Which idioms are most common in general English?
This is the second of three chapters about Idiomatic Phrases (Idioms). To complete this reader, read each chapter carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Review the basics about English idiomatic phrases
– Understand the general, spoken context in which idioms are most commonly used in English
– Study example general-English idioms, including example sentences and idiom meanings
Having discussed what idioms are in Chapter 1 and how they compare with other forms of figurative speech such as metaphors and similes, this second chapter on the topic next focuses on their use in general contexts. If you’re studying English at an advanced level and wish to sound more like a native speaker, then learning a handful of high-frequency idiomatic phrases such as ‘raining cats and dogs’ or ‘hit the spot’ is a good step in the right direction. We provide just under a hundred of the most common idioms below with examples and definitions to help inform their use.
What are the key points about idioms?
As a quick review of Chapter 1, remember that idioms are:
- common in English, with other 25,000 possibilities
- phrases of two or more words which when combined create new meanings
- figurative expressions which attach a non-literal meaning to an otherwise literal phrase
- different to other types of figurative language like metaphors (“man of steel”), similes (“brave as a lion”), hyperbole (“I’ve told you a million times”) and proverbs (“haste makes waste”)
Are idioms more common in speech or writing?
While idioms can certainly be found in the written form, it’s important to remember (particularly if you’re studying English for academic purposes: EAP) that most genres of writing are formal in nature and that idioms are quite informal. You may see idioms when messaging on social networks for example, or on blogs or in novels, but you would rarely see them in advanced textbooks or journal articles and would rarely use them when writing essays. In speech, however, idioms are quite common, and may be used by a native speaker as a more creative and playful form of expression.
Which idioms are most common in general English?
We’ve included a list below of just under one hundred of the most common idiomatic phrases in the English language, organised alphabetically. Consider studying these idioms carefully, thinking about the kinds of situations in which you might use them. You may then wish to try activating this vocabulary in your mind by using it successfully in real life situations.
a bitter pill to swallow [“Having to work late tonight is a bitter pill to swallow.”] Something that is unpleasant but that must be accepted.
a dime a dozen [“Mobile phones are a dime a dozen these days.”] Anything that is cheap, common and readily available.
ace in the hole [“This is my ace in the hole to win the election.”] A hidden advantage.
Achilles’ heel [“In the end, it was his greed that was his Achilles’ heel.”] A small but fatal weakness.
all ears [“Go on then, I’m all ears. Tell me.”] Listening carefully for an explanation.
all thumbs [“I can’t control a drone; I’m all thumbs.”] Clumsy or awkward.
an arm and a leg [“I would give an arm and a leg to own that car.”] Something of great expense.
at the drop of a hat [“James would go with you at the drop of a hat if you asked him.”] Instantly, and without any hesitation.
back to the drawing board [“I suggest that you go back to the drawing board with this invention because it’s clearly no good.”] Start again at the beginning due to failure.
barking up the wrong tree [“The police are barking up the wrong tree on this one. The killer is not from this town.”] When someone is looking in the wrong place for something.
basket case [“I’m a basket case and can’t perform.”] When you are made powerless or ineffective by stress, worry or nerves.
beat around the bush [“Don’t beat around the bush, just tell me.”] To avoid talking about something because it is difficult or unpleasant.
the bee’s knees [“My new laptop is the bee’s knees. I love it.”] When something is outstandingly good or wonderful.
bite off more than one can chew [“I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with my new job. I’m tired every day.”] To take on more responsibility than a person can handle.
bite the bullet [“It’s time I bite the bullet and tell my wife the truth.”] To experience an unavoidable, unpleasant situation.
break a leg [“Break a leg tonight on stage, won’t you!”] Wishing good luck.
by the skin of one’s teeth [“That car missed you by the skin of your teeth.”] Narrowly escaping from a dangerous situation.
call a spade a spade [Stop talking in riddles and just call a spade a spade.”] To speak truthfully no matter how rude.
call it a day [“I’m exhausted. It’s time to call it a day.”] Declare the end of an event/task.
calm your horses [“Can you calm your horses and stop shouting?”] To calm down.
cheap as chips [“My new bicycle was as cheap as chips.”] A good bargain.
clam up [“I just clammed up and couldn’t sing.”] To stop talking or become silent.
cold shoulder [“Ever since I broke up with her she’s given me the cold shoulder.”] Being aloof and disdainful.
couch potato [“My son is a real couch potato; he needs to get a job.”] Being lazy.
cut off your nose to spite your face [“Don’t cut of your nose to spite your face. Just forgive them.”] To pursue revenge that would cause more damage to oneself than it’s worth.
