Essential English Idioms and Phrases And How to Use Them

by | Sep 6, 2023 | English

Idioms and phrases are an important part of the English language. They give color and personality to our speech and writing.

An idiom is a set expression that has a meaning beyond the individual words. For example, “piece of cake” doesn’t refer to an actual cake, but rather something that is easy or effortless.

Using idioms properly can make your English sound more natural and engaging.

Common Idioms and Phrases

In this article, we will go over some of the most common English idioms and phrases. We will explore their meanings and look at examples of how to use them in sentences.

Learning these popular sayings and expressions will help improve your vocabulary and conversational skills.

Idioms Describing Difficulty

    • Piece of cake – Something that is very easy or effortless. Example: The math test was a piece of cake.
    • Walk in the park – An activity or task that is very easy. Example: Learning to drive a car was a walk in the park for me.
    • Breeze through – To go through something very easily. Example: I breezed through my history exam.
    • No sweat – Used to indicate something was easy or effortless. Example: I finished that project no sweat.

Idioms Describing Success

    • Home run – A great success. Example: My business presentation was a home run with the executives.
    • Hit it out of the park – To achieve outstanding success. Example: Our marketing campaign really hit it out of the park this quarter.
    • Strike gold – To suddenly become very successful or lucky. Example: I struck gold when I landed that high-paying client.
    • On cloud nine – Feeling extremely happy and successful. Example: Getting promoted left me on cloud nine.

Idioms Describing Failure

English Idioms Describing Failure

    • Miss the boat – To be too late, or to miss out on something. Example: I missed the boat for getting tickets to that concert.
    • Crash and burn – To fail spectacularly. Example: Unfortunately, my business idea crashed and burned.
    • Back to the drawing board – When something fails and you have to start over. Example: Our experiment failed, so it’s back to the drawing board.
    • Barking up the wrong tree – Looking for something in the wrong place, or accusing the wrong person. Example: I thought John stole my wallet, but I was barking up the wrong tree.

Idioms Describing Speech

    • Mum’s the word – To keep something secret or confidential. Example: Mum’s the word on the surprise party.
    • Spill the beans – To reveal a secret. Example: I’m sorry I spilled the beans about your promotion.
    • Zip it – Tell someone to be quiet. Example: Zip it, the teacher is coming!
    • Shoot the breeze – Chatting casually about unimportant matters. Example: We spent an hour just shooting the breeze.

Idioms Describing Decisions

    • Flip a coin – Making a random choice between two options. Example: This is a tough call, let’s just flip a coin.
    • Go with your gut – Trust your instinct or intuition. Example: I’m going to go with my gut and take the job.
    • Sit on the fence – Avoid making a firm decision. Example: John is sitting on the fence about whether to move.
    • Ball is in your court – Waiting for someone else to make the next move or decision. Example: I made my offer, now the ball is in your court.

Idioms About Money

English Idioms About Money

    • Costs an arm and a leg – Very expensive. Example: This handbag costs an arm and a leg.
    • A penny for your thoughts – Asking what someone is thinking. Example: A penny for your thoughts? You look worried.
    • Money doesn’t grow on trees – Used to say money is difficult to get. Example: I’d love to buy a new car, but money doesn’t grow on trees.
    • Filthy rich – Extremely wealthy. Example: After he sold his company, he became filthy rich.

Idioms Describing Relationships

    • Get along like a house on fire – To have an exceptionally good relationship. Example: Those two get along like a house on fire.
    • Feel like a third wheel – Feeling awkward being the extra person in a group. Example: I felt like a third wheel on their date.
    • Drive someone up the wall – To irritate or annoy someone. Example: My brother’s loud music drives me up the wall!
    • Labor of love – Doing something for the happiness it brings rather than payment. Example: He sees coaching as a labor of love.

How to Use Idioms Properly

Now that we’ve gone over some of the most common idioms, let’s look at some tips for using them correctly:

  • Know the precise meaning – Make sure you understand exactly what an idiom means before using it. Don’t guess.
  • Use them in the right context – Idioms only make sense when used in the appropriate situation or scenario. For example, “back to the drawing board” is best suited to describing failure.
  • Don’t overuse them – Using too many idioms can make your speech or writing sound clunky or awkward. Sprinkle them in naturally.
  • Keep to common idioms – When in doubt, stick to more widely used idiomatic expressions. Obscure idioms may confuse listeners or readers.
  • Avoid literal translations – Some idioms translate literally into other languages. However, the figurative meaning often does not carry over. Use caution when using idioms with non-native speakers.
  • Consider your audience – Be thoughtful about your choice of idioms. More informal expressions like “no sweat” may not be suitable for certain audiences.

