Idiomatic language in IELTS

I recently started walking to work occasionally, but it’s still only once in a blue moon.

Students read in the IELTS public band descriptors that band 7 candidates can use ‘idiomatic language’, and so they head for the nearest idioms dictionary and start writing things like ‘once in a blue moon‘, or ‘a bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush‘, but in the wrong contexts!

In this post we take a look at what the IELTS test means by ‘idiomatic language’.

  1. Horses for courses.
  • Most people would agree that this is an idiom.
  • It has a symbolic, rather than a literal meaning. It means ‘Some people or things are more suited to a task than other people or things’.
  • Even if there is a literal meaning, that’s not important – we’re mainly interested in the symbolic meaning.
  1. He’s a dark horse.
  • Here we’re not saying someone is a horse, rather we’re describing his personality based on a symbolic representation of personality. We’re saying that he is quiet, but that beneath his quiet exterior, he is capable of unusual and perhaps even surprising behaviour.
  • Most people would describe this as a metaphor. If we say that someone IS something, where that ‘something’ is symbolic, then we are making a symbolic comparison.
  • And since this comparison has a non-literal, symbolic meaning, then the IELTS examiner will interpret it as ‘idiomatic‘.
  1. He’s like a dark horse.
  • This is not idiomatic and is not a metaphor. It is a simile.
  • In a simile we make a literal rather than a symbolic comparison.
  • Nobody is likely to say this – I’m just using it as a ridiculous example! We’re saying someone IS LIKE something. This would mean that the person described is covered in black hair, makes a neighing sound, has a long tail, enjoys appearing in cowboy films, etc.

My advice?

Before you go running to the idioms dictionary, do some reading instead. As you read, use a dictionary and online tools to investigate metaphorical / idiomatic meanings. This approach is much more likely to lead you to useful idiomatic language for IELTS speaking and writing. Memorising idioms from a dictionary is a waste of time and leads to coherence problems when memorised idioms are used in the wrong contexts.

As a compromise I have made some idioms flashcards and will add to them periodically (hopefully more than once in a blue moon!). I give examples of each idiom used in a descriptive context, and I try to include a mix of full idioms as well as idiomatic metaphors. Enjoy!

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