It Calls for Idiomatic Expression


by Guy Perring

ONE of the key definitions of an advanced speaker of English is the ability to use idiomatic or less common expressions. For example, the public version of the Speaking band descriptors for IELTS refers to the use of less common and idiomatic vocabulary as a feature of bands 7 to 9. Band 9 is native speaker level, and 7 and 8 would generally allow you to study at an Undergraduate/Graduate level. However, even advanced Malaysian learners of business English tend to use a fairly narrow range of language. For example, saying a delicious meal instead of very good food would reveal a more advanced speaker. Then there is the use of multi-word or phrasal verbs, like “break even”, meaning “neither making a loss nor profit”.

Phrasal verbs are formed with a verb such as set, come, do, get plus a short preposition word such as up, in, on, etc. For example, let us take the expression you might use if you want to give a vague excuse for cancelling a meeting:

Hi, Peter, I need to cancel our meeting this afternoon. Something unexpected has occurred.

It would be much better to replace the words in bold with phrasal verbs. So we could say:

Hi, Peter, I need to call the meeting off this afternoon. Something has come up.

The difficulty about these expressions is that the words call and off don’t really help with the meaning of cancel nor does the combination come and up indicate an unexpected event. You need to know them to use them. Looking up the word call in a good dictionary should show you the range of phrasal verbs that can be formed with it. It’s a great way to increase your vocabulary starting from simple base words like come and call. See if you can complete the exercise below with call + prepositions. The meanings are in brackets afterwards. See answers below my name.

  1. You got that promotion, this _________ a celebration. (deserves)
  2. The board has _________ Mr Jones to answer the charges of fraud. (ask someone to do something, formal)
  3. The trade union has decided to _______ its men to protest the pay freeze. (to order to go on strike)
  4. My father was ________ in 1939. (ordered to join the armed forces)

Here is a similar exercise with come:

  1. __________ , surely one of you has a suggestion for our annual staff party. (make an effort)
  2. How did this incident ___________? (happen)
  3. Our whole strategy of diversification is _______________. (break into pieces without force)
  4. Nothing ___________ Peter and his family. (to interrupt or cause trouble)

Guy Perring is Director, Professional Development Unit (PDU), at the British Council Malaysia. The PDU offers a wide range of learning opportunities from management and communication skills training to developing English skills. Visit it at or e-mail


  1. calls for
  2. called upon
  3. call out
  4. called up
  5. Come along
  6. come about
  7. coming apart
  8. comes between

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