Using expressions to streamline your conversations

This post is also available in Dutch.

Using expressions like to kick the bucket makes language easier to understand and faster to process for native speakers compared to language learners: how does it work?

Image by Goodloe Byron courtesy of The Download Podcast.

Have you ever missed the boat? Literally, or figuratively?

Our daily language is riddled with statements that aren’t always meant literally. Early estimates state that the average native speaker utters approximately 21.4 million established expressions over a sixty-year lifespan², or that our vocabulary contains roughly as many expressions as it does single words¹. This includes idiomatic expressions such as our opening example, which means: to miss out on an opportunity. As early as 1975, philosopher John Searl⁴ concluded that we operate by a general rule of thumb: Speak idiomatically unless there is some reason not to.

The science behind expressions

Modern-day research has proven Searle’s rule right time and time again, suggesting our tendency to use expressions could be due to many positive effects of figurative language use. For example, less time is spent looking at the word at the end of an idiom than at the end of a literal sentence during reading, suggesting fewer attentional processes are needed when reading a figurative sequence⁵,⁶. Texts containing expressions are also read faster than completely literal texts⁵,⁶. This phenomenon was quick to get its own name: the idiom superiority effect. Modern neuroscience has since suggested that processes that underlie visual attention and even the integration of word meaning seem to be less involved in idioms than in literal language³. Our reading of literal words in an idiomatic expression may be semantically ‘void’: when we have identified a sentence as an expression, we simply stop treating the words in the expression as we would other words. The meaning of the individual words becomes irrelevant to us as it is the meaning of the sequence as a whole that matters for interpreting the sentence: when told that an elderly person kicked the bucket, we really aren’t concerned with what a bucket is in a literal sense. It might even disturb our reading of the text more than it helps us.

Expressions and a foreign language

Despite the tried and tested positive effects of figurative language use, relatively little attention is given to this type of language in our classrooms. Native speakers learn these expressions simply through immersion in the language culture. However, if you are a foreigner having to navigate your way through a new language, the meaning of idioms may be hard to grasp. How are you supposed to know what it means to kick the bucket if nobody has explained to you that this is not simply something that a frustrated farmer might do?

In my research, I aim to disentangle this idiomatic web one string at a time. Idioms differ in many more aspects than I have room to mention in this blogpost, and some expressions may be easier for foreigners to learn than others. I hope to clear the air on what makes figurative language special: so easy for native speakers, and yet so difficult for language learners.


This blog was written by Wendy van Ginkel and edited by Monica Wagner.

Wendy van Ginkel is a PhD candidate at the Donders Centre for Cognition. Wendy investigates figurative language comprehension in native and bilingual speakers of Dutch to identify the underlying cognitive processing mechanisms and representations that make figurative language different from literal language.

For more information on her research, project group, and to test your own knowledge of Dutch idiomatic expressions, refer to:

(On June the 18th and 19th, the Idiomatic Second Language Acquisition (ISLA) research group is hosting a workshop on figurative language processing at the Radboud University. During this multidisciplinary workshop, speakers from international research groups will present their findings on formulaic language in native and non-native speakers from different perspectives, such as psycholinguistics, second language acquisition, and computational modelling. If you’re interested in joining us in unravelling the web that is figurative language processing, you can find more information on the workshop via this link.)



1: Jackendoff, R. (1997). The architecture of language faculty. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
2: Pollio, H., Barlow, J., Fine, H., & Pollio, M. (1977). Psychology and the poetics of growth: Figurative language in psychology, psychotherapy, and education. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
3: Rommers, J., Dijkstra, T. & Bastiaansen, M. (2013). Context-dependent semantic processing in the human brain: Evidence from idiom comprehension. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 25(5), 762-776.
4: Searle, J.R. (1975). Indirect speech acts. In P. Cole & J.L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics. Speech acts (pp. 59–82). New York: Academic.
5: Siyanova-Chanturia, A., Conklin, K. & Schmitt, N. (2011). Adding more fuel to the fire: An eye- tracking study of idiom processing by native and non-native speakers. Second Language Research, 27(2), 251-272.
6: Underwood, G., Schmitt, N. & Galpin, A. (2004). The eyes have it. Formulaic Sequences: Acquisition, processing, and use, 9, 153.

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