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What Are Idioms?

Every language has its own set of expressions and phrases. These expressions frequently have hidden meanings that are not clear just by looking at the individual words. These are referred to as ‘idioms’

They make any language colorful and more interesting.

But what are idioms exactly?

Should we use them in formal settings?

How do they differ from other figurative languages? 

If you are interested in finding out the answers to these questions about idioms, please keep reading as we have them all here on this page. Enjoy reading! 

What are Idioms?

When two or more words are combined, they generate an idiom with a metaphorical meaning that varies from the literal meaning of the individual terms.

The English language contains tens of thousands of idioms. 

Idioms are tough for those who do not speak English as their first language. And sometimes, even native English speakers in England have trouble understanding American idioms and vice versa. 

However, idioms are an integral part of the English language, and you should familiarize yourself with them. 

Example Sentence:

“Will you please address the elephant in the room and talk to your couch potato son?”

If you have never heard the terms ‘couch potato’ or ‘elephant in the room’, you could have suspected something along these lines:

couch potatoelephant in the room
A vegetable on a piece of furnitureA large animal in a room.

Do these literal readings make sense in light of the original sentence? Do you believe there was the elephant in the room all along? And how does one become a potato?

Instead, look at their non-literal meanings:

couch potatoelephant in the room
A lazy personA serious problem or contentious issue that is clearly there but is avoided as a topic for debate. 

We can now deduce the original expression from these non-literal (figurative, idiomatic) meanings. 

As a result, these two instances remind us that idioms are figurative expressions that give a seemingly literal term a non-literal meaning. 

This one-of-a-kind quality makes idioms so unique, challenging, and enjoyable to master. Idioms defy compositionality norms, which state that the meaning of a whole is usually the sum of its parts.

Idioms vs. Other Figurative Languages

While idioms are always figurative by definition, it is vital to realize that a phrase like ‘the elephant in the room’ can be taken both literally and idiomatically. 

While it may seem impossible, there could have been an elephant in a room at some point in human history — possibly at a zoo.

Hence, the listener should assess idiomaticity using context, which is not always straightforward. 


“Put the table out.” To put the table outside “Turn the music down.”  To lower the volume of the music 
“Put the fire out.” To extinguish the fire “Turn down the offer.” To decline the offer, 

Notice how the words ‘put out’ and ‘turn down’ can have both literal and figurative expressions.

This is because the spatial meanings of the verbs ‘place’ and ‘turn’ can be deduced from the phrasal verb’s overall meaning. 

The meanings of the phrasal verbs ‘extinguish’ and ‘decline’ in the second expressions, on the other hand, cannot be determined solely from these verbs, and hence the meanings of these phrasal verbs are figurative/idiomatic.

Moreover, another figurative language in English includes similes, metaphors, hyperbole, and proverbs; however, they should not be confused with idioms.


A simile is a descriptive statement that uses a comparison. When you see the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ in comparison, you know it is a simile.


“He was sick as a dog.”

“I slept like a baby last night.” 

“My sister swims like a dolphin.” 

“This agreement is solid as quicksand.” 


A metaphor is when a term or phrase is used to describe something or do something that is not practically appropriate.


“She has a heart of gold.” 

“She is buried in a sea of paperwork.” 

“Laughter is the best medicine.”

“I smell success in this project.”


This figure of speech is a reality that has been exaggerated beyond the boundaries of possibility. 


“She has tons of money.” 

“These boots are killing me.”

“That man’s brain is the size of a pea.”

“There are a million of options left.” 


A proverb is a short remark that gives advice or tells you something about life that is frequently quoted.


“Early to bed, early to rise.” 

“Actions speak louder than words.” 

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” 

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” 

100 Most Common Idioms in the English Language

If you are studying advanced English and want to sound more like a native speaker, acquiring a handful of high-frequency idiomatic phrases is an excellent place to start. 

We have compiled a list of little under a hundred of the most prevalent idioms, together with meanings and example sentences, to aid you in understanding how to apply them.

