What does “idiomatic” mean when speaking about language?

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

An idiom is an expression whose meaning cannot be directly derived from the meanings of the words it contains. Hence one of the meanings of the word “idiomatic” is “containing/being an idiom”, as in:

“Pulling someone’s leg” is an idiomatic expression.

However, this is not the most common meaning of the word “idiomatic”. When English speakers speak about something being idiomatic, it means that it sounds natural. For example, trying to explain a difference between “wait for me” and “wait at me”, a native speaker could say:

“Wait for me!” is idiomatic, while “Wait at me!” is not.

In this context, the intended meaning is not that “wait for me” is an idiom (on the contrary, it is quite clear what it means). “Idiomatic” simply means “how a native speaker would say it”, and this is the most common sense in which this adjective is used.

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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