30 Time Idioms and Phrases

A list of time idioms including an example and the idiom's definition.

Introduction to time idioms

Have you got a few minutes of free time? Rather than killing time playing games, let’s have a whale of time learning 30 time-related idioms. These are phrases that are used in everyday situations, formal and informal so it’s good to be familiar with them.

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What are idioms and why are idioms important?

Before we start, let’s answer a common question – what is an idiom?  An idiom is a common English saying where the meaning of the phrase isn’t related to the literal meaning of the words used.

Let’s look at an example.  ‘Over the moon’ is a famous idiom meaning extremely happy, but the literal meaning of the words suggests that you are in outer space!

So why are these confusing, but common sayings so important?  Idioms are a common feature of the English language and it’s important for ESL learners to feel confident using them.  Native English speakers use idioms a lot as part of both formal and informal language and therefore, correctly using idioms will help to portray you as a confident, natural speaker of English.

Are idioms for formal or informal use?

Idioms can be used for both formal and informal use, depending of course, on the specific phrase.  ‘Throw him under a bus’ isn’t really appropriate for the workplace, for example. 

To throw someone under the bus means to place blame on them so that they get into trouble.

Make the Most of this Free English Lesson!

This free English lesson has been made for your enjoyment and includes a list of 30 time idioms, the description of each idiom and idiom examples.  Below the list, you will find three quizzes, including a crossword to help embed your new idiom knowledge as well as a video of this lesson on common time idioms.

If you enjoy this material and would like to take your English learning to the next level, join our Head English tutor, Anna English, on one of our English Language Courses.

30 Time Idioms

Idiom #1: It’s high time

This phrase can be used to say that it is time to do something that should have happened a long time ago.
“You’ve been struggling with your maths homework for months. It’s high time we got you a tutor.”

Idiom #2: Against the clock

If you’re doing something “against the clock”, you are doing it as quickly as possible in order to meet a deadline.
“The party guests will arrive at 6pm so we’re working against the clock to get everything ready in time.”

Use time idioms to help you so sound more natural in your English speaking.

Idiom #3: The eleventh hour

If something happens ‘at the eleventh hour’, that means it happens at the last possible moment.
“I found that question really difficult but I remembered the answer at the eleventh hour, just before the exam finished.”

Idiom #4: To make up for lost time

To do something faster or more often in order to compensate for not having done it quickly enough or often enough before is known as ‘making up for lost time’.
“We didn’t get to see family much last year so this year, I hope to make up for lost time and spend lots of time with them.”

Idiom #5: In the nick of time

To do something ‘in the nick of time’, means to do it just in time.
“We almost missed the train but we got here in the nick of time.”

Idiom #6: The ship has sailed

We use this phrase informally to discuss an opportunity which has passed or a situation which can no longer be changed.
“I thought about running a marathon this year but I haven’t done any training so that ship has sailed.”

Idiom #7: Around the clock

If something is done ‘around the clock’, then it is done all day and all night without stopping.
“We have around the clock security.”

Idiom #8: To call it a day

This means to decide to stop doing something, either permanently or for a while depending on the context.
“I’m too tired to finish my homework so I’m going to call it a day and finish it tomorrow.”

Idiom #9: In the blink of an eye

If something happens ‘in the blink of an eye’, it happens very quickly.
“A calculator can solve the Maths problem in the blink of an eye.”

Idiom #10: To kill time

This phrase is used informally and it means to spend time doing something unimportant, particularly when waiting for something.
“We’ll go shopping at the airport to kill time before the flight.”

Idiom #11: Like clockwork

If something happens ‘like clockwork’, then it happens very smoothly and easily.
“The presentation ran like clockwork.”

Idiom #12: On the dot

This is an informal phrase which means exactly on time.
“She starts work at 9am on the dot.”

Idiom #13: To do time (to serve time)

This is a colloquial term meaning to be in prison.
“He’s doing time for money laundering.”

Idiom #14: To turn back time

To ‘turn back time’ means to recreate, remember, or imagine things as they were before.
“I like to reminisce while looking through old photo albums, but I do wish I could just turn back time.”

