Grammar Glossary for Spanish Students

rain on window
Llueve a cántaros. (It's raining cats and dogs.) The Spanish sentence literally means "it's raining from pitchers.". Photo by El Tabernero; licensed via Creative Commons.

Definition: As used in this site, "idiom" most often refers to a phrase or expression that cannot be understood by knowing what the individual words in the phrase mean. For example, "to roll out the red carpet" is to extravagantly welcome a guest; no red carpet is needed. The phrase is misunderstood when interpreted in a literal fashion. An example of a Spanish idiom is "No está el horno para bollos," which literally means "The oven isn't ready for bread rolls." The phrase generally means "The time isn't right." Although many idiomatic phrases are of primarily colloquial usage, idioms also are a vital part of standard speech and writing.

Another meaning for "idiom" is a specialized language or a distinctive pattern in the usage of a language. As such, it can refer to the way a language is used in a given region; in such usage, an idiom usually isn't seen as distinctly different as a dialect is, although sometimes "idiom" and "dialect" are used interchangeably. An idiom can similarly refer to the language patterns used within a certain profession or other subgroup. For example, it might be said that college students have their own idiom.

Also known as: In Spanish, an idiomatic phrase is a modismo. The word idioma usually refers to a language in general, but it can also refer to a pattern of language usage.

Examples: The English idiom "The cat was let out of the bag" means "The secret was revealed." The same thing can be said using the Spanish idiom "Se descubrió el pastel," which literally means "The cake was discovered."