IdiomsMeaningSentence Examples
a better pill to swallowAn unfavorable reality, disappointment, or disgrace that is difficult to bear.“Losing by only a point is a bitter pill to swallow.” 
a dime a dozenFairly prevalent and has little real worth“Mobile phones have been a dime a dozen in the last few years.” 
a dose of one’s own medicineAn unpleasant or harsh approach that is similar to the treatment given to others“What if we give her a dose of her own medicine to teach her a lesson?”
a little bird told meWhen you do not want the source of your information to be revealedA little bird told me you have been cutting classes. Is it true?”
a whole new ball game A completely different situation “Moving into the country is a whole new ball game for me.” 
ace in the hole A resource or an advantage that is held back until the right moment arises“The company’s state-of-the-art technology is their ace in the hole.” 
Achilles heel A flaw or a point of vulnerability“Seeing other people cry is his Achilles heel.” 
ahead of one’s time In advance of popularly accepted views; displaying features of yet-to-be-implemented improvements; present in one’s work prior to eventual developments in the field“His ideas and concepts are ahead of his time.” 
alive and kickingHealthy and very active“Stop worrying about your uncle. He’s very much alive and kicking!” 
all ears Eager and excited to hear something“Okay, tell me what happened. I’m all ears.”
all hat and no cattle Someone who has the inclination to boast without following through on one’s remarks“I wouldn’t count on him. He’s all hat and no cattle.” 
all thumbsAwkward or clumsy “When it comes to everything that involves tools, he is all thumbs.” 
at the drop of a hat Instantly; without any hesitation“She makes decisions at the drop of a hat.” 
back on one’s feet Used to refer to someone who was sick and has recovered and returned to his/her previous state“My uncle is now back on his feet after a week of being sick.”
back to the drawing board Implying that one’s endeavor has failed and that one must restart from the beginning“My brother is back to the drawing board after his numerous experiments failed.”  
bad bloodIll feeling toward someone “They were close friends but now have bad blood towards each other.” 
barking up the wrong treeTo be following an erroneous or wrong route of thought or action“I think the investigators are barking up the wrong tree. The suspect has obviously left town.” 
basket case Someone who is tense or anxious to the point of being unable to order their lives“By the end of the challenge, I was a complete basket case.” 
beat around the bushDiscuss a topic without getting right to the point“Tell me what really took place without beating around the bush.” 
bed or roses A circumstance or activity that is easy or pleasant“She is now in a bed of roses after marrying a rich man.” 
bite off more than one can chewTo commit to something that one cannot keep“I’m too afraid to say no to my boss that now I’m biting off more than I can chew.” 
bite the bulletTo be confronted with an inescapable and unpleasant scenario“She is biting the bullet for telling her parents the truth.” 
blow off steamTo let go of bad energies or emotions by doing something joyful, vigorous, or calming“He decided to go to the park to blow off steam after an argument with his wife.” 
break a legTo wish someone good luckBreak a leg! I hope you win!”
breath of fresh air A person or object that brings a change that is refreshing“Sue is such a breath of fresh air every time she visits.” 
bury the hatchet To forget the past “Let’s bury the hatchet and start all over again?”
by the skin of one’s teethBy a very thin margin; barely “That bus missed the old lady by the skin of her teeth!” 
call a spade a spadeTo talk directly without skirting over difficult or humiliating topics“Be honest with him and call a spade a spade.” 
call it a dayTo come to an end of a time of action, especially when satisfied that enough has been accomplished“The manager called it a day and told his employees to each go home.” 
calm your horsesTo slow down, to wait a moment, to be more cautious, or to be patient before responding“Please calm your horses and stop yelling.” 
castles in the air Excessive dreams and ambitions that can never be realized“He should start studying and stop building castles in the air if he wants to succeed.” 
cheap as chips Extremely low price“This watch is as cheap as chips.” 
chew the fatTo have a long and leisurely conversation“You should work on your homework rather than chew the fat with your friends.” 
chicken-heartedCoward“She is chicken-hearted, she won’t achieve anything.” 
clam upTo suddenly be quiet“As soon as he realized he was in the wrong, he clammed up.” 
cold shoulderA deliberate act of unfriendliness“I wonder why she’s giving me the cold shoulder lately.” 
come hell or high water No matter what; whatever obstacles may arise“I am going to that trip come hell or high water.” 
cost an arm and a legExtremely expensive “Buying that car would cost me an arm and a leg.” 
couch potatoA lazy person“I am indeed a couch potato on weekends and holidays.”  
cut off one’s nose to spite one’s faceTo injure oneself while attempting to injure another“If I were you, I’d just forgive him rather than cut off your nose to spite your face.” 
cut the mustardTo live up to one’s expectations; attain the needed level“You would have to cut the mustard to be hired.” 
cut to the chase To avoid wasting time and get straight to the topic“Okay, now cut to the chase and tell us what it is that you want?” 
dark horse A candidate or rival about whom little is known but who wins or succeeds unexpectedly“The movie won most of the awards despite being a dark horse.” 
dead wood  Individuals or things that have outlived their usefulness or productivity“He’s dead wood and the company is thinking of firing him soon.” 
dig one’s heels inTo refuse to do something, such as changing your mind or plans, even if someone is attempting to persuade you to do so“Despite the fact that the developer gave the owners more than their homes were valued, they dug their heels in and declined to have their houses sold.” 
elephant in the roomA serious problem or contentious issue that is clearly there but is avoided as a topic for debate“They have to talk about the elephant in the room and help both parties to resolve their issues.”  
fit as a fiddleIn good physical shape; very robust and healthy“I feel fit as a fiddle after two weeks of holiday.” 
get your goatTo annoy or irritate someone “I don’t get along with her; she gets my goat even without doing anything.” 
have a blastTo enjoy and have fun“The ski trip was fun! We had a blast!”
