you spilled the beans about the surprise party! It was supposed to be a secret (I can’t believe you let it slip about the surprise party! It was supposed to be a secret).

    The ball is in your court – to be in the responsibility or competence of someone.

    I’ve given you all the information you need – now the ball is in your court to make a decision (I have given you all the information you need – now it’s up to you to make a decision).

    Under the weather – feel bad or get sick.

    I’m feeling a bit under the weather today, so I think I’ll stay home and rest

    Throwing shade – to publicly criticize or express contempt.

    She was throwing shade at her co-worker’s outfit (She criticized her colleague’s outfit).

    Learn phraseological units correctly

    There are really a lot of phraseological units in English, and their knowledge will help to better understand the speakers. One article is not enough to mention all the interesting and useful expressions, but you can enroll in business English courses: https://grade.ua/adults/business/ at the Grade Education Center to expand your vocabulary and improve your skills in using phraseological units in practice. Join to speak English confidently, fluently and competently!

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