We love idiomatic expressions and idiomatic phrases in English, don’t we? From a language-learner’s point of view, they are the ‘icing on the cake.’ 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?
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:
- I find his excuses hard to swallow, he’s lying.
- The police have been digging around in his accounts looking for evidence of fraud.
- He’s a really bright spark, so I think he’ll do well at school.
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:
- I don’t believe his excuses.
- The police have been investigating his accounts looking for evidence of fraud.
- He is a very intelligent student, so I think he’ll succeed at university.
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.
What is an idiom or idiomatic expression?
An idiomatic expression in English is any group of words that has an established meaning which is not related to the meanings of the individual words. Sometimes called an expression, an idiom can be very colorful and make some kind of ‘picture’ in our minds when we hear things like:
- He let the cat out of the bag (accidentally told a secret).
- She got off Scott-free (escaped without punishment).
- He flew off the handle (went crazy).
A typical ESL student is both fascinated and frustrated by idioms; they give you fluency but are very hard to use accurately because:
- They may change meaning if you forget or change a single word.
- You must use them in the right context – don’t say ‘he’s kicked the bucket’ (died) at a funeral!
- You can’t translate them into, or from, another language. There is no literal translation.
7 Ways to Make English Idioms and Phrases Easier to Understand
1. Listen to context: 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!
2. Check to see if you understood: Use expressions like; ‘so you’re pretty angry about that right?’ or ‘OK, you mean that you’re too busy at the moment.’
3. Be honest: Try using; ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you mean.’
4. Never translate: 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.
5. Listen: 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.
6. Take notes: 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.’
7. Tolerate your mistakes: 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.
A List of English Idiomatic Expressions You Don’t Need to Memorize
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.
Life Is A Road – English Expressions About Life
“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!
Let’s look at a list English idiomatic expression examples:
- He’s put his criminal past behind him – He’s on the straight and narrow now!
- It’s a difficult system to get used to, so let me just walk you through the first few steps.
- We need to come up with a road map to go forward with these negotiations.
- Being selected for the national team was the first major milestone in my career.
- So you want to invest in his business? I wouldn’t go down that road if I were you!
- I feel like I’m at a crossroads in my career and I’m not sure which way to turn.
- I have tried to follow in Dad’s footsteps and to do the right things.
- I suppose I’ve gone down quite a winding career path – I’ve never done things the easy way!
- Holmes had crossed paths with Moriarty several times before and it had never gone well.
- I know I said you should read a bit more, but War and Peace? Don’t run before you can walk!
Please note that we use the imperial system, rather than the modern metric system, to refer to distances in idioms:
- We are just inching forward with this project at a snail’s pace.
- I think I can get good mileage out of this idea.
Notice the way that prepositions are used to imply movement or direction in life:
- He envied his grandchildren having their whole lives in front of them.
- I always try and put failures behind me and get on with my 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:
- We need to tread carefully here because ethnic tensions in the area can be a minefield.
- I don’t know yet what we’ll do if they reject our offer – but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
And please note that idioms involving roads can refer to other things:
- The information superhighway has changed the way we think about the world.
Time Is Money – English Expressions About Money
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.
Examples – 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):
- We will have to go soon – we are getting short of money.
- I have wasted a lot of time on this project.
- We made some changes at work to save money.
- He is determined to make it work – he’s invested so much time in the business already.
- He worked my shift at work for me – so I guess I owe him some time in return.
- I would like to devote more time to keeping the garden in shape.
- This problem has cost us too much money already!
- We are living on borrowed time.
- I thought I gave him enough money – but he seems to have squandered it all!
- She’s always had better money-management skills than me.
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:
- We spent three weeks there.
- I spent $50 on it.
- It takes half an hour to get there.
- It took $100 to convince him!
Knowledge Is Food – English Expressions About Knowledge
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!
Now while you chew that over, let’s look at some examples:
- He absolutely devours newspapers – he gets about three every morning!
- You have a great appetite for knowledge, and I respect that.
- I won’t give you an answer yet – Let me chew it over for a while.
- Who broke the school window? Come on lad – spit it out!
- I got my dad a subscription to The Reader’s Digest.
- She always exaggerates so if I were you I’d take what she says with a pinch of salt.
- Don’t give them too much information at the start of the course – just bite-sized chunks for now.
- We sat with a bottle by the river ruminating on the meaning of life.
- The exam system is terrible – you just have to regurgitate the textbook, basically.
- Information is food? – I’m not swallowing that!
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:
- He bit off more than he could chew when he agreed to paint the house by himself.
- He’s going to regret saying that – I’m going to make him eat his own words!
Don’t try making a literal translation of those! And choices, for example, have taste:
- I can offer you a couple of tasty options from our new winter collection.
- The delegates are being forced to choose between two unpalatable candidates.
Relationships Are Hot – English Expressions About Relationships
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!’ Here are some examples:
- Hello – and a very warm welcome to the show!
- I tried to explain to her but she just gave me the cold shoulder.
- Perhaps you should cool things off with him for a while.
- I think things are heating up between Dave and Mary!
- She was a very cold-hearted mother who never gave us hugs or praise.
- We have set up a 24-hour hotline for anyone who wants more information.
