The Usage of English and American Idioms

American history reflected in idioms. Structure of Idioms. Differences and usage in American English and British English. Influence of the American English on the world of idioms. Main differences in usage. English idioms and their usage in everyday life.

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Министерство образования и науки Республики Татарстан

Управление образования исполнительного комитета

Нижнекамского муниципального района Республики Татарстан

III Республиканская юношеская научно-исследовательская конференция

"Я - исследователь"

г. Нижнекамск

Школа №10

Класс 11 "Г"

Секция: английская филология


Тема: The Usage of English and American Idioms

Руководитель Салихзянова Лилия Григорьевна,

учитель английского языка

I квалификационной категории

Учащийся Почитаев Алексей

Нижнекамск 2008


  • Introduction
  • 1. Chapter 1. American history reflected in idioms
  • 1.1 What is an idiom?
  • 1.2 Structure of Idioms
  • 1.3 Idioms reflecting events of the 17th century
  • 1.4 Idioms referring to the 18th century
  • 1.5 Idioms referring to the 19th century
  • 1.6. Idioms referring to the 20th century
  • 2. Chapter 2. Differences and usage in American English and British English
  • 2.1 Influence of the American English on the world of idioms
  • 2.2 Main differences in usage
  • 3. Chapter 3. English idioms and their usage in everyday life
  • 3.1 My own example of using idioms in daily speech
  • 3.2 Examples of idioms from my textbook
  • Conclusion
  • Literature
  • Appendix 1
  • Appendix 2


All over the world free using idioms in speech is a difficult problem for people, learning English language as a foreign one. Idioms often cause serious difficulties even with people, who know English very well. And if they intentionally avoid using idioms, in this case their oral and written speech, most likely, will be dull and high-flown. So we think that this research is quite actual.

Idioms make our speech more expressive, vivid, and imaginative. Having a rich vocabulary of idioms, you can not only understand shades of meaning, stylistics, emotion, but you also will enrich your speech, made it more natural, that, of course, will make your intercourse easier with foreign colleagues and friends.

People, who improving in English language, should precisely understand that using idioms in daily intercourse isn't foppery or tribute to a style of the end of XX century. On the contrary, understanding and right using idioms testifies about high level of possession of English language.

Aims of the research:

to explore the world of English and American idioms

to analyze school textbooks and show how to use idioms in practice


to research the history of idioms

to demonstrate a variety of them

to help other students to use idioms

The object of the research, thus, is an idiom as a linguistic phenomenon. Its subject comprises investigation of usage of idioms in practice.

Methods: analysis, comparison, illustrative method, method of material evaluation

The results of the research can be used by English-learners and the teachers of English.

Chapter 1. American history reflected in idioms

1. Chapter 1. American history reflected in idioms

1.1 What is an idiom?

Any language has a lot of idioms. Idiomatic expressions are a vital component of English in particular. They reflect mentality and culture of the people, speaking this language. If we compare English and Russian language, we will also find out a great number of idioms, like “has remained with a nose”, “to sit in a pool” or “ate a dog" and so on in Russian language.

An idiom is a phrase or expression that has a meaning different from what the words suggest in their usual meaning. All idioms have some sort of meaning behind them such as “Butterflies in my stomach”. The meaning is a feeling caused by nervousness. Idioms can be really funny but some are really tricky.

Idiom (noun) - an expression conforming or appropriate to the peculiar structural form of a language; in extend use, an expression sanctioned by usage, having a sense peculiar to itself and not agreeing with the logical sense of its structural form; The term red herring, an idiom meaning 'false trail', is used of something which is neither red nor a herring.

English and American idioms are very different. Such American phrase as to put one's foot into it, meaning to make a public offence, in British English is passed by phrase to drop a brick, which won't be clear for the majority of the people, living in USA.

Idioms are very widespread in modern English language. We can divide all idioms into different parts according to their meaning. They're everywhere around us. (Appendix 1)

english american idioms usage

1.2 Structure of Idioms

Most idioms are unique and fixed in their grammatical structure. The expression to sit on the fence cannot become to sit on a fence or to sit on the fences. However, there are many changes that can be made to an idiom.

