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Idiomatic expressions are groups of words with an established meaning unrelated to the meanings of the individual words. Sometimes called an expression, an idiom can be very colorful and make a ‘picture’ in our minds.
Some common idiomatic expressions:
We love idiomatic expressions and idiomatic phrases in English, don’t we? From an English language-learner’s point of view, they are the ‘icing on the cake’ much like phrasal verbs and adjectives. But how do we remember what they mean and how to use them?
We can memorize a few, and try to use them as often as we can (probably too often!), but how do we manage an idiom that we are meeting for the first time?
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I’m going to show you how you can easily understand more than 100 English idioms, used in both American English and British English, even the first time you hear them.
Firstly, you need to know that idioms and phrases are everywhere in English: anything that doesn’t have a literal, physical meaning is an idiom. Let’s look at some idiom examples:
These sentences all contain idioms, because you can’t swallow words or dig in a bank account in any literal or physical way – and how can a ‘spark’ do well at school? You’ll also notice that a literal translation into most languages won’t make sense.
These kinds of idioms are far more common, and therefore far more important, than the more colorful expressions like ‘He’s kicked the bucket’ (died), ‘She’s hitting the books’ (studying), or ‘Break a leg!’ (Good luck!), and without them students often sound too formal – saying things like:
So how can you learn idioms without memorizing huge lists of English expressions? Many of my students in my online English classes ask me this. I’ll show you how.
|Hard to swallow||Difficult to believe|
|Digging around||Looking for|
|He’s a really bright spark||He’s an intelligent person|
|He’s kicked the bucket||He’s died|
|She’s hitting the books||She’s studying hard|
|Break a leg!||Good luck!|
|Set out on a new career||Start a new career|
|Saunter through life||Live in a relaxed way|
|Follow in someone’s footsteps||Do something the way another person did it before|
|One step at a time||Do something slowly and carefully|
|Career path||The sequence of jobs someone takes that create their career|
|Milestones||Important events in a person’s life or career|
|Dead end job||A job that offers no opportunity for advancement|
|To be at a crossroads||When someone is at a point in life where their decisions will have long term consequences|
|He’s on the straight and narrow||He’s living in a morally proper way|
|To walk someone through something||To show someone how to do something|
|We need to come up with a road map||We need to make a plan|
|I wouldn’t go down that road if I were you!||I wouldn’t do that if I were you!|
|Don’t run before you can walk||Don’t try to do something difficult before mastering the basics|
|Inching forward||When progress on something is being made in small increments|
|To move at a snail’s pace||To move slowly|
|To get good mileage out of something||To get a lot of benefits from something|
|To have your whole life in front of you||To be young and have a lot of years to live|
|To get on with your life||To make progress in life goals after a difficulty|
|To tread carefully||To behave or speak carefully to avoid offending or causing problems with someone or something|
|To be a minefield||When something presents many possible dangers|
|We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it||To wait to worry about one problem at a time|
|Information superhighway||The internet|
|Time is money||Time is a valuable resource|
|A tasty (or juicy) bit of gossip||Very interesting or sensational gossip|
|To devour someone or something||To consume something very quickly|
|To add a pinch of salt to something||To acknowledge that someone exaggerates|
|To chew something over||To think about something before making a decision|
|To not swallow something||To not accept something as fact|
|To bite off more than you can chew||When someone makes a commitment that they cannot keep|
|To eat your wods||When someone has to admit they were wrong|
|A warm welcome||A friendly welcome|
|The cold shoulder||An unfriendly welcome|
|When things heat up between people||When a relationship becomes romantic|
|To be cold-hearted||To be dispassionate or uncaring|
|A 24-hour hotline||A phone line that is always active|
|A very frosty reception||To receive a greeting that makes someone feel unwelcome|
|The Cold War||War without active fighting between nations|
|A warm smile and the warm handshake||A welcoming smile and handshake|
|Cold callers||People who call phones, usually for sales, who don’t have previous contact with the person they’re calling|
