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June 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Is it Reigning Cats and Dogs? Or Are You Just Pleased to Cliché?

Paul Davis was freelance teacher, trainer and writer. He co-authored “Dictation”, “More Grammar Games” and “Ways of doing” (CUP). His last book was “The Company Words Keep” (DELTA Publishing).


Have a look at the following  lexical chunks: raining cats and dogs, Happy birthday,  and by the way. They are all fixed  expressions (Merry Birthday, for example, is an extremely unlikely utterance).  Now, of the three, which would a learner be more likely to know and which would they be more likely to use?

Most of our learners (even at very low levels) would know raining cats and dogs and Happy birthday. And they are not afraid to use them.  But we are not so sure that most of them know by the way or if they did, would  they use it or know when to use it.

But which of the three is the most common and most useful?  By typing in BNC to a search engine  function we can get free access to the British National Corpus. And we can do a quick, simple search for the frequency of the chunks. The results are as follows: 

raining cats and dogs has only 2 occurrences in the corpus

happy birthday has 233 occurrences

by the way 1543.

The BNC has provided  provides the information about frequency but we have to interpret the data.

 It seems clear that Happy birthday is useful and pretty common. It has a clear function. It is the kind of chunk that learners are more than likely to know since it is international English.

By the way has clear functions, normally –  interrupting, bringing in new information and reminding. It’s clear that it is incredibly commonly used too.  Not necessarily a chunk that the learners would pick up or know when to use. It needs teaching!

But what about raining cats and dogs? Remember it only occurs twice in the corpus so is incredibly rare. But why does everyone know it? What use is it?

Well, it seems to be there to play with. The evidence suggests it is almost never used in open speech. It is too much of a cliché. But look back at the title of this article. The headline in the newspaper column (about whether people or households were cat lovers or dog lovers)  was Is it reigning cats and dogs? Clever. A joke. A twisted cliché. Another variation is to twist the cliché to describe light rain: raining kittens and puppies. We’ve also seen umbrellas on sale which have a pattern of cats and dogs – another visual twist of the cliché.

So tricky. Not all fixed expressions are equal. Happy birthday and by the way are frequent and useful. But learners are attracted to colourful expressions like raining cats and dogs. There’s nothing wrong in knowing the cliché but the skill is not to use it in open speech. Avoid clichés like the plague unless you can twist them.



I think Paul would have liked this poem (HK)

Open photo

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