have one’s eyes bigger than his/her stomachWhen a person consumes so much food than he or she can reasonably consume“Do you have eyes bigger than your stomach yesterday, you couldn’t move after dinner?” 
have eyes in the back of one’s headUsed to describe someone who has seen or observed anything behind him or her“You must have eyes in the back of your head to know what we were doing behind you.” 
have one’s back To be prepared to defend or protect someone“Thank you for always having my back.” 
head over heelsUsed to refer to someone who is entirely enamored with another individual“They are head over heels infatuated with each other.”
heard it through the grapevineTo become aware of something casually“My mom must have heard it through the grapevine that our neighbors are filing for bankruptcy.” 
hit the nail on the headTo find the exact right solution“The staff of the enterprise hit the nail on the head when they said that the main problem of the business was lack of proper advertising.”  
hit the sackTo go to bed“I’m too tired, I’m going to go hit the sack.” 
hit the spotTo be precisely what is needed“A cold soda with some fries would surely hit the spot!”
hold all the cards To be in a highly beneficial or powerful position“He can’t do anything right now; he doesn’t hold all the cards in their business.” 
hook, line, and sinkerWhen someone has been fully duped or tricked“The neighbors believed him when he told them he needed the money, they fell for it and hook, line and sinker.” 
jump the gunTo take action before the appropriate time“He lost the game because he jumped the gun too soon.” 
kick the bucketTo die“He succumbed to his illness and kicked the bucket.” 
kill two birds with one stoneTo accomplish two tasks at once “By working as a librarian, she’s hitting two birds with one stone; she earns money and gets to read her favorite books for free.” 
kiss of death An activity or occurrence that leads a company’s failure to be certain“Hiring too many untrained workers proved to be the company’s kiss of death.” 
let the cat out of the bagTo reveal a secret inadvertently or by accident“He was trying to keep the plan a secret, but his sister let the cat out of the bag.” 
nip something in the budTo suppress or destroy something in its infancy“You need to nip her behavior problems in the bud before it gets out of control.”
off one’s rocker Insane“If that woman thinks she could get away with her actions, she is off her rocker.” 
off the hook No longer in a difficult situation“She was not planning to let him off the hook easily.” 
once in a blue moonVery rarely “She goes out of town once in a blue moon.” 
one’s two cents To be able to express one’s thoughts“Everyone is encouraged to give their two cents about the proposal.” 
piece of cakeAn easy task “Solving puzzles seems to be a piece of cake to Sue.” 
poetic justice When something awful happens to someone who is deserving of it“After cheating on the exam, it was poetic justice that he wasn’t accepted into the university.” 
pop one’s clogsHave died“Our old neighbor popped his clogs last night while asleep.” 
preaching to the choirTo argue for or against something in front of individuals who already share one’s viewpoints“She is just preaching to the choir and wasting our time.” 
pull somebody’s legTo persuade someone to think something that is not true by means of a joke“I was starting to believe him when I realized he was just pulling my leg.” 
put one’s neck on the line To do something risky or something you are afraid will fail and ruin your reputation “A lot of money is at risk and no one wants to put their neck on the line.” 
raining cats and dogsRaining heavily “It rained cats and dogs for three days.” 
raise eyebrows  To elicit a surprised or mildly disapproving response from others“Her promotion raised a lot of eyebrows.”
red flag A symptom of a specific problem that has to be addressed“The new neighbor is showing a lot of red flags; we should be concerned.”
right as rainTo be in excellent physical condition“He was sick the entire week, but he’s right as rain now.” 
rock the boatTo do or say something that causes an existing situation to be disrupted“You should not rock the boat unless a final agreement has been made.” 
slap in the face An affront or rejection that comes as a surprise“Promoting him over me is a slap in the face!” 
sleep with the fishes Dead “I miss my grandpa; he’s sleeping with the fishes now.”
spill the beansTo reveal the secret“I accidentally spilled the beans and told them what happened.”
start from scratchFrom the very start “I had to start from scratch when I moved to the city.”
steal someone’s thunder To prevent someone else’s effort to impress in order to gain credit for oneself“My brother stole my thunder when he told our parents he did all the cleaning of the house.”
step up to the plateTo take an instant action in response to a condition that presents itself as an opportunity or a crisis“Come on! Step up to the plate and let them witness what you’ve got!”
take forty winksTo have a short nap“I’m a little tired; I’m going to take forty winks.” 
take the bull by the horns To face a difficult, risky, or unpleasant situation fearlessly and decisively“I don’t know how to take the bull by the horns in this kind of situation.” 
take the fifth To refuse to respond, especially if the answer would be incriminating“She made the right decision and took the fifth when asked who her favorite sister is.” 
take with a grain of salt To approach something with suspicion, especially assertions that may be misleading or unsubstantiated, or to not take something literally“She has been praising you a lot lately. Take that with a grain of salt as we do not know her motives.” 
talk in circles To defend a point by reiterating the same idea, maybe with a different language, but without progressing“They have been talking in circles for a while now and they seem to not be arriving to any conclusion any time soon.” 
the bee’s knees A really wonderful person or thing“Try these cookies. They are the bee’s knees.” 
through thick and thinUnder any and all conditions, regardless of how difficult“I will be here for you through thick and thin.”
throw under the busTo betray someone for personal gain or protection.“I can’t believe you threw me under the bus. You’re supposed to have my back.” 
under the weatherSick and unwell“I’m feeling under the weather today; I won’t go to work.” 
walk on air Extremely happy “She’s walking on air after winning the competition.” 
watch one’s language To be cautious in one’s choice of wordsWatch your language; the guests can hear you.”
when pigs fly Ironically employed to express disbelief; something that will never occur “He will clean his room when pigs fly.” 
wild goose chase Futile and fruitless pursuit of an unreachable goal“Convincing her to go with us is a wild goose chase.” 

