Varieties of English Expressions: A Guide for Language Learners

two boys with the slogan he who laughs last laughs longest

There are many different types of word groups in English like parts of speech, figures of speech, idioms and expressions.

Introduction to English Language Expressions

Expressions are groups of words in English. There are many different expressions in English and we can identify them by their meaning and how the words are used.

In this article we look at the varieties of expressions in English.

Understanding Parts of Speech

In English grammar words are categorized into different types based on their function in a sentence. The parts of speech are:

  • nouns: A noun is a name of a person, place, thing, or idea
    • America, John, table, joy
  • verbs: A verb is a word used to express an action, a feeling or a state of being
    • to eat, played, swimming
  • adjectives: Adjectives describe or modify a noun
    • happy, big, red
  • adverbs: Adverbs describe or modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverb
    • quickly, very, quietly
  • pronouns: A pronoun is a word used to replace a noun.
    • I, you, he, she, it
  • prepositions: A preposition is a word used with a noun or pronoun. It shows how that noun/pronoun relates to something else.
    • in, at, before
  • conjunctions: A conjunction is a word used to join words, parts of a sentence, or sentences.
    • and, but
  • interjections: An interjection is a word used to express a sudden feeling
    • Oh! Sorry, ouch!
  • determiners: A determiner introduces or modifies a noun
    • this, that, a, the, an

If you wish to learn more then please visit our detailed series of articles and exercises where you can learn about parts of speech

Exploring Phrases and Clauses

Phrases are groups of words that function as a single unit in a sentence. Any group of words that is often repeated could be considered a phrase but the term phrase has a specific meaning in grammar.

In our recent course ‘improve English for students‘, we looked at these types of phrases:

  • noun phrases: A noun phrase contains a noun and other words that describe or modify it.
    • the brand new car
  • verb phrases: A verb phrase contains a verb and other words that express action or state
    • was walking quickly
  • prepositional phrase: A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition, its object, and any modifiers
    • on the table, in the park

Clauses are also used in English grammar, they are groups of words that act like small sentences either by themself or following from a main clause. These can be categorized into:

  • independent clauses: A clause that can act by itself as a sentence
    • She walked to the park
  • dependent clauses: A clause that cannot be used by itself as a sentence and it is depend on an main clause for meaning
    • because it was raining
    • dependent clauses include:
      • adjective clauses
      • adverbial clauses
      • noun clauses
      • relative clauses

Exploring Expressions Beyond Literal Meanings

These are phrases that have a particular meaning beyond the words used, and include:

  • Idioms: An expression with a meaning that is different from the literal meaning of its individual words
    • under the weather, a storm in a teacup
  • Clichés: An expression or idea that is used commonly, perhaps too much
    • spill the beans, time flies
  • Truism: A statement that is true and again used commonly
    • practice makes perfect

Figures of Speech

Native English speakers say things is a group of words commonly known to others, and figures of speech are these types of expressions. They include:

  • Simile: A comparison between two things using “like” or “as”
    • sleep like a log, as busy s a bee
  • Metaphor: A comparison between two things without using “like” or “as”
    • time is a thief, in a nutshell
  • Pun: A play on words that uses the different meanings of words with similar sounds
    • think pawsitive, I’m reading a book on anti-gravity. It’s impossible to put down!
  • Personification: Giving human characteristics to non-human objects or animals
    • the flowers whispered to the trees
  • Hyperbole: Exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally
    • I’m so hungry I could eat a horse
  • Understatement: A statement that intentionally downplays the significance of something
    • it’s just a scratch
  • Paradox: A statement that uses terms that have the opposite meaning but may be true in reality
    • less is more, love hate relationship
  • Oxymoron: A combination of terms that have opposite meanings
    • deafening silence, virtual reality

Expressions of Wisdom

Expressions that contain wise words that English speakers say include:

  • sayings: A well known expression that gives wisdom or advice
    • actions speak louder than words
  • proverbs: A traditional saying that offers advice or expresses a common truth
    • the early bird catches the worm

Language Varieties

Perhaps the most difficult are expressions used locally or created by a group of people. These are:

  • colloquialism: Informal expressions used in casual conversation
    • up for grabs, kick the bucket
  • slang: Informal language specific to a certain group
    • a muppet, a shark
  • rhyming slang: A type of slang in which the expression rhymes with the original meaning
    • apples and pears for stairs

English Expressions Questions

What is the difference between a phrase and a clause?

A clause is like a small sentence whereas a phrase is a group of words used together.

How do I distinguish between an idiom and a cliché?

A cliché is an expression that is used or over used but an idiom is specifically an expression that has a different meaning than the individual words together.

What are some common examples of figures of speech?

Common examples of figures of speech include similes (e.g., “as busy as a bee”), metaphors (e.g., “in a nutshell”), puns (e.g., “calendar’s days are numbered”), and personification (e.g., “the clock shouted the time”).

How can I use colloquialisms and slang appropriately in conversation?

Don’t. It is very dangerous to use these types of terms either in the wrong context, to the wrong person or at the wrong time. Only when you are 100% sure that you trust the person, the way to use a phrase and how the person will accept you saying the expression, can you be sure it is ok to use it.

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