Idioms are often beguiling in their incomprehensibility. This is particularly palpable when learning or teaching a new language. For example, Finns say that “cold coffee beautifies,” referring to coffee that has been sitting on the table for too long and is drunk anyway. I am still not entirely sure what the phrase really means, though all the words gathered together seem simple enough.
It is not only language learners that confuse these expressions. A common English idiom is “a piece of cake”, referring to the relative ease of some action. This is very different from “a piece of pie”, or “a piece of the pie”, as it generally refers to getting a portion of something. Thus, President George W. Bush’s bemusing assessment that “we need to make the pie higher (italics mine).”
Teaching the English language, however, is rarely more difficult than when phrasal verbs are under scrutiny. Phrasal verbs, or multi-word verbs, are created by adding a preposition or an adverb to a verb, and often both. We are able to utilize a whole new set of verbs by adding a variety of particles to a word like give, creating the useful give up, give in, give in to, give out, and give way, among others.
Though get is perhaps the most useful and common of these (get up, get out, get off, get on with), make has proved to be the most interesting to teach. Look at the uses of make up in the following sentence:
I finally made up with my wife after that brawl we had over me making up a story about my professor not letting me make up the work I had missed.
Clunky, isn’t it?
Yet it underlines my larger point. Try looking at it from outside the English language. What can it mean?
The diversity of the phrasal verb and its simplicity of use make it easy to employ and difficult to use correctly. There are simply dozens of ways to add and subtract these particles to modify meaning. Thus, revenge becomes get even, and steal becomes make off with. But what is an alternative to turn on? Illuminate? Context is vital.
These verb collocations can also be called idiomatic expressions because of the way the words are combined to constitute some other meaning than those of their parts. Whereas “make or break” may seem obvious, “to mouth off” or “have it in for somebody” can cause difficulty for the language learner.
The idiom and the phrasal verb collide very neatly in make out as in this example:
Officials have banned making out at the railway station, saying it adds to traffic congestion.
To make out is to kiss and pet, usually for prolonged amounts of time. It can also fall under necking, snogging, french kissing, tongue twister, tonsil hockey, locking lips, smooching, sucking face, hooking up and tongue wrestling. Like most phrasal verbs make out also has other meanings, including decipher and progress.
So have patience with us language learners and those who teach. You will hopefully never hear or read a sentence like the one below. If you do, it might just be over your head.
Tell me how you are making out in your new role at work while you make out a check to me if you can make out my address on this notepad.
And now, my coffee has cooled.