Idiom #15: To have a whale of a time

This means to have a brilliant time, to really enjoy oneself.
“I had a whale of a time learning to ski!”

Idiom #16: To lose track of the time

To ‘lose track of the time’ means to be unaware of how much time has passed, or to not be sure of what the time is.
“I’m so sorry I’m late. I lost track of the time!”

Idiom #17: Free time

‘Free time’ refers to time available for hobbies and activities you enjoy.
“In my free time, I like to play football.” 

English language students learning English by using time idioms.

Idiom #18: Spur of the moment

Something done in the ‘spur of the moment’ is done impulsively, without planning in advance.
“We aren’t going to Argentina now, instead we’re going to Switzerland! Don’t ask me why, it was a spur of the moment decision.”

Idiom #19: Behind the times

If something is ‘behind the times’, it is not using the latest technology, ideas or techniques. It could also be referred to as ‘out of date’.
“This library is so behind the times. They don’t even have a computer!”

Idiom #20: To hit the big time

This is an idiomatic phrase which means to become very successful or famous.
“She hit the big time and got a part in a very successful film after years of hard work.”

Idiom #21: Hour of need

An ‘hour of need’ is a time when most help is needed.
“Thank you so much for helping us in our hour of need.”

Idiom #22: A laugh a minute

You could use this phrase to describe someone who is very funny.
“John’s great. He’s a laugh a minute.”

Idiom #23: Like there’s no tomorrow

To do something ‘like there’s no tomorrow’ means to do it in a quick or careless way without considering the future.
“He’s spending money like there’s no tomorrow!”

Idiom #24: Long time no see

This is informally used as a greeting to mean ‘it’s a long time since we last met’.
“Christopher, long time no see!”

Idiom #25: A mile a minute

If something is happening ‘a mile a minute’, it is happening at a very fast rate.
“I can barely understand Connor because he talks a mile a minute.”

Idiom #26: Now and then

If something happens ‘now and then’, it happens occasionally.
“I don’t see her much but we go for coffee now and then.”

Idiom #27: The moment of truth

A time when a person or thing is tested, a decision has to be made, or a crisis has to be faced might be referred to as ‘the moment of truth’.
“Grace has spent hours baking the perfect cake, but now it is the moment of truth: time to taste it.”

Idiom #28: To have too much time on one’s hands

To have ‘too much time on your hands’ means to have lots of extra time. We often use this phrase to describe someone who is engaged in unhelpful or useless activities.
“She’s such a gossip. She obviously has far too much time on her hands.”

Idiom #29: Once in a blue moon

This means it rarely happens.
“I don’t speak to my old uni mates these days. I mean Fernando will call me for a catch up once in a blue moon, but apart from that we have all lost touch.”

Idiom #30: Donkey’s years

‘Donkey’s years’ is an informal way of saying a long time.
“Adam and I have been friends for donkey’s years!”

There we have 30 time-related idioms for you to drop into conversation the next time you’re discussing time and want to sound just like a native English speaker. Have you heard these phrases used in English conversation before? Can you think of any time-related idioms that I’ve missed? Hop over to the YouTube channel and leave a comment below the video.

a common idiom about time

Test Your Knowledge #1

  Let’s test your knowledge. Below you will find an interactive book including a dialogue and some multiple choice questions.  Using what you’ve learnt from the time idioms above, complete the activities to help embed your knowledge.

Test Your Knowledge #2

  Now, test your recall of the time idioms you have learnt.  Using the clues try to find the missing idioms and write them into the spaces provided. Do not include spaces in your answers.

When you have completed the crossword click CHECK to check your answers or click SHOW SOLUTION to reveal the correct answers.

Test Your Knowledge #3

  Finally, test your listening skills. Listen to each audio by clicking on the audio icon and writing exactly what you hear in the box provided.

When you have completed each box click CHECK to check your answers or click SHOW SOLUTION to reveal the correct answers.

Video Tutorial

  Watch this video to hear Anna take you through this list of English idioms.

Get the Lesson Notes on Time Idioms

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