|We took the temperature of the group||Checked the overall opinion of a person or group of people about something|
|Most people were quite warm about the idea||People have a positive reaction to the idea|
|You’ll reap the rewards later||To collect the benefits of your work|
|To prune out||To clear, clean or groom something|
|Separate the wheat from the chaff||Separate what is useful or valuable from what is worthless|
|Rooted in||Based on something or connected to a source/cause|
|To cutback something||To reduce something, usually related to the amount of money spent|
|To dig deep||To use a lot of your physical, mental or financial resources to achieve something|
|Great growth||A positive change in the production of goods or services|
|Root and branch||Completely/utter|
|Seed money||Money that is used to start a small business or other activity|
|Bright shoot||Start something new, a new chapter|
|Plough its own furrow||To follow a plan or course of action independently|
|Green fingers||Have an ability to make plants grow, to be good at gardening|
|Build/make a good case||To argue that something is the best thing to do, to explain and give reasons why something should be done|
|A fabrication||To tell lies about something, completely made-up/invented|
|To be on solid ground||To be confident about the topic you are dealing with, or because you are in a safe situation|
|Build on||To use something as a base or foundation to develop something else|
|Shattered||To break something into a smaller form or into many pieces|
|Undermine your position||Behave in a way that makes you less likely to succeed|
|Demolish your arguments||To break down someone’s argument to an extent that it is no longer accurate or correct|
|Constructive criticism||Criticism that is useful because they can help improve something|
|Grounds for dismissal||A reason for you to be dismissed from your job, often due to your (negative) behavior|
|Completely groundless||Not based on any good reason|
|Grounded in fact||Something that is based on facts|
|Come to light||To be revealed|
|Unearthed||To find something that was lost or forgotten|
|A mine of information/gossip/data||Someone or something that can provide you with a lot of information etc.|
|Get to the bottom of||Find an explanation, often to a mystery|
|Digging into||To methodically reveal information|
|To bury the memory||To try to hide something, such as a memory, the truth etc.|
|Emerge||Something that is brought to attention|
|Out in the open||In public view or knowledge, everybody knows|
|Underground scene||An alternative culture, different from the mainstream of society and culture|
|Transparency||Something that can be seen by everyone/the public|
|Crystal clear||Perfectly easy to understand|
|Put your head in the sand||To ignore or hide from the obvious signs of danger|
|Bright spark||Someone that is highly intelligent|
|Enlightenment||To understand something completely|
|Throw light on something||To reveal something about someone/something, to clarify something|
|Dull||Something that lacks imagination, boring|
|Brilliant||Shining brightly, stands out, illustrious|
|In the dark||A state of ignorance, to not have knowledge about something|
|Dim-witted||Something/someone that thinks slowly, lacks intelligence|
|Dark ages||When something was not understood, a time when knowledge was limited|
|Illuminating||To make something more understandable|
|Right-wing||A part of a political group that consists of people who support conservative or traditional ideas|
|Look down upon||To view someone or something as unworthy|
|Side of the fence||Refers to either side of opposing views or ideas|
|Political landscape||The current state of things and how they are looking in the future|
|Look at life||How you observe things that happen, your opinion on daily matters|
|Behind you all the way||To fully support someone’s actions|
|Point of view||An opinion on something|
|Better perspective||A clearer view of something, a more thorough understanding of a situation|
|Take someone’s side||To support one person’s side of an argument|
|Where I stand||Your opinion, point of view|
|Look up to||To respect someone as a role model|
|Moral high ground||The status of being respected, a position of being ‘more’ moral than others|
|Sitting on the fence||Undecided on a decision, avoid making a decision on something|
A typical ESL student is both fascinated and frustrated by idioms; they give you fluency but are very hard to use accurately because:
Idioms are unusual expressions. So ask yourself ‘Why is that person using an unusual expression?’ The reasons are likely to be connected with emphasis, exaggeration, or a high state of emotion! So check the context – and the facial expression!
