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What your English teacher never told you - Dying idioms and new slang

Novembre 2015
I libri di testo sono pieni di vecchie frasi idiomatiche e formule di cortesia che la gente non usa più. Da evitare per non passare per retrogradi, ma attenzione a non esagerare dall’altra parte: lo slang più attuale se lo può permettere solo chi è davvero sciolto nella lingua parlata.

di Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts
Rachel Roberts

Many English language course books include idiomatic language in the vocabulary. While this is a great idea in theory, problems arise when the expressions taught are extremely old-fashioned.
It may come as a surprise for you to learn that nobody calls a policeman a “Bobby” in the UK, expect perhaps as a joke. Similarly, absolutely no one looks out of the window on a rainy day and says “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
Other expressions that definitely belong in the idiom graveyard are, “It’s selling like hot cakes” (meaning that something is selling very well) and “‘A stitch in time saves nine” (meaning a little bit of extra work today will save you a lot of work tomorrow.)


It’s not just old-fashioned idioms that keep appearing in language courses, but even some functional language can sound incredibly outdated. For example very few people greet each other with the words “How do you do?” It sounds old-fashioned even on the most formal occasions.  And those dreadful dialogues where you hear two teenagers saying “Hello, my name’s Jamie,” “Hi Jamie, I’m Kim” would simply never take place in the UK. In an informal situation, most young Brits would probably just smile at each other, or, at most, say something like “All right?”


And we do NOT say ‘Bye-bye’ (pronounced bai-bai) NOT EVER, unless you are talking to a three-month-old baby and are waving your hand energetically and smiling inanely at the same time!
Many old-school teachers still insist on teaching difficult grammar, like how to conjugate the modal verb “will” (“I shall, you will, he will” etc.). No mother-tongue English speaker under the age of 80 would do this. For a start, when speaking, we use the contractions  “I’ll,  you’ll” etc. and so very few people can remember the exact conjugation anyway. Nowadays most people just keep “shall” for suggestions, as in “Shall we try this?”


Similarly very few people bother to use “were” in a second conditional. We do sometimes say “If I were you” because that has become a fixed idiomatic expression over the years. People will, however, look at you strangely if you come out with archaic language such as “If the weather were better, we could have a picnic”:  “was” will do just fine in this situation.


A lot of English courses dedicate time to polite requests, with expressions such as “May I.” Politeness is very often a question of body language and facial expression in English and very few people would use this kind of language. If you want to ask for something, just smile and say “Can I...” or “Is it OK if I...” and add please on the end, if you want to be really polite.
A quick internet search into urban slang will give you a vast range of idiomatic language for all occasions, and of course if you go and live in an English-speaking country, you only need to listen carefully to people to find out what they are actually saying today. But this article would not be complete without a word of warning!
Of course a lot of urban slang includes bad language and swear words. People use them all the time, but as a language learner you must NOT do this until your command of English is perfect. There is no better way of sounding totally uncool than by using one of the famous four-letter words with a heavy accent or in the wrong place.


Very strict rules govern the use of swear words, and mother-tongue users know instinctively when they are appropriate and when they are not. You can only develop a sensitivity to the correct use of such language after considerable exposure to it in an English-speaking country. Your best friend might look out of the window at the heavy rain and say “It’s pissing down out there,” but you should never attempt to repeat the expression in front of your friend’s parents, or you will make a very bad impression.


Outdated expression: How do you do?
Acceptable contemporary expression: Nice to meet you.

Outdated expression: Hi, I’m Jamie. Hello, my name’s Kim
Acceptable contemporary expression:
All right? (pronounced Oorai’?)

Outdated expression: Goodbye, Bye-bye
Acceptable contemporary expression:
Bye, or See you (pronounced ‘see ya’)

Outdated expression: I shall be at a tea party on Saturday.
Acceptable contemporary expression:
And I’ll be at a rock concert.

Outdated expression: If Jim were here, he would know what to do
Acceptable contemporary expression:
If Jim was here...

Outdated expression: May I borrow your pencil rubber, please?
Acceptable contemporary expression:
Can I use your rubber, please?

Outdated expression: All four-letter words
Acceptable contemporary expression:
Use “clean” substitutes until your English is perfect!

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