Some of these changes result in a change in the grammatical structure that would generally be considered to be wrong. To be broken literally means that something is broken. The lamp is broken so I cannot easily read my book. To be broke is grammatically incorrect but it has the idiomatic meaning of to have no money. I am broke and I cannot go to a movie tonight.

There can also be changes in nouns, pronouns or in the verb tenses. I sat on the fence and did not give my opinion. Many people are sitting on the fence and do not want to give their opinion. Adjectives and adverbs can also be added to an idiomatic phrase. The politician has been sitting squarely in the middle of the fence since the election.

Many idioms are similar to expressions in other languages and can be easy for a learner to understand. Other idioms come from older phrases which have changed over time.

To hold one's horses means to stop and wait patiently for someone or something. It comes from a time when people rode horses and would have to hold their horses while waiting for someone or something. "Hold your horses," I said when my friend started to leave the store.

Other idioms come from such things as sports that are common in the United Kingdom or the United States and may require some special cultural knowledge to easily understand them.

To cover all of one's bases means to thoroughly prepare for or deal with a situation. It comes from the American game of baseball where you must cover or protect the bases. I tried to cover all of my bases when I went to the job interview.

The development of the language is always connected with the development of society. In this context, it will be of great interest to see the relationship between history and language. Perhaps the most obvious demonstration of this relationship will come from identification and analysis of those idioms, which reflect American history or rather American culture of this, or that historic period.

Studying idioms many authors call attention to the fact that they can more easily than other language units cumulate and store facts about the past, cultural semantics of a nation, traditions, customs, folklore, etc. because of the so called "cumulative" function of a language. The element, which renders the information, is called "national-cultural component". There exist many definitions of an idiom, but most theorists stress three main features: that this linguistic unit consists of more than one word, it is stable, and idiomatic, that is the meaning of a whole unit does not emerge from the meaning of words it consists of.

Etymological analysis of the data obtained showed that it is possible to distinguish several groups of idioms according to the period in the history of the U. S. they reflect.

1.3 Idioms reflecting events of the 17th century

A very important historic event is reflected in the idiom “a witch-hunt”, the idiomatic meaning of which is: "a search for, and persecution of, people whose views are regarded as evil: The McCarthy witch-hunt in the United States from 1950-54 sought out members of the Communist Party." (Kirkpatrick and Schwarz, 1995). The prototype of the idiom refers to the organized hunts for witches. And though it took place both in America and in Britain the idiom originally appeared in the United States. Against the background of extreme stress (being a colony of England, the country was in a state of war with the French and their Indian allies and in 1690 northern frontiers of New England and New York were devastated by enemy attacks) there occurred an outbreak of witch-hunt that led to accusations in witchcraft. It was especially severe in Salem Village. In 1692 nineteen people were hanged, another was pressed to death by heavy stones, and more than one hundred people were jailed. To explain this puzzling episode, the authors of the book “A People and A Nation” write, "to be understood it must be seen in its proper context - one of political and legal disorder, of Indian war, and of religious and economic change. It must have seemed to Puritan New Englanders as though their entire world was collapsing." (1990: 67-68).

1.4 Idioms referring to the 18th century

There are some idioms, which reflect everyday life of people during the 18th century. It refers to the idiom “have an axe to grind”, the idiomatic meaning of which is "to have a personal, often selfish, reason for being involved in something: I have no axe to grind - I just want to help you.". The etymology of this idiom presents a great interest. It represents a story as it is believed, told by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), American statesman, diplomat, author, scientist, and inventor, about a man who "had once asked him to demonstrate how his father's grindstone worked - and had then produced an axe which he wanted to sharpen".

1.5 Idioms referring to the 19th century

Most idioms describe the everyday life; they are connected with the tools. “Fly off the handle” idiomatically means "to lose one's tempo: He flew off the handle when he heard that the boys had raided his garden again." The metaphor is based on the possibility of an axe head to fly off the handle while one is using it. According to D. Boorstin, the idioms came into use in 1825.

Tools and implements play an important role in the life of Americans, as in a life of any people. They are often used in idioms. The prototype of the idiom “get the hang of (something) ” originally meant, "to learn to use this or that tool." Idiomatic meaning is "to learn, or begin to understand, how to do (something): It may seem difficult at first, but you'll get the hang of it after a few weeks. "

A very important facet of life is disclosed in the idiom “bark up the wrong tree”, which presently means "to attempt to do the wrong thing or to do something in the wrong way or from the wrong direction: You're barking up the wrong tree if you think you will be able to influence the judge." The metaphor comes from racoon-hunting, where dogs were used to locate racoons up in trees.

