Emails from Students (Page 2)



Oct 12, 2008

An email about idioms and proverbs

--- On Mon, 7/14/08, XXXXX> wrote:

From: XXXX
Subject: for your help
Date: Monday, July 14, 2008, 11:50 AM

Dear Mr. Green, 

Could you please do me a favour to tell me whether the following sentences are real English idioms?

No pains, no gains.
No sweat, no sweet.
A friend in need is a friend indeed.
Where there is a will, there is a way. 

Some people believe the above sentences are well-known English idioms, for these sentences were taught by English teachers when we were very young. But some people think these so-called "English idioms" are actually "Chinglish" (Chinese-English). To be honest, I have no idea which point is true. I would appreciate very much if you would give me the answer. 

Thanks in advance. 




My reply


Well, I'm no expert on this but, as a native English speaker, I'll give you my opinions.

I wouldn't call them 'idioms' but rather, 'expressions' and 'proverbs'. All of the ones you wrote are not used as much as you might think in educated English. English speakers don't use proverbs quite as much as Chinese speakers do (when speaking Chinese). In Chinese, I think the use of proverbs from classical literature is a sign of a well-educated person but English is much less like that, mostly because we don't have such a large body of classical literature. An exception would be using some of the famous expressions or proverbs from Shakespeare but this style of showing one's education is a little old-fashioned. Generally speaking, in English, well-known proverbs are used by older people (so, they feel 'old fashioned') and by people who are not at the highest level of education because, if they were very highly educated, they would be able to express their meanings using normal English that they compose themselves.

In general, using the kind of things you wrote will not impress examiners very much. In the vocabulary sub-score, you get points for suitably using real idiomatic expressions, especially 'Phrasal Verbs'. See my website on that. The expressions you wrote are not the kind of idiomatic language that is meant in the grading criteria for the Speaking test.

The expressions & proverbs you listed are easily memorized & spoken by non-native English speakers and so they don't show a high level of language skill. Occasionally using one of this style of expression or proverb is good in the IELTS speaking if it helps you to illustrate your meaning but these expressions should not be used as substitutes for using normal English to express yourself.

No pains, no gains. - This is real English but it is used in very informal situations, by not-so-educated speakers and is not used as much in English speaking countries as you might think. It looks similar to "Chinglish" but I think the expression came into English from other non-English speaking immigrants, not Chinese. Actually, I think the expression is "No pain, no gain." I would avoid such an uneducated sounding expression in the IELTS test.

No sweat, no sweet. - I've never heard of this expression. So, it should not be used at all because it is not a well-known expression.

A friend in need is a friend indeed.  - This is a well-known proverb. It means, "A friend at a time of need (= when you need a friend) is a real friend." As I said, if you use a proverb to illustrate and expand (= to add to) your meaning, a meaning which you express in normal English composed by yourself, then it's ok. But many Band 4 level (and below) candidates say such proverbs as a way to avoid using their own words to express themselves. Examiners can see this and are not impressed simply by a display of these proverbs.

However, if you can't speak English well, (e.g., Band 4.5 or less), it is better to use such a proverb than to not communicate your meaning at all. But, as I said, it won't earn you high points in the speaking test.

Where there is a will, there is a way. - My comments for this well-known proverb are the same as for the other proverb. But since it is used mostly in speaking, it is much better to use the contracted form of English:  "Where there's a will, there's a way." If you don't use the contracted form of English, it sounds like written English and does not impress the examiner as natural speaking.

My advice - get a good 双语 book of Phrasal Verbs (in Chinese, 短语动词) & increase your knowledge of them. This is what the IELTS examiners are mainly looking for in terms of 'idiomatic language'.



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