British Studies Web Pages

Multilingual World


Language Rules, O.K.

In this article, Ma³gorzata Zdybiewska from TTC in Radom explores some issues connected with cultural competence in ELT and the implications that language play may have for language learning and teaching. The article is followed by some language puzzles that test your knowledge of language clichés, set phrases and idioms.

Perfect knowledge of a foreign language implies not only the knowledge of its grammar rules and vocabulary, but also an ability to employ a large variety of spoken and written registers.  Speaking a foreign language is a skill that has to be supported and nourished throughout the learner’s lifetime. The ideal the foreign language learner pursues is a mythical native-speaker-like linguistic competence. Yet, a good knowledge of a foreign language is much more than just that. Many will agree that it also involves such skills as the ability to recognize allusion, understand a joke or a cartoon, or decode newspaper headlines. In short, acquiring linguistic competence is only one of the dimensions of the language learning process. It might be sufficient for transmission of information but hardly adequate to communicate subtle cultural meanings hidden between the lines. Someone who is not a native speaker of English cannot tap into the shared cultural/linguistic heritage that native speakers have. Not being part of the culture, the learner usually has no linguistic/cultural memory to which he/she can relate. No amount of time spent pouring over a political cartoon will ever enable a foreign language learner to decode its meaning, if he does not understand the political situation to which the cartoon might refer.

In his book Language Play[1], David Crystal recalls problems he had with explaining one of the slogans advertising Heineken beer, i.e. “Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach” to a group of Japanese teachers of English. Even though they knew what the sentence meant, they were unable to grasp its meaning. They were also unaware that it was language play and part of a game the slogan writers were playing with the public. The understanding of this slogan required the previous knowledge of the series of poster and television ads for Heineken lager, introduced by the Whitbread Company in the UK in the seventies, which after having created an advertising slogan, began to manipulate its language in strange ways.[2] That anecdote will remind the Polish TV viewers of one of the first Polish commercials advertising washing powder that made a literary reference to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy: “Ojciec, praæ?” Explaining the pun in the slogan to somebody who does not know Polish literature very well will indeed require a passage of at least 50 words[3].

Should all these difficulties with understanding hidden cultural meanings discourage the learners? On the contrary! Although few learners of English will be able to achieve a high  enough level of both linguistic and cultural competence allowing them to be engaged in verbal fireworks or display intuitive knowledge of allusions being invoked, there is no reason why they should not try hard. Actively playing with language, celebrating its creativity and humour may help overcome difficulties in language learning and give a lot of satisfaction on a tough way to the top, i.e. native-like proficiency.

There are some areas in the language learning that might be compared to climbing Mt. Everest. In the English language these are phrasal verbs. They seem to be one of the first serious obstacles to linguistic fluency facing candidates for exams like First Certificate. The students are usually bewildered by their variety and vastness. The next steps on the ladder leading to linguistic and cultural competence are, no doubt, set phrases, clichés or those idioms so well established in the language that they are a kind of verbal shorthand for native speakers. Julia Cresswell, the author of The Penguin Dictionary of Clichés [4]defines a cliché as an expression so commonly known in the language that you can predict exactly how it is going to end. Very often a speaker does not even need to finish the full phrase to convey its full meaning.

That is precisely why clichés might create serious problems to non-native speakers who come from different cultural backgrounds and who have no intuitive cultural knowledge to which they may refer. Understanding that some expression is a cliché assumes knowledge of hidden meanings. A lot of clichés come from works of literature. In the world of English one of the most significant sources is the Bible. Rarely do we realize that some phrases have had a long and complicated history. The list of clichés, which have roots in the Bible, is endless. To give just a few obvious examples: ”Good Samaritan”, “ivory tower’, ”manna from heaven” or “to cast pearls before swine”, etc.

The most prolific source of clichés, however, in the English language is William Shakespeare. There are thousands of set expressions that have their beginnings in his works. Some are instantly recognizable as quotations from him. For example: “labour of love”, “all’s well that ends well’, or “sound and fury” etc. Others have become almost invisible in the language texture. They are so well established in the language that they are no longer perceived as phrases that have been coined by someone in particular. They are so common that they have become the property of all the speakers of the language. An example of this is “sea change”, which comes from Shakespeare’s Tempest. It is a very typical journalistic cliché used to describe a profound change. There are many other great English authors who provided their readers with thousands of catchy phrases. Among them there are both poets and novelists: writers such as Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Hardy, Percy B. Shelley or  Rudyard Kipling.