Using Idioms in Conversation

Idioms are especially common in spoken English. Incorporating popular idiomatic phrases into your conversations can make you sound more fluent and natural. Here are some tips for using idioms in everyday speech:

  • Listen for idioms when talking with native English speakers. Take note of new expressions.
  • Start by using very common idioms like “no sweat” or “piece of cake” that most people will recognize.
  • Rehearse idioms before using them in important situations so you can recall them easily.
  • Introduce idioms slowly into your speech. Don’t use multiple unfamiliar ones in one sentence.
  • Explain idioms the first time you use them if the meaning might be unclear. For example, “John really struck gold (had great success) with his new business.”
  • Remember that tone of voice and context also helps convey the meaning.
  • Ask native speakers for clarification if you hear an unfamiliar idiom. Many have obscure origins.

Mastering a selection of go-to idioms can really take your English fluency to the next level. Idioms give you a concise way to express concepts that might otherwise require several words. They allow you to add humor, color and vividness to your conversations.

Using Idioms in Writing

Idioms are also frequently found in written English, from literature to news articles to social media. Incorporating the right idioms can make your writing sound more natural and flowing. Here are some tips for writing with idioms:

  • Use idioms you are very familiar with. Relying on obscure expressions you barely understand can backfire.
  • Keep idioms simple in formal writing. Save more informal speech idioms like “no sweat” for casual contexts.
  • Avoid cliche idioms that sound stale and overused, like “every cloud has a silver lining.”
  • Consider the overall tone you want to set with your word choice. Humorous idioms aren’t always appropriate.
  • Introduce the idiom clearly the first time you use it. For example, “John was barking up the wrong tree (accusing the wrong person) when he blamed Matt.”
  • Weave idioms smoothly into the sentence structure. They should fit the grammar and syntax.
  • Don’t overload your text with idioms. Use them selectively for maximum impact.
  • Remember that idioms don’t translate literally across languages. Explain them for clarity.

Idioms spice up formal and informal writing alike. A thoughtful use of idiomatic expressions can engage readers and lend a conversational flair. Idioms should complement your writing style, not distract from it.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using Idioms

While idioms are a great tool, take care to avoid these common idiom mistakes:

  • Using an idiom incorrectly. Always look up unfamiliar idioms before applying them.
  • Overusing idioms and cliches in your speech. This can sound awkward or insincere.
  • Using idioms incongruously with the tone and context. Make sure they fit seamlessly.
  • Translating idioms literally into other languages. This often changes or obscures the meaning.
  • Introducing multiple new or obscure idioms at once. Stick to common expressions.
  • Assuming the listener is familiar with the idiom. Clarify the meaning if there’s any uncertainty.
  • Forgetting syntax and letting the idiom disrupt the grammar of a sentence.
  • Mixing idioms illogically. For example, “We’ll cross that road when we get there” makes little sense.

Avoiding these common idiom pitfalls will help ensure you use them to maximum effect. Always double-check idioms before applying them in important documents or speeches. With care, idioms can beautifully enhance your language.

Key Takeaways

  • Idioms and phrases are fixed expressions with figurative meanings beyond the literal.
  • Using idioms properly can make your speech and writing more engaging and natural.
  • Know the precise idiom meaning before applying it. Rely on common, widely used expressions.
  • Introduce idioms smoothly into sentences and conversations. Avoid awkward grammar disruptions.
  • Don’t overuse idioms. Sprinkle them in thoughtfully and only where appropriate.
  • Take care not to translate idioms literally into other languages, as meanings often differ.
  • Consult references to avoid misusing unfamiliar idioms or cliches. Understand the context where an idiom works best.

Idioms and phrases enrich English with color and character. Mastering the most popular idioms will boost your fluency and conversational skills. With proper usage, idioms can beautifully enhance both your speech and writing.