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Academic Idioms

Although it is often assumed that idioms are too informal for use in academic English, two studies have identified idioms which occur fairly frequently in spoken and written academic English. This page describes idioms in academic English, giving information on what an idiom is, why academic idioms should be studied, as well as a list of academic idioms for spoken and written English from a recent study of idioms (Miller, 2019), giving first background to the creation of the list and finally the list itself.


What is an idiom?

An idiom is a fixed, well-established, multi-word expression, the meaning of which is not deducible from the individual words. The following are some examples of idioms in everyday (not academic) English.

  • Raining cats and dogs - raining very hard
  • Break a leg - said before a performance, meaning 'good luck'
  • Behind one's back - secretly

The following are some examples of idioms for academic English use (a complete list is given below).

  • On the other hand - from another point of view (showing contrast)
  • Bear in mind - think of something, especially as a warning
  • The bottom line - the main or essential point
  • Take on board - accept or deal with (a problem or idea)

Why study academic idioms?

Idioms are common in everyday spoken and written English. Although it is often assumed that idioms are too informal for use in academic English, two studies (Simpson and Mendis, 2003, and Miller, 2019) have identified idioms which are used in academic contexts, more commonly in spoken academic contexts though also in academic writing. In Miller's study, idioms in spoken academic texts, including repetitions, occurred with a frequency of 835 per million words, or close to 0.1%. While this figure is not as high as, say, words in the Academic Word List (10%) or the Academic Collocations List (1.4%), productive knowledge of idioms will assist students in becoming part of the academic discourse community, while receptive knowledge will aid them in understanding spoken or written texts.


Miller reports that idioms may sometimes be signposted by lecturers (e.g. via the phrase as it were) or writers (e.g. via the phrase as they say or by use of quotation marks). However, these methods do not always signal idiom use, do not help students to understand the meaning of idioms, and in fact add a layer of complexity to academic English study (in terms of what as it were and as they say mean and why quotation marks are used in that way).


Academic Idioms List: background to the list

The list of academic idioms (below) comes from the study by Julia Miller (2019), which used two academic English corpuses: the British Academic Spoken English (BASE) corpus for spoken texts (lectures and seminars), and the Oxford Corpus of Academic English (OCAE) corpus for written texts. Only idioms with a frequency of more than 1.2 per million words (pmw) in the BASE are included.


The range of idiom use is shown by the number of texts in which each idiom occurs, as well as the number of faculties (i.e. disciplinary groups) it occurs in. Miller's study used four such faculties, namely Social Sciences (which had the highest idiom use with 234 pmw), Arts and Humanities (which had 191 idioms pmw), Life and Medical Sciences (183 pmw), and Physical Sciences (which had the least frequent use, 76 pmw).


Most idioms in the list occur in more than one faculty, meaning they are suitable for study by all students of academic English. The most frequent idiom used in only one faculty, gold standard (24th most frequent idiom in spoken academic English and 10th most frequent in written academic English), was used only in the Life Sciences (medical articles).


Academic Idioms List: Spoken

The list below gives spoken academic idioms from the BASE (British Academic Spoken English) corpus, listed in order of frequency. There are 170 idioms in total. There is a separate version of 38 idioms for written academic English (use the button above the table). Hyperlinks of definitions are included for some of the idioms.



