There are 7 types of idiom. They are: pure idioms, binomial idioms, partial idioms, prepositional idioms, proverbs, euphemisms and cliches.
Some idioms may fit into multiple different categories. For example, the idiom “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is both a cliché and a proverb.
In this article, I will outline all 7 types of idioms and provide examples of each.
What is an Idiom?
Idioms are figurative phrases whose meanings are not deducible from the phrase alone. They are expressions that we have developed in our language over time.
An idiom develops when its meaning no longer requires analysis by fluent language users: you instinctively understand it as a whole phrase because you are a competent member of a language community.
Some ways new language learners come to know and understand idioms include:
- Having the idiom’s meaning passed down to you by other language users,
- Having sufficient contextual and cultural knowledge to deduce the meaning yourself, or
- Having sufficient historical knowledge to deduce the meaning yourself.
Idioms differ from other types of figurative language such as metaphors and similes because these other figurative forms involve comparative elements to help you to deconstruct the meaning even if you are not a native speaker of the language.
Types of Idioms
1. Pure Idioms
Pure idioms are idioms whose original meaning is lost to the extent that there is no possible way to analyze the phrase logically to come to an understanding of its meaning.
Unlike some of the other types of idioms listed below, these idioms tend not to have significant overlap with figures of speech like metaphors and similes, because there is no comparison or meaning that could possibly be derived from it.
Examples of pure idioms include:
- It’s raining cats and dogs (it is raining heavily – also see rain idioms).
- A chip on my shoulder (to have a grievance about something).
- Wrap my head around (to understand something).
- Fit as a fiddle (to be healthy).
- Make no bones about it (to be certain).
2. Binomial Idioms
Binomial idioms are idioms that involve two parts that work together or in contrast to construct an expression.
Examples of binomial idioms include:
- black and white (there are clear differences).
- night and day (there has been a distinct and remarkable change).
- more or less (something is close enough to correct).
- give or take (there is some room for error).
3. Partial Idioms
A partial idiom contains a literal part and a non-literal part. An example is “storm brewing in his eyes.” This idiom refers to a look of ferocity in someone’s face that can usually be identified in the intensity of their eyes.
There is a literal part in the idiom (we are referring to something in someone’s eyes). But, there is also a non-literal part (the storm). A language user would need to understand that by ‘storm’, the speaker means that the person’s eyes are intense and fierce.
Partial idioms are often also metaphors because the half of the idiom that is literal part (the eyes) derive additional descriptive meaning via comparison to the non-literal part (the storm, in the above instance, implying the eyes are ‘fierce like a storm’).
Examples of partial idioms are listed below with the literal element bolded:
- Red hair
- Eat humble
- Change is as good as a holiday.
- Turn over a new leaf
4. Prepositional Idioms
Prepositional idioms are idioms that contain prepositional verbs plus an adverb or a preposition to create non-literal meaning. These types of idioms need to be placed into a sentence and cannot be used in isolation (they are not ‘fixed collocational idioms’).
You may notice that prepositional idioms are barely recognizable as idioms because they are so commonplace in the English language. Nonetheless, their meanings aren’t derived from the sum of the words in the phrase, but rather through iterative exposure to the English language.
Thus, these sorts of phrases are often learned by rote by new English language learners in order to understand the language.
Examples of prepositional idioms include:
- Put up with (tolerate something).
- Go for (try something).
- Look after (care for).
- Get along (be amicable).
- Look into (investigate).
Proverbs are idioms that provide universal truths or sage advice. They are often provided by wise people or contain morals that are passed on from generation to generation. Many of our proverbs come from old religious or philosophical texts.
Examples of proverbial idioms include:
- A bad workman always blames his tools.
- Actions speak louder than words.
- An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
- A rolling stone gathers no moss.
- As you sow, so you shall reap.
- Beggars can’t be choosers.
Euphemisms are expressions that are used to soften a message that might otherwise be too harsh, blunt or politically incorrect. We will use them when gently chastising someone, talking about something uncomfortable, or even talking about taboo topics such as sexuality.
Examples of euphemisms include:
- Passed away (see also: death idioms).
- Knocking boots (sex).
- Between jobs (unemployed).
- Correctional facility (prison).
- Big-boned (fat).
- Powder my nose (use the toilet).
Read More: A List of Sex Euphemisms
A cliché is a term that has been so overused over time that it is considered intellectually lazy, not funny, unoriginal, or stereotyping when used.
They are often avoided by creative writers, novelists, and songwriters because they betray any sense of seriousness or skill.
Examples of clichés include:
- Diamond in the rough.
- Take a chill pill.
- Don’t judge a book by its cover.
- l’ll give it my best shot.
Non-English Idioms in English Dialogue
There are also many non-English idioms that are interspersed within English dialogue. Many of these come from French and are derived from a time in England where the French language was widely used by the aristocratic classes. Others come from old Latin or Greek.
- Mis en scene (things that aren’t said)
- Carpe Diem (sieze the day)
- Crème de la crème (the best of the best)
There are likely many different ways to dissect idioms into different ‘types’. This list above provides an introductory overview of some common types of idioms you might come across in the English language.
As you may have noticed, many of them overlap and even spill over into other categories of figures of speech like metaphor and hyperbole. Because our language has developed over many millennia, it is a complex and changing thing. Definitions are not set in stone, and it’s difficult to put language forms into distinct buckets.
Nevertheless, these categories can be very useful for writers, teachers, and wordsmiths to start thinking about how to use language to effectively communicate and create rich, unique, and timeless stories.
Antata, P. (n.d.). The Types of Idiom and Their Meaning in Maroon 5’S Hands All Over Album. Faculty of Letters Udayana University.
O’Dell, F. & McCarthy, M. (2010). English Idioms in Use Advanced with Answers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.