cut the mustard [“You’ll need to really cut the mustard to get hired by the BBC.”] To perform well; to meet expectations.
dig one’s heels in [“I’m digging my heels in on this one. It’s still a no.”] Strong opposition to something.
elephant in the room [“Can we please talk about the elephant in the room now? Pollution is a huge problem.”] An obvious but sensitive issue which has not yet been addressed.
fit as a fiddle [“He’s all muscle, mate. He’s fit as a fiddle.”] In very good health.
from scratch [“I know how to make that from scratch.”] To start from the beginning with no preparation.
get your goat [“That teacher really gets my goat.”] Something that irritates someone.
have a blast [“You look like you’re having a blast on that game.”] To enjoy oneself.
have eyes bigger than one’s stomach [“My eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach at lunchtime today. I couldn’t finish everything.”] To take more than one can handle.
have eyes in the back of one’s head [“She’ll find out. I’m telling you, she has eyes in the back of her head.”] To know what is happening without seeing it.
head over heels [“She’s head over heels for me, I swear.”] To be infatuated with something or someone.
heard it through the grapevine [“Did you hear that through the grapevine or is it true?”] To learn something through gossip.
hit the nail on the head [“That’s right! You’ve hit the nail on the head.”] To be perfectly accurate or correct about something.
hit the sack [“I’m so tired, I think I’m going to hit the sack.”] Go to sleep.
hit the spot [“Mmm, this soup hits the spot for sure.”] To be pleasing and just what was needed.
hold all the cards [“I can’t convince him on this. He’s holding all the cards.”] To be the one making the decisions.
hook, line and sinker [He tricked me hook, line and sinker.”] To be fooled completely by a trick or a deception.
kick the bucket [“He kicked the bucket late last year. I went to his funeral.”] To die.
kill two birds with one stone [“It would be great if I could save time and kill two birds with one stone.”] Accomplish two different tasks at the same time with a single action.
let the cat out of the bag [You can’t keep a secret, can you? You just had to let the cat out of the bag.”] Reveal something secret.
one’s two cents [“Do you want my two cents or not?”] Someone’s opinion on a subject.
nip (something) in the bud [“This needs nipping in the bud right now.”] Stop something before it can become more significant.
off one’s rocker [“He’s completely off his rocker! He needs mental help.”] Not making any sense; crazy.
off the hook [“My boss let me off the hook on doing the presentation and made Patricia do it.”] To escape responsibility or danger.
once in a blue moon [“We see each other once in a blue moon I guess. Not often enough.”] Happening very occasionally.
pop one’s clogs [“All of sudden he’d popped his clogs. He was fine only last week!”] To die.
piece of cake [You can do it easily. It’s a piece of cake.”] Something that is easy to do.
preaching to the choir [“Stop preaching to the choir. I agree with you.”] To waste your time convincing someone of something they already agree with.
pull somebody’s leg [“That can’t be true. Are you pulling my leg?”] To joke with someone by telling a lie.
raining cats and dogs [“We’re not going anywhere this afternoon. It’s raining cats and dogs.”] Raining very heavily.
right as rain [“Please let me go home, Doctor. I feel right as rain.”] Feeling perfect or well.
rock the boat [“I strongly disagree, and I’m going to have to rock the boat on this one.”] To do something that will cause problems.
step up to the plate [“It’s time to step up to the plate and show them how good you really are.”] Deliver beyond normal expectations.
sleep with the fishes [“I’m sad to say that grandad is sleeping with the fishes.”] Dead.
spill the beans [“Go on, spill the beans. Who did you kiss?”] To reveal a secret.
take the bull by the horns [“You need to take the bull by the horns and sort this mess out.”] To deal with a difficult or dangerous situation bravely and decisively.
take with a grain of salt [“You should take that offer of a promotion with a grain of salt. She never promotes anyone.”] To not trust what someone says or take it too seriously.
throw under the bus [“They threw me under the bus. I got all the blame!”] To betray someone for selfish or protective reasons.
through thick and thin [“We’ve known each other for 15 years and have been through thick and thin.”] Experienced a lot together, both good and bad.
to steal someone’s thunder [“Wow, he really stole your thunder when he announced he had won the lottery, right?”] To take the attention from someone or take credit for something you didn’t do.
under the weather [“You shouldn’t go to school today. You look very under the weather.”] Feeling sick.
wild goose chase [“What a wild goose chase that was! We never even found out who did it.”] A lengthy and potentially frustrating undertaking which does not accomplish its aim.
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