There are many idioms including elements denoting hunting in the common vocabulary stock, most of them were inherited by American English. It is noteworthy to underline that the idioms describes hunting a new animal, racoon, the habitat of which is the North America. D. Boorstin refers this idiom to 1833.

1.6. Idioms referring to the 20th century

The period of Prohibition gave rise to several idioms pertaining to the organized crime. Many Americans first heard about this type of crime in the early 1920s when it was started by notorious Al Capone with bootlegging in Chicago. Later he came to control much of illegal activities: extortion, gambling, prostitution, narcotics, etc. (Flexner, 1982: 435). The activity of gangsters is reflected in the idiom “take (someone) for a ride”, which had a variant take (someone) for a one-way ride, the etymological meaning was "to kill someone in a moving car"; it was originally gangster's slang reflecting a common practice of exterminating a person without attracting attention. Metaphorical meaning is: "to trick, chit or deceive (someone)": He doesn't actually work for a charity at all, so the people who have sent him money have been taken for a ride.

“Give (someone) the works" metaphorically means "to give someone the full treatment: They've certainly given her the works at the hairdresser's - she's had her hair cut, tinted and permed." The prototype meant, "to kill someone".

Though the prototype of the idiom “stool-pigeon" meaning "a pigeon tied to a stool and used as a decoy" goes back to the 1830's, the spread and active use refers to the 1920's (Flexner, 1982: 436). Idiomatic meaning is "an informer or spy especially for the police: The police received information about the planned robbery from a stoolpigeon. "

A later period can be seen in the idiom “on the breadline" meaning "with barely enough money to live on: The widow and her children were living on the breadline." The idiom reminds about The Great Depression (1929 - the late 1930's). But the worst period was between 1929 - 1933, when unemployment reached 13 million people in 1933, which comprised one fourth of the labor force. It is at that time that soup kitchens were opened by such organizations as Red Cross and Salvation Army in the United States, the poorest people queued in breadlines. So, the prototype of the idiom meant literally "queues of destitute people waiting for free food from soup-kitchens, especially run by the government. "

To sum up, I would like to underline that American studies perspective enabled to find cultural elements in idioms which store the information about historic events, ethnographic details, ways of life of different periods in the history of the U. S. A. Albeit history is only implied in the idioms under study but the information is very important for the students majoring in American studies as well as for those who are interested in the United States.

Chapter 2. Differences and Usage in American English and British English

If you look up the word idiom in Webster, you will be given the following definition: Idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent element as kick the bucket, hang one's head etc., or from the general grammatical rules of language, as the table round for the round table, and which is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics. This definition seems a bit dry and doesn't really tell anything about the function of idioms in English language.

English is a language particularly rich in idioms - those modes of expression peculiar to a language (or dialect) which frequently defy logical and grammatical rules. Without idioms English would lose much of its variety and humor both in speech and writing.

The background and etymological origins of most idioms is at best obscure. This is the reason why a study of differences between the idioms of American and British English is somewhat difficult. But it also makes the cases, where background, etymology and history are known, even more interesting. Some idioms of the "worldwide English" have first been seen in the works of writers like Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott and Lewis Carroll or even in the paperbacks of contemporary novelists. An example of Shakespearian quotation can be found in the following sentence: "As a social worker, you certainly see the seamy side of life." Biblical references are also the source of many idioms. Sports terms, technical terms, legal terms, military slang and even nautical expressions have found their way to the everyday use of English language. Following are some examples of these, some used in either American or British English and some used in both: "Having won the first two Tests, Australia is now almost certain to retain the Ashes." (Ashes is a British English idiom that is nowadays a well-established cricket term.)

"In his case the exception proves the rule." (A legal maxim - in full: "the exception proves the rule in cases not excepted". Widely used in both AmE and BrE.)

"To have the edge on/over someone." (This is originally American English idiom, now established in almost every other form of English, including BrE.)

"A happy hunting ground." (Place where one often goes to obtain something or to make money. Originally American English idiom from the Red Indians' Paradise.)

