The penultimate (next to last) section of questions on the TOLES Advanced exam is questions 54 to 58. These questions test your ability to explain concisely, and in plain English, what five English idiomatic expressions mean.

Idiomatic expressions are a type of informal English where the actual meaning of the expression does not match the meaning of the words that make it up. The are used when speaking informally. Here is one example:

“If you want to get a high grade in the TOLES Advanced examination, you must not cut any corners when you study for it.”

The expression highlighted in bold in that sentence is an example of an idiomatic expression: to cut corners. It is probably obvious to you that the expression is not literal but is being used in a way that has a different meaning. Can you work out what you think it means?

‘To cut corners’ basically means to do something in a quick, cheap and easy way. It means you are not being thorough about something. This, of course, can produce negative consequences. If you cut corners when you are studying, you are probably not going to learn properly.

Now let’s look at some instructions to questions 54-58, by way of example.

QUESTION 54 – 58

Read the following conversation between two lawyers (L1 and L2).

Give a short explanation of the meaning of each of the underlined idiomatic expressions.

Write your answer on the answer sheet.

There is an example at the beginning (*) (15 points).’

Before we look at the questions in more detail, you should be aware that these instructions may look a little different from exam to exam. For example, instead of the text being of a conversation between two lawyers, it may be a conversation between a lawyer and her client. It may possibly be a more informal letter or email with idiomatic expressions in it. Whatever the text is, the task remains the same: to give a short explanation of the meaning of five underlined idiomatic expressions in the text.

As we have said previously, it is vital, long before you take the exam, that you understand exactly what every question is asking you to do. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

Let me give an example of what you might see in this section of questions. It is a conversation between two lawyers, L1 and L2.

‘L1 Hi, Amy. I’m sorry I didn’t return your call earlier, but I have been (54) feeling a bit under the weather for a few days. The doctor said I had to stay off work until today.

L2 I’m sorry to hear that, John. I hope you’re feeling better now.

L1 Much better, thanks. Of course, one of the biggest problems about being ill is that it is easy (55) to get out of the loop, when it comes to knowing what is happening with your workload. Can you tell me what is happening with the SoftCell licence agreement? Have you drafted it yet?

L2 Yes, I have, and it will be on your desk first thing tomorrow morning. I’ve spent days on it, trying to make sure it’s (56) watertight.

L1 Well, that’s the reason I asked you to draft it. You had all the background to the case, and so I knew that you would (57) be on the ball when it came to drafting the agreement.

L2 Thanks for the compliment, John. I can’t say that (58) it’s been a piece of cake, though. I had to go through a lot of paperwork and documents before I felt happy with the final draft. But at least it’s done now.’

As you read a piece of text like that, you may begin to wonder how you can possibly work out what the underlined expressions may mean. However, if you think clearly, it is usually possibly to at least work out the basic meaning of the expression. Let’s take an example.

The first underlined idiomatic expression in the text is (54) feeling a bit under the weather. Without some kind of context, unless you already knew the meaning of that expression, it would probably be very difficult – perhaps impossible – to work it out.However, the idiomatic expressions you are asked to explain in this section of questions are not standing alone, but in a bigger context. There is surrounding text, and you can use that to try to help you.

Here, L1 (John) says he has been ‘feeling under the weather’. He then goes on to say that the doctor told him to stay off work. You then read L2 (Amy) saying she’s hopes that he’s feeling better now. From that context alone, you can probably work out that ‘to feel under the weather’ probably means you don’t feel well, or you feel ill – and you would be right. You can also possibly work out that it is not anything very serious. With this ‘educated guesswork’ you can begin to write an answer that will at least score you some points. It might be something like

‘to be feeling unwell, although not seriously’.

All of the idiomatic expressions in this section will be in some kind of wider context. Use the context to help you decide. And your answer should be brief: no more than a short sentence or two.

With that in mind, try and write a brief explanation of the other four idiomatic expressions in the conversation, above. There are some suggested answers in the Answer Key, below.

It is always a good idea to learn English idioms. There are many online resources which will help you to learn them, and their meanings. Because they are unusual, and sometimes quirky (slightly ‘odd’ or ‘strange’), they can actually be fun to learn. The additional benefit is that they will also be very useful in your general English. When you can use idiomatic expressions appropriately and accurately, you know that your English has reached a high standard.

You can see that this section carries a maximum of 15 points: 3 points for each perfect explanation. It would be tempting to think about sacrificing time and effort on this section, but the reality is that you can collect several quite quick and easy points on it, if you think intelligently.

ANSWER KEY (The following are suggested answers)

(55) not to be fully informed, aware of, or up to date about information and news that other people know.

(56) not having any faults or errors.

(57) to be aware of and attentive to things and be quick to take action

(58) something which is very easy to do

© Cambridge Legal English Academy 2021

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