Consider carefully studying these idioms and considering the scenarios in which you could apply them.

After that, you might want to attempt activating this terminology in your mind by successfully applying it in real-life scenarios.

15 of the Most Common Idioms for Academic Essays 

While idioms can be found in written form, it is crucial to understand (especially if you are studying English for academic purposes: EAP) that most writing genres are formal in character, but idioms are not. 

Idioms may be found in social media messages, blogs, and novels, but they are rarely seen in advanced textbooks or journal papers, and they are rarely used while writing essays. 

On the other hand, Idioms are extremely prevalent in speech and can be utilized by native speakers to express themselves more creatively and entertainingly.

Below are some of the most common idioms that can be used in academic essays for your reference. 

IdiomsMeaningSentence Examples
across the board Something that is applicable to everyone in a group“Students across the board do not think that the new policy will benefit everyone.” 
at the end of the day When all factors are taken into account“The children’s future is what matters at the end of the day.”
bear in mindTo take into account a truth or scenario that you rememberBear in mind that the time you are given to accomplish the task is not that much.”
bridge the gapTo join two items together or reduce the distance between them“To bridge the gap between the privileged and the marginalized, education is vital.” 
come into playTo play a vital role “Daily weather changes have come into play in the decline of the sales of their product.” 
driving force A person or object with the ability to make things happen“Mr Smith is the driving force of the company.” 
go hand in hand with To go together “Perseverance and the right attitude go hand in hand in achieving one’s goals.” 
gold standardSomething that is the best, most dependable, or prestigious item of its kind“Smartphones are indeed today’s gold standard of communication.” 
golden age A romanticized, often fictitious bygone era of peace, wealth, and happiness“The 21st century is indeed the golden age of information technology.” 
in light ofTo gather information from something or to think about somethingIn light of the proclamation made last night, the company is calling a meeting this afternoon.” 
in the long runAfter a lengthy period of time or after a long period of time; gradually“They hope to compete internationally in the long run.” 
rule of thumbA generally accurate rule or concept based on practice or experience rather than theory“A proven rule of thumb is to put a pinch of salt in everything you cook.” 
state of the art The most recent stage in a product’s development, combining the most up-to-date technology, concepts, and features“The school’s music room is a state of the art indeed!” 
the bigger picture The most crucial facts regarding a situation, as well as the consequences of that condition on other factors“Stop for a while and try to reflect on the bigger picture.” 
the bottom lineThe most crucial or fundamental aspect of a situation, or the final conclusion of a situation“The bottom line is that the citizen’s welfare should be taken into consideration.”  

Why Do Idiomatic Expressions Matter?

Understanding a word’s meaning is just as vital, if not more so, than memorizing its various forms or grammatical variations. 

Grammar is the theory and structure of a language, and it differs from one speaker to the next. 

Meaning, on the other hand, is content — something that everyone agrees on. This is where idioms play a major role.

Being one of the most common expressions in the English language, it is a must that you take time to learn their meanings. 

Otherwise, you will get lost in translation.

We hope that this page has given you enough knowledge about idioms; which ones to use in social settings, and which ones to use in academic contexts. Remember, knowledge is power!


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