2. Chapter 2. Differences and usage in American English and British English

2.1 Influence of the American English on the world of idioms

In the old days English idioms rarely originated from any other form of English than British English. (French was also a popular source of idioms.) Nowadays American English is in this position. It is hard to find an AmE idiom that has not established itself in "worldwide English" (usually BrE). This is not the case with British English idioms which are not as widespread. It has to be remembered that it is hard to say which idioms are actively used in English and which are dying out or have already died. Idioms are constantly dying and new-ones are born.

Some idioms may have gone through radical changes in meaning. The phrase - There is no love lost between them - nowadays means that some people dislike one another. Originally, when there was only the British English form, it meant exactly the opposite. The shift in meaning is yet unexplained. All dialects of English have different sets of idioms and situations where a given idiom can be used. American English and British English may not, in this respect, be the best possible pair to compare because they both have been developing into the same direction, at least where written language is concerned, since the Second World War. The reason that there is so much American influence in British English is the result of the following:

· Magnitude of publishing industry in the U. S.

· Magnitude of mass media influence on a worldwide scale

· Appeal of American popular culture on language and habits worldwide

· International political and economic position of the U. S.

All these facts lead to the conclusion that new idioms usually originate in the U. S. and then become popular in so-called "worldwide English". This new situation is completely different from the birth of American English as a "variant" of British English. When America was still under the rule of the Crown, most idioms originated from British English sources. Of course there were American English expressions and idioms too, before American English could be defined as dialect of English. Some examples of these early American English idioms follow:

"To bark up the wrong tree." (Originally from raccoon-hunting in which dogs were used to locate raccoons up in trees.)

"Paddle one's own canoe." (This is an American English idiom of the late 18th Century and early 19th Century.)

Some of these early American idioms and expressions were derived from the speech of the American natives like the phrase that "someone speaks with a forked tongue" and the "happy hunting ground" above. These idioms have filtered to British English through centuries through books, newspapers and most recently through powerful mediums like radio, TV and movies.

Where was the turning point? When did American culture take the leading role and start shaping the English language and especially idiomatic expressions? There is a lot of argument on this subject. Most claim that the real turning point was the Second World War. This could be the case. During the War English-speaking nations were united against a common enemy and the U. S. took the leading role. In these few years and a decade after the War American popular culture first established itself in British English. Again new idioms were created and old ones faded away. The Second World War was the turning point in many areas in life. This may also be the case in the development of the English language.

In the old days the written language (novels, poems, plays and the Bible) was the source from which idioms were extracted. This was the case up until WWII. After the war new mediums had established themselves in English-speaking society, there was a channel for the American way of life and the popular culture of the U. S. TV, movies and nowadays the interactive medium have changed the English language more to the American English direction. Some people in the Europe speak the Mid-Atlantic English, halfway from the British English to American English.

The influence of American English can even be seen in other European languages. In Finland, we are adopting and translating AmE proverbs, idioms and expressions. It can be said that the spoken language has taken the leading role over the written and the only reason for this is TV and radio. Most proverbs and idioms that have been adopted to British English from American English are of spoken origin. This is a definite shift from the days before WWII. What will this development do to the English language? Will it decrease its value? This could be argued, but the answer would still be no. Languages develop and change. So is the case with English language and idioms.

2.2 Main differences in usage

How then does American English differ from British English in the use of idioms? There are no radical differences in actual use. The main differences are in the situations where idiomatic expressions are used. There have been many studies recently on this subject. American English adopts and creates new idioms at a much faster rate compared to British English. Also the idioms of AmE origin tend to spread faster and further. After it has first been established in the U. S., an American idiom may soon be found in other "variants" and dialects of English. Nowadays new British idioms tend to stay on the British Isles and are rarely encountered in the U. S. British idioms are actually more familiar to other Europeans or to the people of the British Commonwealth than to Americans, even though the language is same. The reason for all these facts is that Britain is not the world power it used to be and it must be said that the U. S. has taken the role of the leading nation in the development of language, media and popular culture. Britain just doesn't have the magnitude of media influence that the United States controls.

