Today we will talk about English sentences that make little sense unless you know an idiom or common phrase is being used in the sentence. The English language is annoying. You're a great English student and you know and understand all the English vocabulary being used but you get the meaning of the sentence wrong, because it’s using an idiom.
Unfortunately, the only way to stop yourself from treating what you hear literally, taking the words literally, is to know that there is an idiom or phrase involved. It takes time to gain the knowledge of enough everyday English idioms and phrases to avoid this problem.
Listening to normal everyday English conversations will help, but it takes time to experience the problem enough to learn from it. So today we cover some idioms we have experienced in our own conversations this week.
The hardest portion of English, I must say it: Idioms.
⭐ Flula Borg, German Musician
We like to keep a practical approach to learning, learning a list of 1000 idioms is not an efficient way to tackle the problem. You need to cover the most common idioms and phrases that cover the 20% of cases you will hear 80% of the time. The 80% of idioms you only hear 20% of the time you can learn over time through experience.
Our examples come from things people are saying in the UK right now. Sometimes when we are talking to friends or the postman or just about anyone, you might find us saying “oh excuse me I need to write what you just said down it would help make a great podcast…”
Adept Spelt Uh Froing
Hi and welcome to Adept English.
Sometimes it’s the little words, the simple expressions which seem difficult to understand in English sentences. With idioms and expressions, you often find that you know all of the little words in the phrase, but it still doesn’t make sense. And sometimes there are words that aren’t that common, that you haven’t come across before.
What about these expressions?
- To and fro
- backwards and forwards
- up and down
- round and round
- side to side
Let’s have a look at these today. But before we go any further, if you like what we’re doing at Adept English, but you find the podcasts too difficult to understand, then I recommend that you give your English a boost, with our 500 Most Common Words Course. As far as I know, this course is unique in that it’s a listening course of spoken English material, which uses only the 500 most common words in English. It gives you practice at basic English vocabulary, listening to perfectly spoken English.
And there’s certainly quite a lot of challenge, a lot to learn in these common words, in basic English. Spoken English is much easier if you’re confident using the frequently used words. And if you do the course and then listen to the podcasts, there’ll be fewer words that you don’t understand on first listen. So that’s available today on our website of course, at adeptenglish.com.
So back to our list of words. Apart from the first phrase, ‘to and fro’, all of the words are common English words. The word ‘fro’, F-R-O – I don’t think it’s used in any other context, than this saying. To an English speaker, the meaning of these phrases is really obvious, but I’m not sure that’s true, if you’re learning English. What’s similar about these expressions is that we use them in spoken English particularly, to describe motion or to describe someone’s process of moving around. But they also can be used to describe more abstract processes too. So you might hear English sentences like:-
- ‘I’ve been up and down the High Street all afternoon, trying to find a pair of shoes’. Or
- ‘We’ve been backwards and forwards in our discussion, but we haven’t yet arrived at a decision’. Or
- ‘It’s going round and round in my head – I can’t stop thinking about it’.
So when they’re used in simple English sentences, these sorts of phrases are about actual, physical motion. So ‘up and down’ the High Street’ - a High Street is an expression for the main street in many British towns and villages. Sometimes it’s even called ‘High Street’. It’s the centre of town, it’s where the main shops are. And although it may be all level, rather than on a hill, we still might say ‘I’ve been up and down the High Street’ to show the process of going one way and then the other along the street, it’s a repeated movement. We might also say something like ‘I’ve been up and down the stairs all afternoon’.
A slow motion caption of a roundabout with light streams showing cards travelling round and round the roundabout.
Such a phrase suggests you’ve gone up and come down and gone up again, many times. Another meaning here, if someone says ‘Oh, he’s been up and down’ - this can mean he’s been happy, then sad, then perhaps happy again, or we might use this phrase if someone’s ill – he’s been improving, then getting worse again, then improving again. So these sorts of phrases can be used in a number of ways. And these are all commonly spoken phrases – much more used in spoken than in written English. So they’re very useful for English sentences you can use in conversation.
More sentences in English, especially spoken English. If you hear someone say ‘I’ve driven round and round the car park, but I couldn’t find a space’ - then the suggestion is that they’ve driven in a circular motion, repeating their path – they’ve had to circle around. But in the example I gave you above, ‘It’s going round and round in my head – I can’t stop thinking about it’, ‘round and round’ can be used about something like an idea or a problem. So again, the sense of circular motion – you keep coming back the same way, along the same path in your thoughts. ‘Round and round’.
With ‘backwards and forwards’, there is a suggestion here of a motion which goes forwards and then goes backwards, and it repeats. So English sentence examples again - you could say ‘My husband and I drive the same car and we are always moving the driver’s seat backwards and forwards’. That would be a very literal use of the phrase. But if you’re selling your house, you might say ‘Uh, we’ve been backwards and forwards with the purchaser, trying to agree a price’. The purchaser is the person buying the house here.
So ‘backwards and forwards’ has the sense of a conversation – here about how much the house will be sold for. So one side puts forward an offer – and the other side responds. ‘Backwards and forwards’. Another way of saying this would be ‘back and forth’ - it means pretty much the same thing as ‘backwards and forwards’.
What about ‘to and fro’, so that’s spelt F-R-O? It really has much the same meaning as ‘backwards and forwards’. If you think about a tennis match – imagine people watching a match at Wimbledon, on Centre Court perhaps. And your image is of people watching the tennis match and of course their eyes and their heads move ‘to and fro’, as they follow the ball. So ‘to and fro’ means from one side to the other and then moving back again. And in conversation, people might say ‘Uh, there was a lot of to and fro’ or even ‘there was a lot of toing and froing’ - as though it’s a verb!
This is so much something that we say, rather than something that we write down in English, I had to look up how to spell that even! So keep that image of the tennis match to explain in your head to explain ‘to and fro’. But also it may describe a motion over a longer period for example, someone talking about their doctor’s surgery might say ‘Oh, I’ve been to and fro and they still don’t know what’s wrong with me’. So ‘to and fro’ is another way of saying ‘back and forth’.
‘Side to side’ is the last phrase for today – and if you know the word ‘side’, you probably get the idea. If something is moving or going from side to side, then it’s moving from left to right and back again. There’s a tree at the end of my neighbour’s garden – and this is the neighbour who lives in the house at the back of ours. Neighbour is spelt N-E-I-G-H-B-O-U-R and it means the people in the house next to ours, the people ‘next door’.
Well there’s a tree in our neighbour’s garden, which is quite big, but dead – and when there’s a strong wind, it sways ‘to and fro’, ‘back and forth’, ‘side to side’ in the wind. We’re just waiting for it to fall down! Not very safe, really! But a good example and a good image for you to hold in your head of ‘side to side’.
So little words, but confusing words I think, if you’re learning English. For your English language learning, have a picture in your head of building vocabulary, piece by piece. It’s very cumulative vocabulary learning – it builds up, it mounts up over time, so that you understand more English sentences – and you can also say much more in English too. So keep listening to Adept English to build your vocabulary and learn simple English sentences for daily use, simple English sentences for everyday!
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.