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Es mucho el espacio que le venimos dedicando a las expresiones idiomáticas, fraseologías, aforismos, giros, modismos, refranes, etc., y también mucha la importancia que este componente cultural tiene en la enseñanza de una lengua extranjera. Conocer por separado el significado de las palabras que componen una expresión, no garantiza su adecuada interpretación. Como ya se ha podido adivinar, dentro del contenido gramatical que se aporta a continuación, se tratarán las unidades lingüísticas en inglés que incluyen en su estructura los números como fenómeno expresivo, así como su comportamiento semántico.

Las fórmulas enumerativas deben tanto enseñarse, como aprenderse, al constituir una de las principales fuentes de dificultad en el dominio de un idioma, jugando por añadidura un papel significativo en el sistema de comunicación de cada lengua. He aquí un par de ejemplos: “Boca de verdades, cien enemistades”. “De cada diez hombres favorecidos, cinco contentos y cuatro desagradecidos”.

Fuentes: Margarita Koszla-Szymanska (Cátedra de Estudios Ibéricos) CVC

Many of us have experienced situations where we have tried to do something without success – meaning we ended up where we originally started. There is an expression in English for this scenario: that we have ‘gone back to square one’. This means you have to start a process all over again, e.g. ‘Joan was halfway through typing his composition on his PC when the electricity cut off. To his horror, he realised that he hadn’t saved his work. He had to go right back to square one!’

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There are plenty of English idioms that use numbers or numerical expressions. For example, if somebody is told to do something ‘on the double’, it means they must do it as quickly as possible. This idiom was originally used in the military, where soldiers are occasionally commanded to walk twice as quickly as they normally would, i.e. in double time. ‘Get back to the barracks on the double!’ (Note that, in British English, we might use the preposition ‘at’ instead of ‘on’, i.e. ‘at the double’. Either use is acceptable.)

Perhaps the most famous numerical idiom comes from the title of a book. Joseph Heller wrote the seminal novel ‘Catch-22’ as a satire on the madness of war. The book’s fictional protagonist, Captain John Yossarian – a bombardier in the American army during World War 2 – tries to avoid flying dangerous missions by claiming insanity but is foiled at every turn by the mysterious Catch-22, a military loophole that forces everyone to fly. It is explained to him thus:

“If one is crazy, one does not have to fly missions; and one must be crazy to fly. But one has to apply to be excused, and applying demonstrates that one is not crazy. As a result, one must continue flying, either not applying to be excused, or applying and being refused.”

In other words: if you’re crazy, you must fly; if you claim to be crazy it paradoxically proves you are sane, meaning you must fly. It’s a no-win situation. The expression ‘Catch-22’ (with or without the hyphen) is used widely in society today. A very simple example is when a young person applies for a job, only to be told they need experience. However it is impossible for a young person to gain experience if no-one will give them a job! It’s a Catch-22 situation.

Let’s say you do something successfully, and want to celebrate with a colleague or a friend. You would say ‘Give me five!’, which means to hit your open hand against theirs as a sign of camaraderie. If you’re not sure what somebody is going to do, you might try to ‘second guess’ them. This means to try to predict what they will do. If somebody ‘goes off on one’, it means they lose their temper (e.g. ‘He went off on one when he heard how much money he had to spend’). When talking about an amount of money, if it’s impossible to be exact you can give someone ‘a ballpark figure’. This means to give an approximate price for something – maybe the cost of a building job, etc.

The number nine features in a few idioms. If somebody is ‘on cloud nine’, it means they are very happy because something great has happened. When we’re talking about the likelihood of something happening / how common something is – and want to emphasise that it is highly probable / very common – we can say it happens ‘nine times out of ten’. For example, ‘Barça would beat Castelldefels nine times out of ten.’ When somebody is very fashionably dressed – for a wedding, maybe – we say they are ‘dressed up to the nines’.

A very common idiom – to be used when a situation (or person/people) is very confused – is ‘at sixes and sevens’, e.g. ‘The army’s officers are at sixes and sevens at the moment’.

Try out our blog and see how you fare with numerical idioms.


A. Porter

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Joe Crowley