What is an idiom?

We've collated the 50 idioms you should know.
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What is an idiom?

Simple answer: What is an idiom? An idiom is a phrase or expression where the meaning of the phrase is not apparent from the words in the phrase.  I.e. the literal meaning of the words in the phrase is not the same as the phrase as a whole.  

Advanced answer: An idiom is a phrase or expression using figurative language.  An idiom’s meaning is not necessarily linked to the words contained in the phrase, but rather, due to its common use over time, has taken on its own meaning as a stand-alone phrase.  Some idioms remain close to the literal meaning of the phrase, but become a commonly used expression in a certain circumstance.  Often, idioms originate from an original, literal phrase related to a common circumstance – e.g. bite the bullet – but which may be a more unusual or unlikely circumstance today.  ‘Bite the bullet’ remains a popular phrase and is now used in a broader range of circumstances than its archaic origins.  In other examples, the origin of the phrase was deliberately figurative – such as ‘break a leg’.  In this case, the idiom was created to avoid the superstition of giving bad luck to an actor.

What is figurative language?

Literal language is the direct translation, the exact meaning of the words used.  E.g. Fred sat down.  This ‘literally’ means that Fred. Sat. Down.  

Figurative language such as idioms, metaphors and similes, is the use of words and ideas to make a point or suggest a meaning that is different or goes beyond, that of the exact (or literal) meaning of the words used.  Figurative language, uses ‘figures of speech’ to give colour to the point that the speaker or writer is trying to make, often trying to create an image in the mind of the listener.

What is the difference between an idiom, a metaphor and a simile?

Idioms, metaphors and similes are all types of figurative language.  There are a number of other types of figurative language which we won’t go into here but it’s reasonable to say that whenever your language goes beyond the literal meaning of the words used it is in the realm of figurative.

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  • A simile is used to compare two things that have a similar quality.  Similes usually use ‘like’ or ‘as’ to create the comparison.  E.g. She was as white as a sheet, or,  the lake was like a mirror.
  • A metaphor is a statement that compares two very different things in order to give the object additional qualities.  Unlike a simile, a metaphor doesn’t directly compare things using ‘as’ or ‘like’.  E.g. My boss is a dragon; her boyfriend is a toad. 
  • An idiom is different to a simile and a metaphor in that it is not used to compare things, but rather to describe a situation

 

Why are idioms important for ESL learners?

If you are an English as a Second Language learner, idioms are a more advanced part of the language which are important to master if you are looking to use English at a higher level and sound confident and natural in your communication.  It is often said that idioms are necessary to sound like a native speaker.  While that is true in part, they are not essential to necessarily use, but certainly, they are important to be familiar with as native English speakers use them regularly.  We have already seen, as a part of figurative language, they are difficult to understand without already knowing what they mean.  Therefore, even if you don’t use them, you should try to get familiar with them to aid your listening and conversation skills.

Are idioms formal or informal?

Neither.  Idioms are a normal part of language and can be used in any situation.  Some idioms are certainly inappropriate for some situations, however, business is full of idioms e.g. ‘raise the bar’, ‘get ahead of the curve’, etc.

How do you use idioms properly?

For ESL students, using idioms properly is the biggest challenge.  If you use an idiom that is not very common or is delivered incorrectly, it can sound forced and unnatural.  As an ESL speaker, your goal should be to speak in a clear and confident way that makes the listener listen to WHAT you are saying rather than HOW you are saying it.  

Have you ever been engrossed in a film and then suddenly you are snapped out of it thinking ‘hang on, that’s not right’.  Well using an idiom badly will do the same thing with a listener.  Therefore, work out how to use simple, common idioms with fluency and grace.  We’ve included our favourite 10 common idiom examples below. 

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How many idioms are there?

Wikipedia suggests that there are over 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the English language.  It’s worth noting, however, that some idioms are regional and these idioms would only be useful to the areas where they are common.  Like normal vocabulary, idioms can go out of date or become less culturally appropriate.  Therefore, our earlier advice for English language students holds true.  Learn a few idioms really well, rather than lots badly.

What is an example of an idiom?

If you are new to idioms, here are examples of our 10 most common idioms that you should know: 

The 10 idioms you should know

1. Under the weather – to be feeling ill. “I’m not coming to work today, I’m feeling a little under the weather”.

2. The ball is in your court – to say the next action is with you.  “I’ve already given a counter offer, the ball’s in your court now”.

3. Spill the beans – to share the secret. “Come on Sally, spill the beans, did you two kiss or what?!”

4. You’re pulling my leg – to play a joke on someone or to suggest someone is playing a joke on you. “No, there’s no way I’ve won the lottery, you’re pulling my leg”.

5. Take it with a pinch of salt – to not believe it fully. “I’d take those numbers with a pinch of salt though, you know polls are not always accurate.”

6. You can say that again – to agree on the trueness of something (usually just heard).  “Director 1: We need this launch to work or the business will fail.  Director 2: You can say that again.”

7. See eye to eye – to agree.  “James and Stuart are always arguing, they never see eye to eye on anything.”

8. Beat around the bush – to not get to the point.  “Juan doesn’t half beat around the bush, he never just makes a quick point.”

9. Missed the boat – to miss an opportunity.  “I wanted to go to the concert but I missed the boat and now the tickets are sold out.”

