How to Avoid Phraseme Goofs in Other Languages

by Steven Mehler

Some things just have to be memorized. When learning another language, there will be phrases, idioms, and other multi-word expressions that are meaningless in one’s own language. If attempts are made to translate them literally, they will obviously make no sense. In the world of linguistics, these are known as “phrasemes.”


Consider the American phraseme, “Jack kicked the bucket.” Even in other English-speaking countries, this expression might be taken quite literally, causing a listener to wonder why Jack would kick a bucket – was he angry? These phrasemes we have come to call “idioms.” They are expressions in which none of the component words- “kick” and “bucket” have anything to do with dying.

Consider these other American idioms, “He has been around the block a time or two,” or “He has been to this dance before.” Both connote someone who has experience in certain areas, but none of the key words relate literally to that meaning.

There are other idiomatic expressions that are not as unintelligible as others, and the meanings can be gleaned with a bit of thought. Thus, in American English we “make a decision;” in the UK we can also “take a decision.”

Every language has idiomatic expressions, and anyone learning another language will naturally “goof” when attempting to translate them literally.

The only solution for avoiding these issues will be extended practice with a native speaker. “Book learning” will only go so far.


These are multi-word expressions in which one word is the “centerpiece” of what the speaker is referring to and a descriptive (or intensifying) word is used for greater emphasis or detail. They become embedded in a language over time, as appropriate and acceptable.

Consider the English terms, “strong coffee,” and “powerful computer.” Saying “powerful coffee” or “strong computer” is awkward and unnatural, and yet the literal meanings are quite right.

In speaking and writing in a foreign language, use of these modifiers in what would be considered an “incorrect manner” brings awkwardness.

Again, avoiding “goofs” in the use of collocations requires a great deal of exposure to a language – exposure to native speakers.


All languages have them, and their meanings can be a bit more intelligible to a non-native speaker.

“A stitch in time saves nine,” “the early bird catches the worm,” “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Even taken literally, the meanings can be gleaned with a bit of thought.

Consider, for example, the English phraseme, “What is your name?” One would answer, “My name is Susan.” In Spanish, however, the cliché phraseme is “Como se llama?” (or literally, “How are you called?”). The answer is, “me llamo Susan,” of “I call myself Susan.” No problem with meaning here. If someone said, in English, “I call myself Susan,” this would be completely intelligible, although perceived as awkward or abnormal.

Morphological Phrasemes

These are “conventionalized” compound word combinations that have developed (or “morphed”) over time within a language. Examples of such phrasemes in English would be terms like “dogcatcher,” “airliner,” or “bookworm.” Obviously, some of these would be most difficult for a newcomer to the English language. After all, is a “bookworm” an actual worm that eats paper pages of a book? There are worms that actually do this.

Again, every language has morphological phrasemes, and it is a challenge to learn them as one studies a foreign language.

Avoiding the Goofs

Accept that you will not avoid them, at least not at first. And accept the fact that mistakes with phrasemes can be a source of humor. They can also be offensive, however. And whether they are humorous or offensive can depend upon the sub-culture of a particular linguistic population. For example, the term “mama-san” in Japanese is a term of endearment for the population of Okinawa. In higher social groups on the mainland of japan, however, the term can be offensive and even derogatory. These are the nuances of a language that one comes to understand only through continued exposure.

Fortunately, we have technology to help us too. Google, for example, has a mobile app of an English collocation dictionary, and it is likely that such an app will be developed for other languages as well. There are other digital dictionaries that provide translations of idioms, clichés, and morphological phrasemes too. Making use of them is just a smart thing to do.

About the writer

Steven Mehler is an experienced writer, blogger, philologist and social psychologist that works as an editor at a local newspaper and a freelance writer at Rated by Students. Steven also runs his own content agency and is writing a book. He has a long-term experience in writing articles based on language learning, blogging and social psychology.


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