The conclusion is that the future of idiomatic expressions in the English language seems certain. They are more and more based on American English. This development will continue through new mediums like the Internet and interactive mediums. It is hard to say what this will do to idioms and what kind of new idioms are created. This will be an interesting development to follow, and by no means does it lessen the humor, variety and color of English language.

Chapter 3. English idioms and their usage in everyday life

What about English idioms? I could find a lot of them, but I'll give examples only about some of them which I consider the most interesting and I'd recommend my classmates to use them working with British literature classes, making analyses of different creative works and writing project tasks. Moreover, almost all of these drawings were made by me.

a chicken and egg situation. This is an informal expression, which describes a situation or problem in which it is impossible to decide which of two things was the cause of the other. For example: The connection between lack of education and poverty is a chicken and egg situation. Are people poor because they have no education or do they not get an education because they are poor?

The expression comes from the idea of a chicken and its egg. Does the egg come from the chicken or the chicken from the egg?

bread and butter. When we use the idiom "bread and butter" we mean someone's livelihood or income. For example: I don't especially like doing this job, but it's my bread and butter.

Idiomatic expressions are a vital component of English in particular. The common idioms will increase our understanding, though most of us instinctively avoid trying to use them. In my work I offer you some idioms around themes such as health, school, accommodation, family relationship, everyday life. I've selected them from different books and Internet sources according to my point of view and my understanding. I hope it will be a good stream for teachers and students. (Appendix 2)

3. Chapter 3. English idioms and their usage in everyday life

3.1 My own example of using idioms in daily speech

I had a narrow escape this morning. I was cycling to work when a lorry knocked me off my bike. The driver stopped and got out to see if I was all right. He was as white as a sheet and I was shaking like a leaf. Fortunately I had landed on some grass and I wasn't hurt.

To have a narrow escape - to be very close to danger or something terrible but manage to escape

To be/go as white as a sheet - to be very pale in the face, especially because of illness or great fear

Shaking like a leaf - to tremble with fear or great anxiety

3.2 Examples of idioms from my textbook

Now, I would like to give you some examples from my school textbooks “Hotline”.

Introduction Unit:

a to have got the message - to understand

Unit 2:

a We'd better be off - it's time to come out

Unit 3:

a The sky's the limit - you haven't got any limits to improve yourself

Unit 5:

a That's beside the point - it doesn't concern the matter

Kim I think we should all think about the environment. That's why I'm buying a car with a small engine hat runs on unleaded petrol.

Vince Huh! It's all that you can afford. You'd buy that gas-guzzler, too, if you had the money.

Kim That's beside the point!

Unit 7:

a I've made up my mind - to decide to do something, to be going to do

a to get one's hand on somebody - to interfere in somebody's business

Unit 10:

a to lose one's temper - to lose one's head/wits, to blow up

a to want a word with somebody - to want to talk with somebody

a a write-off (car) - completely destroyed

Rosy If Kim hadn't been driving so fast, she wouldn't have had an accident. She might lose her licence. The car's a write-off.

Unit 11:

a to have a real heart-to-heart with (someone) = to have a friendly conversation

a That's all water under the bridge = to forget everything (esp., bad things) which were in the past

Kim I had a real heart-to-heart with Andrea when she came. So that's all water under the bridge now. Mind you, Vince hasn't said anything about it!

You see: one of the characters, Kim, has used not one, but two idiomatic expressions in the conversation.

Thus, you see that my classmates and I meet and use in our every day speech idioms. The authors of this textbook understand the necessity of using idioms fluently.

In conclusion I suggest a variety of exercise practice in recognition and production of idioms. (Appendix 3).


Idioms make our speech more expressive, vivid, and imaginative. Having a rich vocabulary of idioms, you can not only understand shades of meaning, stylistics, emotion, but you also will enrich your speech, made it more natural, that, of course, will make your intercourse easier with foreign colleagues and friends.

So, researching the history of American idioms I've known that many authors call attention to the fact that idioms can more easily than other language units cumulate and store facts about the past, cultural semantics of a nation, traditions, folklore, etc. because of the so called "cumulative" function of the language. When I've read it I've tried to prove or disprove this affirmation, so, I've run through a great number of different books and came to some conclusions, which were expressed in my work.

The future of idiomatic expressions in the English language seems certain. They are more and more based on American English. This development will continue through new mediums like the Internet and interactive mediums. It is hard to say what this will do to idioms and what kind of new idioms are created. This will be an interesting development to follow, and by no means does it lessen the humor, variety and color of English language.

