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I often see questions asking "Is ____ idiomatic?" I learned a while ago when answering a question like this for the first time that there are two possible meanings - "Is _____ an idiom?" or "Does ____ sound natural to native English speakers?" Most of the time it is the latter, but the questions would be so much clearer from the start without this word. Is there anything that can be done to discourage use of this word when the intended meaning is not otherwise specified? Or what is the best way to handle questions like this when it is unclear?

Also, before anyone downvotes thinking that "idiomatic" is never used to describe idioms, it is in the US. I have had that debate before so I'd rather avoid it here.

Merriam Webster Dictionary definition Cambridge Dictionary definition

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  • If it's not clear whether the author is asking whether something is an idiom or whether it is phrased the way a native speaker would phrase it, the question should be closed as unclear until it is edited to resolve the ambiguity. I doubt questions are getting heavily downvoted because the author used a word incorrectly on ELL. More likely the downvotes are because the question doesn't meet ELL's quality standards.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 23 at 15:40

3 Answers 3

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Unfortunately, "idiomatic" is the correct technical term for "sounds natural to native speakers", and there really isn't a better option to my knowledge other than to lengthily spell out "sound natural to native speakers".

But honestly, this is a stack exchange for English Language Learners, and the "natural sounding" meaning is a domain specific word for learners of any foreign language. It could possibly be ambiguous in other domains, but here, on ELL, I believe it should be taken to mean "natural sounding" every time. If they want the other meaning, it should be spelled out as "is this an idiom", not "is this idiomatic".

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    That makes sense. Then I think the answer would be to educate the answerers that this is how idiomatic is used on ELL. Do you have any suggestions to address that?
    – mjjf
    Feb 18 at 7:04
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    I've seen answers that get it wrong in the past. I've always downvoted that answer, commented why, and then posted my own answer with the correct interpretation. Feb 18 at 7:09
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    Seems like it would be one more way that new users of the site can become discouraged before they begin, getting downvoted for an answer that does answer the question as written, but without knowing an unspoken rule of ELL. Is that truly the best way?
    – mjjf
    Feb 18 at 7:51
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I generally agree that asking if something is 'idiomatic' is much more layered than asking if it sounds 'natural'. There are plenty of old-fashioned, even archaic idioms that are still part of everyday speech, but if I was asked whether such an idiom sounded 'natural', I would feel compelled to explain that it is idiomatic for historical reasons but not necessarily 'natural' in that the grammar may not be something to imitate in modern English.

So, given that a phrase or saying may be natural but not an idiom, and that some idioms are not natural, it seems overly officious to insist that contributors always use 'idiomatic'. And yet, recently, I have noted that some are routinely editing other users' questions to change 'natural' to 'idiomatic'. This is wrong, as it assumes the OP doesn't know what they mean. I've also seen the same contributors correcting the OP in comments, telling them that 'idiomatic' means 'natural', when there is a clear difference.

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In writing an answer, I normally will not use "idiomatic" to mean "sounds natural to a native speaker", but I do not make a point when a question, or another answer, uses the term, because it is, after all, technically correct.

Instead I use such words and phrases as "grammatically correct", "natural", "would be understood by a fluent speaker", "would not sound odd to a fluent speaker", "might be said or written by a native speaker" "is commonly used by native speakers", "is the form generically preferred by native speakers".

I urge other anwerers to avoid "idiomatic" unless an actual idiom is being discussed.

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