10. By the skin of your teeth – only just achieved something.  “The team won that game by the skin of their teeth.”

What are the 20 idioms you should know?

If you’re ready for some more, here are another 10 idioms with examples: 

11. Hit the sack – to go to bed. “Today was exhausting, I’m ready to hit the sack.”

12. Push the boat out – to do something special or extravagant.  “It’s mum’s 50th birthday so I’m going to really push the boat out this year.”

13. On the fence – undecided.  “I’m still on the fence about who to vote for in the election.”

14. Through thick and thin – under any circumstance, no matter how hard. “We’ve stuck together through thick and thin and we’re not going to break up now.”

15. Once in a blue moon – rarely.  “This sort of event happens once in a blue moon and I’m not going to miss the boat on tickets.”

16. Come rain or shine – whatever the circumstances.  “I’ll be there come rain or shine, you can count on me.”

17. The best thing since sliced bread – amazing.  “This new cheese grater is the best thing since sliced bread!”

18. Go down in flames – to fail spectacularly or significantly.  “The business went down in flames with a huge debt and zero sales.”

19. Jump on the bandwagon – to join in with a lot of people.  “I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon, but I couldn’t help buying one of those wrist bands.”

20.Let the cat out of the bag – to share a secret too early.  “You told her what we got?!  You really let the cat out of the bag there….”

The 50 idioms you should know:

In case you wanted to push the boat out a bit more, here are another 30 idiom examples taking us to a list of 50 idioms.  Remember these, in our view, are the 50 most common idioms, with examples, so you should get confident using them before you learn others:

21. Hit the nail on the head – to be exactly right.  “When the boss visited the office and told us what he thought about the culture here, he really hit the nail on the head.”

22. Put your cards on the table – to be open and honest about your position/intentions.  “Can we just put our cards on the table and come to a fair deal please?”

23. Kicked the bucket – died.  “The old dog finally kicked the bucket.”

24. A dog’s dinner – a messy, badly organised situation or piece of work. “This contract is a real dog’s dinner.”

25. A piece of cake – easy.  “That obstacle course was a piece of cake.”

26. Back to the drawing board – to start again.  “They hated the proposal…. I guess it’s back to the drawing board.”

27. Stabbed in the back – hurt by those you trusted.  “When you applied for the job that I had asked you to help me prepare for,  I really felt stabbed in the back.”

28. It takes two to tango – both people are responsible.  “You may think it’s all my fault but it takes two to tango.”

29. Kill two birds with one stone – to achieve two things at once.  “Winning that client pitch with your boss in the room killed two birds with one stone.”

30. Bite off more than you can chew – to try something too difficult.  “Starting a new job and studying for a masters at the same time may be biting off more than you can chew.”

31. Costs an arm and a leg – very expensive.  “Those tickets cost an arm and a leg!”

32. Rule of thumb – an approximate measure or guide.  “As a rule of thumb, I put in two spoons of water to one of flour.”

33. Blow off some steam – to release stress or energy through an activity.  “It’s been a hard week, you should go out tonight and blow off some steam.”

34. Skeletons in the closet – to have secrets.  “The new CEO looks polished but I’ve heard he has some skeletons in his closet.”

35. Egg on your face – to be embarrassed.  “The headteacher had egg on her face when the exam results came in and the school was in last place.”

Half way there!

36. A bun in the oven – pregnant.  “Have you heard that Stephany has a bun in the oven?”

37. A flash in the pan – a sudden and brief success that’s not repeated.  “The summer hit was a flash in the pan for the singer who never got back in the top 100.”

38. Bite the bullet – to do something hard that has been put off.  “Sanjay, you have to bite the bullet and break up with your girlfriend.”

39. Butterflies in your stomach – to be nervous about something.  “Backstage, Noah had butterflies in his stomach about his performance.”

40. Call it a day – to stop or quit doing something.  “I’ve been trying to become an actor all my life and I think it’s about time to call it a day.”

41. Jump the gun – to take action too early.  “I jumped the gun and told them my salary expectations, I think they would have offered me more money if I didn’t say anything…”

42. Storm in a teacup – a lot of excitement or anger about something small.  “It was a huge argument at work last week but it turned out to be a storm in a teacup.”

43. Skating on thin ice – in a risky situation.  “Henry is skating on thin ice by threatening his boss.”

44. On the ball – alert and intelligent.  “You’ll like the new recruit, she seems very on the ball.”

45. Hit the roof – to get very angry, very quickly. “When he heard the news he hit the roof.”

46. By the book – follow the rules.  “We are a bank, everything has to be by the book!”

47. Long story short – briefly.  “Did you hear the news?  No?  Okay, long story short… we won!”

48. Pull the plug – to stop doing something.  “The director has pulled the plug on the show.  Everyone has to find other work now.”

49. Punching above your weight – engage in an activity or contest thought to be beyond your abilities, or date someone who is a lot more attractive than you.  “Freddy has started seeing Olivia, the gorgeous girl from work. I can’t believe it! He is really punching above his weight.”

50. Think outside the box – to think creatively to find a new way of doing something or solve a problem.  “There has to be a solution to this problem, we just need to think outside the box.”

Now test your knowledge

Learn more idioms with English Like A Native

Now you know the answer to ‘What is an idiom?’ you can learn a few more in our other articles, with videos and exercises to help your learning:

 

10 must know idioms with examples

Now complete the exercise below to test your knowledge of idioms

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