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I have seen the following multiple-choice question in a test but non of the choices make sense to me. Are they really idioms? What do they mean? (I know the meaning of the third choice)

Jeffrey heard _ that the company he works for is going bust soon.
a) over the vending machine
b) over tea
c) over the grapevine
d) over the fence

update: one example suggest "over tea" as answer and the other one suggest "over the grapevine". What do you think?

  • The answer should be (b). I think (c) would be the better answer if it was worded as through the grapevine, because "heard through the grapevine" means "heard gossip and rumors." The test probably intends to point out "over the grapevine" employs the "wrong" preposition, but one of our users did some research to learn that's not always true, so the "correct" answer should be taken with a grain of salt. – J.R. Apr 9 '14 at 18:31
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over the vending machine seems to make least sense here. I am not aware of any idiomatic meaning of it, and to literally hear it over the vending machine, Jeffrey has to be quite tall, or the vending machine has to be considerably smaller than most that I have ever seen.

over tea would actually be an option.

I discussed the proposal with John over lunch.

Is a sentence no-one would think to be strange, meaning that I discussed it with John while I was having lunch with him. If I had tea with him instead of lunch, I could say I discussed it over tea. If someone told Jeffrey the news while they were having tea, one could say Jeffrey heard it over tea.

over the grapevine I usually hear as on or through the grapevine. I actually had to google to see if over was used, but it seems it is. It doesn't seem to be very popular though. However, if we assume that over the grapevine is the same as through the grapevine, this is the most likely answer. through the grapevine is indeed idiomatic, and it means that you heard rumours about it.

over the fence could literally mean someone told Jeffrey something while they were on opposite sides of a fence, but I would be surprised to hear it regularly used. The phrase over the fence I would normally associate with movement: he hit the ball over the fence.

  • over the vending machine doesn't make much sense, but over by the vending machine would be just fine. – J.R. Apr 9 '14 at 18:31
  • But in that case, all but the tea would be acceptable answers :) – oerkelens Apr 9 '14 at 18:34
  • I think tea is supposed to be the right answer, but I also think you've dissected it very well. Once again, the ELL regulars have discredited the test as too simplistic! – J.R. Apr 9 '14 at 18:44
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(It's 5 pm here and let's discuss this topic over tea!)

If it is discussion, over is generally used with some beverage/meal. Grapevine could have been the choice but then I have often seen this term following the preposition by (-spread by grapevine). The vending machine is a solid (tangible?) object and over it seems less sensible. The fence makes me remember a very famous example - A fox jumped over the fence! So, that's opted out as well.

Over tea makes sense and that should be the answer, in my opinion. As I said, discussion/meetings over is quite often seen with some beverage.

And to support, let me have a big company's tagline!

enter image description here

  • I think you're right, but it's worth noting that heard over the fence (or whispered over the fence), much like heard through the grapevine, can mean "heard a rumor." "Over the fence" rumors, though, are usually more about the neighbors than the workplace; the expression evokes the image of neighbors standing in their yard sharing gossip. And thanks for the tea! – J.R. Apr 9 '14 at 18:39

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