Use expressions like; ‘so you’re pretty angry about that right?’ or ‘OK, you mean that you’re too busy at the moment.’
Try using; ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you mean.’
Idioms from your own language may use the same imagery or concepts (and it is always interesting to notice these similarities) but they are unlikely to translate word-for-word into English expressions.
A native English speaker NEVER says ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ – so why should an ESL student? Listen to what native speakers actually say in a given situation, and copy.
Keep a notebook of your favorite expressions in English and add anything new that you hear. Try to use new expressions soon after you learn them, this is called ‘use it or lose it.’
You will definitely make mistakes and create confusion when you use idiomatic expressions, so be brave and allow yourself the space to try, fail, and try again.
Most lists of common English idiomatic expressions I see have 2 things wrong with them. They include a lot of out-dated expressions that no one actually uses anymore (it’s raining cats and dogs), and they’re really hard to memorize.
Rather than force you to memorize a list of expressions, we’re going to teach you some tricks that will make it easy to understand English expressions, even if you’ve never heard them before.
Most idiomatic expressions can be divided into a few groups, and these groups have things in common that make them easier to understand. Below you’ll find these groups, with the English expressions in bold.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – so said Lao Tzu, the founder of Chinese Taoism.
When he said these wise words, he wasn’t just offering encouragement to people who had to walk long distances in Zhou Dynasty China during the 6th BC, but was talking about every kind of journey in life.
The quotation is generally taken to mean that any undertaking in life – even really big ones – must start with small steps, and that we must not become discouraged by the size of the tasks in front of us. The idea that our tasks, and indeed our lives, can be seen as physical journeys that can be broken down into steps is common in many languages; English is no exception.
So we might set out on a new career, saunter through life without a care, follow in someone’s footsteps or take a difficult task one step at a time.
And just as the physical hikes, strolls or walks that we go on require paths or roads, which can be straight or winding, and sometimes lead to dead ends – so it is with our projects, careers and lives.
This means that some of us want to follow a clear career path, are proud of the milestones we achieve and don’t want to work in a dead end job. When deciding on a course of action we might find ourselves at a crossroads in life, wondering which way to turn, hoping we don’t take the road to ruin!
Please note that we use the imperial system, rather than the modern metric system, to refer to distances in idioms:
Notice the way that prepositions are used to imply movement or direction in life:
Also, if we are traveling along a road or pathway, we might expect to find obstacles to our progress and have to handle them in some way:
And please note that idioms involving roads can refer to other things:
When Benjamin Franklyn wrote that ‘time is money’ in his Advice to a Young Tradesman in 1746, he meant that time was a commodity which can be treated the same way that we treat money or any other resource. He was right too, from a linguistic perspective anyway, as we have long had this attitude towards time within the English language.
Like money, time is something that we save, waste or spend. We praise good time management, we complain that we don’t have enough time, and we wonder how long our time will last. Let’s look at the way the English language treats the concepts of time and money.
Look at these sentences and decide if you can substitute the word ‘time’ for the word ‘money’ (you may have to make a few extra changes):
In most of the sentences above you can substitute ‘time’ for ‘money’ without a problem. The context may change, but the sentences themselves still look fine.
Please note that we can replace the actual word ‘time’ with an amount of time – and we can do this with ‘money’ too:
What is the basic unit of knowledge – a fact, a truth, a maxim or a law? Well, from a computing point of view it is called a ‘byte’. In 1956 Werner Buchholz, a computer scientist working at IBM, wanted a term he could use to describe the eight binary digits (bits) needed to encode a single letter, number or symbol on a computer.
He chose the word ‘byte’ – a deliberate misspelling of the word ‘bite’ – and this term now refers to the basic unit of all the information held on all computers, everywhere. When he chose this word, Buchholz was (perhaps unknowingly) using a very common, basic and important idiom in the English language; knowledge (or information) is food.