In my work I've composed small stories trying to apply the received knowledge about idioms in practice.

Moreover, I've analyzed my school textbooks and made my comments on some idioms, which we've touched upon at the lessons.

I've also appended a lot of exercises and examples how to understand idioms and use them in practice.

Well, all my aims have been achieved and I hope my work will be a good stream for teachers and students in their work with idioms.


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17. Шитова Л.Ф., Брускина Т.Л. English Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. Англо-русский словарь идиом и фразовых глаголов. - 2-е издание, исправленное. - СПб.: антология, 2004. - 256 с.

Appendix 1

Exercises and Quizzes

Appendix 2

1. A big hand:

a) friendly slap on the back

b) enthusiastic round of applause

2. A big mouth:

a) over talkative person

b) a liar

3. A big noise:

a) powerful and influential person

b) insignificant and ineffectual

4. A big head:

a) knowledgeable person

b) over-confident and conceited person

5. A bitter pil:

a) upsetting fact difficult to accept

b) harmful fact difficult to accept

6. A blessing in

a) something advantageous initially but

disguise: later unpleasant

something unpleasant initially but later

b) something unpleasant initially but later


7. A bright spark: a) clever and lively person

b) devious and unfriendly person

8. A close shave: a) unforeseen disaster

b) narrow escape

Answer: 1---b; 2-a; 3-a; 4-b; 5-a; 6-b; 7-a; 8-b;

Idiom Quizzes - Clothes

1. The boy always comes to help his friends (very promptly) which is why everybody likes him.

(a) dressed to kill (b) below the belt (c) at the drop of a hat

2. Our boss always (shows his feelings openly) and everyone knows his problems.

(a) wears his heart on his sleeve (b) wears the pants in his family (c) pulls up his socks

3. He is a (very formal person) and nobody likes to invite him to a party.

(a) wolf in sheep`s clothing (b) fine-tooth comb (c) stuffed shirt

4. It will be very difficult to (take his place) as he is one of the best workers in our company.

(a) die with his boots on (b) fill his shoes (c) pull up his socks


1. - c;

2. - a;

3. - c;

4. - b;

Complete this idioms

1) have a sweet … = to have a desire to eat sweet foods

I have a sweet … and I love chocolate bars.

2) hot … = a question or argument that is controversial and difficult to settle

The issue of building the nuclear power plant is a hot … for the local town council.

3) out to … = to be crazy, to be uninformed

The woman is out to … and you should never believe what she tells you.

4) catch one's … = attract one's attention/interest.

"This brochure about Tahiti caught my … when I was at the travel agency. "

5) so … (as yet) = up to now, all the while up to now Hm! May I ask what you have said so …? Thirty years ago five doctors gave me six months to live, and I've seen three of them out so ….

So … you are right.

6) in seventh …

When George asked me to marry him, I was in seventh ….

Every time she wins a match she's in seventh …!

7) In the same … = in the same bad situation.

Jake and I both lost our jobs yesterday. Now we're in the same …

8) a shoulder to … on = someone who you can tell about your problems and ask for sympathy and advice.

I gave my friend a shoulder to … on when I met him at the coffee shop.

9) a … on a hot tin roof = full of lively activity

The boy was jumping around like a … on a hot tin roof and we could not make him be quiet.

10) … love = infatuation (strong feelings of love) between school-age children or teenagers

The two teenagers thought that their love was the greatest in the world but everyone knew that it was only … love.

Complete the sentences below with the given idioms

1) dog in the manger = someone who prevents others from doing what they themselves do not want to do

2) have a cow = to become very angry and upset about something

3) blood runs cold = one is terrified or horrified

4) monkey around with (someone or something) = to play with or waste time with someone or something

5) monkey see, monkey do = someone copies something that someone else does

6) smell a rat = to be suspicious, to feel that something is wrong

The father and son spent the morning the old radio.

It is always for the boy. He copies everything that his friend does.

My friend always acts like a and often tries to prevent us from enjoying ourselves.

My when I saw the poison spider on my bed.

I . There is something wrong with the offer of a free credit card.

Our teacher when he discovered that nobody had prepared for the class.

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