The origin of many other popular expressions is unknown and it is difficult to discover their exact pedigree. What’s more, they often appear and disappear from language. The reason for it seems to be the very nature of a cliché. As soon as an original and striking expression becomes a set phrase it loses its appeal. It is almost a love/hate relationship. When a phrase becomes too common it loses its original force and becomes so boring that writers or speakers try to avoid it.

Like any other language, English is a living organism. New phrases and idioms are invented constantly. Some become instantly popular. With time some of them become set phrases well fixed in the language. They are the most difficult part of the language for its learners. There are a couple of reasons for that. First of all, it is difficult to understand the meaning of a set expression if you do not know its history. For example: “D-Day”. This expression, which has been in use since the First World War, means the designated day for a military operation. For most people D-Day means 6 June 1944 when the Allied forces landed in Normandy.

Other prolific sources of language clichés are politics and advertising. Politicians seem to be constantly looking for powerful catchy phrases that will do their work for them, i.e. convince their listeners or readers to their way of thinking. For example: a phrase “back to basics” is a political cliché used as a slogan by educational reformers in the USA in the mid-1970s. It became famous in 1993 when the Prime Minister, John Major, made a speech at the Conservative Party Conference, saying: “The message from this conference is clear and simple. We must go back to basics …The Conservative Party will lead the country back to these basics, right across the board: sound money, free trade, traditional teaching, respect for the family and the law” (Cresswell:14).

Those who work hardest in the area of language play are the professional slogan and headline writers. Their aim is to catch the reader’s attention. Their ingenuity at language play will often add to the despair of those English language learners who have great problems with  understanding newspaper headlines or advertising slogans in English. Take for example “Pain Stops Play”- a headline for a story from The Sun.  about a cricketer bitten by an adder David Crystal explains (Crystal:103):

We need to know that there is a tradition of saying ‘Rain stops play’ at cricket matches before we could possibly ‘get the joke’ in ‘Pain Stops Play’ – and is there any adult in Britain who would not know this? But during a lecture to non-native English-language speakers, I once asked the 200-strong audience whether they recognized the allusion in 'Pain Stops Play': nobody did. There is, it seems, a huge gap between native and non-native intuitions, when it comes to language play. I also asked a group of American students: same result. How much do the British miss when they read newspapers from other parts of the English-speaking world, I wonder?

A large number of set phrases and clichés comes from business and law. For example: “agenda”, “ballpark figure”, “give someone the benefit of the doubt”, “bottom line”, “cheque in the post”, or “the customer is always right” etc. Though these phrases have their origins in business or law they are often now used in different contexts.

Summing up, I would like to make an important recommendation to EFL teachers and students: restore the fun to the study of language! Enjoy language games, puzzles and language jokes. These playful elements of language are vital to your success as a fluent foreign language speaker.

Below you will find some crossword puzzles based on literary, film and business cliches. Have fun!


[1] Crystal, David.Language Play.1998. Penguin Books (ISBN 0-14-027385-9)

[2] Crystal, David: 100

[3] The characters that appear in the said commercial are a father and his sons who were very eager to draw their sabres and engage in a fight. “Praæ” in Polish means both to “wash” sth. and to “beat sb.” The father and his sons are very popular characters created by Henryk Sienkiewicz in his “Trilogy”, a series of three historical novels describing wars in which Poland was engaged in the 17th century. They are instantly recognisable to Polish readers. Even more so in recent times because of films that had been made on the basis of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novels.

[4] Cresswell, Julia. 2000. The Penguin Dictionary of Clichés. Penguin Books (ISBN 0-14-051427-9)


If you have not done so already, you might now like to try our literary, film as well as business cliché quizzes to test if you know them.

Produced in Poland by British Council © 2003. The United Kingdom's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We are registered in England as a charity.