Slang and idioms are very tricky for non-native speakers of English. So there are pitfalls.
For starters, slang and idioms are not often included in textbooks. If they are included, the expressions are often outdated. English is, of course, a living language and one that is constantly absorbing new words and expressions. How do you “stay on top of” these expressions? One way is to maximize your communications with native English speakers. The more conversations and email exchanges you have with native speakers, the more you’re going to hear English as it’s really spoken – today. Another way is to read business newspapers, such as the Wall Street Journal. You can also check out my books on Business English featuring dialogues taken from American workplaces. I wrote these books to offer non-native speakers a quick way to learn business idioms and slang.
At the same time as new terms are coming into English, older terms are falling out of usage. They’ve been used heavily (and sometimes misused) for a period of time. They’re tired, and they’re going stale. When they start to get stale, they become what’s known as cliché (which means they’re so overused, they lose their original meaning or impact). Here we come to pitfall #1: using slang or idioms that have already fallen into the cliché category. Of course, it is partly subjective on which terms fit into this category and when. I would say that many Americans would agree that “think outside the box” is now a stale expression. But a dozen years ago, it was solid advice to offer if you wanted someone to think more creatively about solving a problem. It was recently featured in a Forbes magazine article on annoying business jargon. The article quoted one of its readers as saying, “Forget the box. Just think.” (The full Forbes article can be found here).
Now we come to pitfall #2 in using idioms. Idioms are a group of words that work together to take on a meaning different than the meaning of their individual parts. Idioms cannot be translated word for word. But of course, if you’re hearing a new idiom for the first time, you often don’t know you’re hearing an idiom — so your brain goes to work on the parts. An idiom such as “hit the glass ceiling” clearly has nothing to do with glass or the ceiling that is above your head. It means to be unable to reach a top position in an organization due to discrimination.
Recently a Russian friend of mine was at the doctor. The doctor told her she had “a garden variety flu.” She left the doctor’s office a wreck. This did not sound good at all. How could she possibly have picked up such a strange type of flu? She lived in New York City and hadn’t even stepped foot in a garden in years. She went home and Googled “garden variety flu.” Nothing came up. For some reason, Google was behind on information on this type of flu! Finally, she turned to an American friend and was relieved to find that “garden variety” is an idiom meaning ordinary.
Sometimes non-native speakers will forget the exact words in an idiom. Idioms are usually pretty unforgiving, and this brings us to pitfall #3: using a wrong word in an idiom. A few years ago, after I’d helped a student, he said to me, “You’ve got the heart of gold.” After receiving such a nice compliment, I hated to have to tell him he should have said “You’ve got a heart of gold.” If you go over something carefully, you “go over it with a fine-tooth comb.” If you slipped up a little at the end and said, “go over with a fine-tooth brush,” you may get a laugh (perhaps not the desired response!).
Pitfall #4 has to do with spoken English versus written English. In spoken English, many sounds get reduced. “Want to” becomes “wanna,” “got to” becomes “gotta,” “must have” becomes “musta.” Don’t be tempted to use these casual spoken forms in written conversations. Writing, “I gotta work on another project first before I start yours,” is not appropriate business language (yes, this is a real-life example!). Even though you may say “gotta” and “wanna,” do not use these shortened forms when writing.
Another pitfall (pitfall #5) in using slang is choosing the right words appropriate for you. When older people – be they native English speakers or English as a Second Language speakers – use certain slang terms, it can sound just plain silly. Recently, a 45 year-old business contact from Poland addressed a 50-plus year old American colleague of mine as “Dude.” The American was quite surprised.You’d expect to hear two guys on a college campus addressing each other as “dude.” A close cousin of pitfall #5 is using slang that is too cutting edge. A non-native English speaker may learn that “sick” means “cool.” But this term has not penetrated much beyond youth culture – at least not yet. Use it with the wrong native speaker of English and he or she will not understand what you are trying to say (and will probably conclude that you – the speaker – is confused!). It’s the same story with newer slang like “legit,” “epic” “lego” and many other terms.
Despite all the pitfalls, using slang and idioms in your daily speech is what gives you style and makes you sound more lively. So “go for it,” but keep the pitfalls in the back of your mind!
Amy Gillett is the author of 5 books on English idioms and expressions, including Speak Business English Like an American and the new “Speak English Around Town.”