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On the TV show NCIS, Ziva often makes humorous mistakes using idiomatic expressions (English is not her first language - she is Israeli).

I would expect the most common way a non-native speaker would make mistakes in an idiom is related to meaning - either saying the underlying meaning outright (translating the translated meaning back to English from their native language), or substituting synonyms for words in the correct idiom (if they do not remember it exactly).

Examples I would expect are:

Pitch a fit

becoming either

Complain childishly

Pitch a tantrum

However, she substitutes words that sound like the appropriate word, but mean something entirely different, such as the following two:

Does a bear sit in the woods?

American idioms drive me up the hall!

Are these common errors likely to be made by a non-native speaker, or are they just used in the show for comedic effect?

I'd like to hear from non-native speakers who may have had trouble with English idioms (not necessarily American). Did you make these same kind of mistakes, or is it uncommon to do so?

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Presumably Ziva has heard the exact phrases in question, but has misinterpreted their wordings AND meanings due to similar sounds, rather than confusing similar meaning for phrases. –  Ben Brocka Nov 4 '11 at 0:26
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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I'm a native speaker, but I work with a Lithuanian woman that does this all the time. She's used peace to cake (piece of cake), driving me up the hall (driving me up the wall), and get over sh*t (get over it). I think that this is simply a misunderstanding on her part of things my coworkers and I say. She probably understands what the meaning of the idiom is, but doesn't actually know why we use certain words; and if you don't know why a certain word (that sounds like another) is used, it's easy to mix it up with another. Examples of that include who/whom, don't/doesn't, etc.

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In my opinion they are deliberately used for the sake of a funny pun, but in such a witty way so that the puns (I reckon we can call them so) consist of possible mistakes non-natives could make.

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