- Well, that was a very frosty reception – I don’t think we’re very welcome here!
- The cold war was a low point in East-West relations in Europe.
- She liked him immediately; it was the warm smile and the warm handshake.
- I can’t stand these cold callers trying to sell me things I don’t want!
Notice that heat can also describe our relationship to ideas:
- We took the temperature of the group as to whether John would be a suitable replacement for Mark and found that most people were quite warm to the idea.
Economics Is Gardening – English Expressions About Economics
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!
Let’s look at some examples:
- If you work hard now, you’ll reap the rewards later.
- We needed to prune out the deadwood to make the company more competitive.
- The first stage of the interview process is really just to separate the wheat from the chaff – to discount the applicants who are definitely unsuitable.
- Our main business is rooted in this sector.
- There have been sharp staff cutbacks since they lost the contract.
- We will have to dig deep if we want this project to succeed.
- There has been great growth over the second quarter.
- The company was in a terrible state – we needed to make root and branch reform.
- We have invested a lot of seed money in this project.
- After the recession we can now see the first bright shoots of recovery, with several new businesses opening around town.
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;
- Liverpool are going to have to dig deep here if they are going to win this match.
Also, some agricultural idioms can be used in non-business contexts:
- The entire university should act as one on this issue, rather than each department trying to plough its own furrow.
And some gardening idioms don’t seem to transfer to other contexts:
- I’ve killed every plant I’ve ever owned. But she has got really green fingers, you should see her garden – it’s beautiful!
Ok, that should really help you with business English.
Opinions Are Buildings – English Expressions About Opinions
‘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.
Let’s look at some examples, and decide if they are more about the structure of something, or more about the ground beneath it:
- With so much supporting evidence, the police can build a good case for conviction.
- He is such an unreliable witness – his entire testimony was a fabrication of lies and half-truths.
- I feel like I am on pretty solid ground when I’m talking about my thesis.
- Our products are strong on reliability and we can build on this foundation in the future.
- His essay was terrible – there was no structure to the argument.
- His reputation has been completely shattered by these baseless accusations.
- If she is taking bribes, it completely undermines her position on corruption.
- She won the debate easily – she just demolished their arguments!
- I welcome any constructive criticisms of my work.
‘Ground’ is the most commonly used word in this context:
- Being rude to customers is grounds for dismissal.
- These allegations are completely groundless and are just intended to disrupt our preparations for the Games.
- Is any of this grounded in fact?
The Archaeology Of Truth – English Expressions About Truth
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.
Look at these examples of common idiomatic expressions and decide which parts of this process they refer to:
- I want you to dig deep into your memories and think about your first day at school.
- The Police have reopened the case after new evidence came to light.
- I’ve been working in the archives for the last few months and have unearthed some interesting stories about him.
- Ask Mary – she’s a mine of information on the subject!
- They have started an investigation and hope to get to the bottom of the problem soon.
- I don’t want the newspapers digging into my private life.
- She had tried to bury the memory of it for years.
- New developments in the scandal emerged over the weekend.
- I think we need to get things out in the open and talk about them honestly.
- The city is home to a vibrant underground music scene.
When a meaning is obvious and easy to understand we use a reversal of the idiom:
- We need new financial transparency regulations.
- I understand you – your message is crystal clear.
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!‘
- This is no way to run a company – whenever there’s a problem you just put your head in the sand and hope it will go away!
Intelligence Is Light – English Expressions About Intelligence
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.
So we can say that knowledge is bright and ignorance is dark – here are some examples:
- John came top of his class in all of his tests again – he’s a real bright spark!
- People come from all over the world to find enlightenment at the meditation centre.
- The recent discovery of King Richard’s body has thrown light on his actual cause of death.
- This film is really dull – when is something interesting going to happen?
- He was always a brilliant student and it was no surprise when he won the scholarship.
- New evidence has recently come to light that could lead to further charges in the case.
- Let’s keep Sarah in the dark about it for now – she loves a good surprise.
- I think that his political supporters are pretty dim-witted, they don’t seem to know much about the world.
- These kinds of injuries were more common back in the Dark Ages of NFL concussion awareness.
- Well that was a very illuminating lecture – I think I really get it now!
The Geography Of Opinions – English Expressions About Opinions
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.
So we stand in a particular place, and this gives us a particular view of the world; let’s look at some examples and decide which are about locations and which are about views:
- I don’t want him to come to dinner – he has very right-wing views.
- I think the royal family look down on us all.
- How are things on your side of the political fence?
- There has always been a complex political landscape in the country.
- Artists and musicians often look at life in new and interesting ways.
- We’ll give you all the support you need – we’re behind you all the way.
- From my point of view, I think that it’s a very good deal.
- We need more information to give us a better perspective of this situation.
- It’s not fair – whenever there’s an argument you always take his side!
Notice that ‘stand’ can be used in both senses:
- From where I stand it looks like the economy is going nowhere.
- Where do you stand on nuclear energy?
Perhaps it’s not surprising to note that altitude affects morals:
- I’ve always looked up to my Mum; she’s been an inspiration to me.
- I think we hold the moral high ground on this issue.
Also, the two sides of an argument are often separated by some kind of barrier:
- He’s always sitting on the fence whenever there’s an argument.
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!