Spoken idioms


Number Idiom Spoken frequency per million words (BASE) Written frequency per million words (OCAE) Number of texts in which the idiom occurs  Number of faculties in which the idiom occurs 
1on the other hand64.1188.12304
2bear in mind46.7310.17424
3on the one hand37.7431.87304
4the balance of power10.786.2082
5at the end of the day14.981.36134
6on the other [hand]10.1920.34123
7the bottom line8.392.5084
8take on board7.790.00134
9by and large7.190.04124
10a step further/back7.196.21124
11take for granted7.190.0193
12in the hands of6.5912.54103
13along the lines of6.599.2493
14in its own right5.999.27104
15across the board5.991.2173
16at the back of one's mind5.990.3042
17sit on the fence5.990.1222
18in the long run5.397.8494
19bad news5.392.7584
20driving force5.396.2184
21on the face of it5.392.5784
22in (the) light of5.3934.9983
23come into play5.394.2683
24gold standard5.396.6661
25what on earth4.790.1773
26go without saying4.791.8562
27trial and error4.791.8553
28down the line4.190.0873
29over the top4.190.0563
30state of the art4.191.3642
31the man/woman in the street4.190.2833
32stepping stone4.190.6621
33from scratch3.591.8663
34bridge the gap3.591.8563
35the big picture3.591.3063
36in the early days3.592.3354
37get one's head (a) round3.590.0254
38go hand in hand with3.592.6853
39keep an eye on3.590.7853
40hang on a minute3.590.0452
41on the spot3.590.8444
42get to grips with3.591.7843
43go through the roof3.590.0642
44full circle3.000.5453
45that's another story3.000.2753
46how on earth3.000.0853
47cast one's mind back3.000.0453
48last resort3.004.0552
49the other side of the coin3.000.5452
50ring a bell3.000.1551
51good old days3.000.2743
52grey area3.000.6042
53out of the blue3.000.0533
54golden age3.002.9632
55touchy-feely3.000.0531
56in the short run3.004.1922
57spring to mind2.400.3143
58on the right track2.400.2843
59have a stab at2.400.2543
60get the picture2.400.0843
61the high point2.401.5242
62it's early days2.400.0142
63the whole story2.401.4133
64do the job2.400.6333
65move the goalposts2.400.0833
66behind the scenes2.401.3632
67in the pipeline2.400.3132
68on the back burner2.400.1132
69bog standard2.400.0232
70out of one's hands2.400.0032
71call the cavalry2.400.0032
72beg the question2.402.1822
73get something straight2.400.0522
74play ball2.400.0521
75boil down to1.801.1333
76in store1.800.3433
77make up one's own mind1.800.2033
78have up one's sleeve1.800.1233
79go down that route1.800.0933
80get one's act together1.800.0833
81on one hand1.802.5832
82overall picture1.801.1432
83golden rule1.801.0532
84have a life of its own1.800.8932
85turn something on its head1.800.7632
86fall into place1.800.3032
87so far so good1.800.2332
88on one's hands1.800.1132
89in the same boat1.800.0932
90take home message1.800.1131
91joe public1.800.0431
92kicking and screaming1.800.0231
93rule of thumb1.202.9822
94hot spots1.800.9422
95ring true1.800.3022
96put your finger on1.800.2422
97get a handle on1.800.2122
98shut up shop1.800.0122
99set something in stone1.800.1221
100swings and roundabouts1.800.0221
101go in one ear and out the other1.800.0021
102in a nutshell1.201.1722
103fall foul of1.201.1522
104set the scene1.201.1522
105have the upper hand1.200.8822
106on the side1.200.8422
107make up one's mind1.200.7622
108fly in the face of1.200.7122
109get carried away1.200.6522
110moot point1.200.4722
111someone's bread and butter1.200.3822
112stand to reason1.200.3822
113devil's advocate1.200.3722
114get one's message across1.200.3022
115deliver the goods1.200.2322
116a bad press1.200.1922
117the powers that be1.200.1822
118set foot in1.200.1422
119happily ever after1.200.1122
120shift gears1.200.1122
121get down to the nitty gritty1.200.0922
122in one's sights1.200.0822
123brain power1.200.0722
124not to mince one's words1.200.0622
125throw somebody in at the deep end1.200.0622
126cover one's bases1.200.0622
127weird and wonderful1.200.0622
128cast an eye over1.200.0622
129above one's station1.200.0522
130have a go1.200.0222
131in the same ballpark1.200.0222
132pat on the back1.200.0222
133sit on one's hands1.200.0222
134throw up one's hands1.200.0222
135watch this space1.200.0222
136go down the road of1.200.0122
137this that and the other1.200.0122
138get cracking1.200.0122
139give someone a shout1.200.0122
140have a crack at1.200.0122
141not to put too fine a point on it1.200.0122
142give the game away1.200.0122
143beat/get the hell out of something1.200.0022
144get a move on1.200.0022
145get one's thoughts together1.200.0022
146hand on heart1.200.0022
147quote somebody on something1.200.0022
148put one's head above the parapet1.200.0022
149a fair share1.201.5521
150to say the least1.201.1021
151grass roots movement1.200.6521
152pick and choose1.200.4721
153sow seeds of thought1.200.3721
154at loggerheads1.200.2421
155drag one's feet1.200.2121
156in the driving seat1.200.1721
157go back to square one1.200.0821
158set in tablets of stone1.200.0721
159dear to one's heart1.200.0621
160off the top of one's head1.200.0521
161end of story1.200.0521
162in a rut1.200.0421
163tick the boxes1.200.0421
164round robin1.200.0221
165dig one's heels in1.200.0221
166stretch one's legs1.200.0221
167get someone on board1.200.0021
168on that note1.200.0021
169tail end Charlie1.200.0021
170jump up and down1.200.0021

References

Miller, J. (2019) 'The bottom line: Are idioms used in English academic speech and writing?', Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 43 (2020) 100810. Available online at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2019.100810.


Simpson, R., and Mendis, D. (2003) 'A corpus-based study of idioms in academic speech', Tesol Quarterly, 37(3), 419e441. Available online at: https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/90255/3588398.pdf?sequence=1.



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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 28 April 2020.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of EAPFoundation.com. He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.



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