If you think about it, this idiom is quite easy to understand; information exists in the outside world and must somehow comes inside us so that we can learn and understand it.
This process of bringing information into ourselves can be thought of as eating. So we might hear a tasty bit of gossip or devour a newspaper, we may need to add a pinch of salt to unlikely stories, chew over a difficult subject, or digest information – we may even need to spit information out if required!
Please note that idiomatic expressions involving food or eating can express other meanings in English, for example if you bite off more than you can chew, you try to do too much or more than you are able to do; or if you eat your own words, you retract what you said earlier:
Don’t try making a literal translation of those! And choices, for example, have taste:
Here is a party game that I used to play with friends and family when I was young (a long time ago!) It involves somebody hiding something, and somebody else searching for it.
Firstly, I would close my eyes or leave the room. Then someone would hide something, some keys perhaps, in some part of the room. After this I would be allowed to look for them and the rest of the players could offer encouragement by saying; ‘You’re getting warmer,’ when I approached the hidden object, or; ‘You’re getting colder,’ when I went in the wrong direction.
When I got really close to the hidden keys, some of the younger children would be shouting ‘You’re really hot now – boiling!’ And finally I would find the keys under a magazine on the coffee table!
The idea that you get warmer when you are closer to something is quite common in English and is particularly strong when applied to our relationships with each other. Heat is a metaphor for how close we feel to someone else, and how well we think they are treating us.
Close relationships are ‘warm’, and unfriendly relationships are ‘cold’. This means that if I say that the receptionist at the hotel greeted me very warmly, you can be sure that she was very friendly and welcoming. Equally, if I tell you that the audience gave me a frosty reception, you will know that my lecture was not a great success!
So we can say that our relationships and feelings have some sort of ‘linguistic temperature!’
Notice that heat can also describe our relationship to ideas:
In Hal Ashby’s excellent 1979 comedy ‘Being There’, Peter Sellers plays the part of a simple-minded gardener who accidentally becomes a top financial adviser in Washington DC.
One of the running jokes in the film is the way that Sellers’ character misunderstands questions about the economy to be questions about his garden – and how businessmen and television presenters mistake his answers and comments about gardening to be sound financial advice!
How can this be? Well, in the English language there are many words and expressions that we use in agriculture and gardening that can also be used to describe the world of economics and business. After all, if a gardener and an economist meet at a party, we can be sure they’ll agree with each other that encouraging growth is a good idea!
Please note that many of the above phrases can be used in other contexts; for example, ‘dig deep’ simply means ‘try harder’ and can be used in any situation where more effort is required;
Also, some agricultural idioms can be used in non-business contexts:
And some gardening idioms don’t seem to transfer to other contexts:
Ok, that should really help you with business English.
‘The wise man builds his house on the rock,’ – so goes the traditional saying (it’s loosely based on Matthew 7:24-27 in the Bible), but while it is certainly wise to build a house on solid ground, and with the proper materials, this saying is generally taken to be about the foundations of our beliefs.
In fact there has always been a close link between buildings and beliefs; for example, the word ‘church’ originally referred to a group of people who worshipped together (now more commonly called a ‘congregation’), the teachings and philosophy they followed, and the physical building that they used.
Keeping this mind (and checking your dictionary for details) it won’t be surprising for you to find that the word ‘edifice’ refers to an important or imposing building (like a church), ‘edification’ means ‘moral improvement’ and ‘edified’ means ‘educated’ or ‘informed’.
This idiom now has a wider use in the English language so that an idiomatic phrase mentioning construction or foundation can refer to knowledge and ideas generally. So ideas and theories should be grounded in fact or based on truth, an argument should have a clear structure; we can deconstruct a complex idea in order to explain it, or even demolish ideas which we strongly disagree with.
‘Ground’ is the most commonly used word in this context:
In Steven Spielberg’s excellent 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones must find the Ark of the Covenant.
This was a kind of box which was supposed to contain the 10 commandments that were given to Moses. There’s something symbolic in this – if you consider that the commandments represent some kind of universal truth or wisdom, then perhaps you can see the search for the covenant as a search for truth.
I used to work as an archaeologist and watching this excellent movie was more or less compulsory for us ‘diggers’ at the time – we used to joke that Indy was searching for truth itself and that an archaeologist was the ideal person to choose for a search for truth and wisdom!
But you don’t need to get your hands dirty to unearth interesting information, because in the English language, any kind of discovery can be made under the ground.
It often seems that an investigation is an excavation: information may be hidden from us, perhaps buried deep somewhere; it needs to be dug around for, and finally brought to light.
When a meaning is obvious and easy to understand we use a reversal of the idiom:
Interestingly, if we have an exam to prepare for or a bill to pay, many of us adopt a very interesting strategy – often called the ‘Ostrich method!‘
Imagine that you are in a college lecture and that your teacher is trying to explain something that the class have been having difficulty with. Maybe a tough equation, a difficult moral problem or a poem that nobody understands.
Finally the teacher shows, proves or says something that finally makes everybody understand; everything now makes sense! Around the room, people nod in agreement; some raise their eyebrows and smile; the mood in the room lifts – as if some new bright light is now shining.
This is called a ‘light-bulb moment’ and it’s the moment when we conceive or understand a (usually good) idea for the first time. It’s quite a common idiomatic expression; The Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘A moment of sudden realization, enlightenment, or inspiration’ and it is a powerful image.
For example, we often see cartoon characters with light-bulbs above their heads when they have a new idea, or come to understand something.
The idea that understanding (and, as we will see, intelligence) can be expressed as light is very common in English; people have bright, ideas, become brilliant scholars, shine a light on things when they explain them, and achieve enlightenment.
This idiom also works in reverse; in English, darkness often refers to different types of ignorance. We get kept in the dark when people don’t tell us a secret; we make dim-witted mistakes, and we walk out of dull movies.
What is a political map and why might we need one? In some countries there seem to be so many different political parties and points of view that things can become rather confusing for voters at election time – so maybe some kind of map would be useful.
But why a map – why not a list, or a diagram?
Perhaps the reason is that we imagine a political landscape where people stand in particular places that indicate their opinions on particular issues. For example, in most democratic parliaments the political parties sit together in particular parts of the room that they meet in.
The prime minister sits in a seat at the front of his grouping with his supporters behind him and with the opposition politicians sitting opposite. The minor parties usually sit according to whether they support the government or not – which side they are on. This is why we can talk about right – or left-wing politics, and how we can take a position on an issue, stand behind someone we agree with, or change sides in an argument.
Interestingly, if I express my opinion by standing in a particular location then this will effect what I can see, what my view of the world is. So I can see things differently from other people, have a positive outlook, look up to – or down on people, or describe my point of view of a situation or issue.
Notice that ‘stand’ can be used in both senses:
Perhaps it’s not surprising to note that altitude affects morals:
Also, the two sides of an argument are often separated by some kind of barrier:
Whether your an ESL student, teacher or just someone curious about the language, we hope you found that helpful! If you keep these concepts in mind, English idiomatic expressions should be easy for you.
If you’ve got any questions, feel free to add them in comments and we’ll respond. If you want to take your English further, try a live, online English class with LOI.
About the Author: Peter Ball has been teaching English for 15 years and has taught in Poland, Thailand, Malaysia, Egypt, Pakistan, Britain and Ireland, he still really enjoys the challenge – each student is unique. Peter has a Cambridge certificate in teaching (CELTA) and a Cambridge diploma (DELTA).
He’s also an FCE and Cambridge examiner. He works with students of all levels from beginner to advanced and has taught professionals from all walks of life. Peter loves teaching pronunciation, explaining grammar, learner-training and better conversation. In his free time he has his own radio show in Connemara, Ireland and he swims, juggles and plays guitar – but not all at the same time!