So many intermediate to advanced students have the same complaint about trying to become more fluent in their English speaking and listening:

‘...I cannot understand everything they [native English speakers] say. They talk so fast in public and use expressions I can’t understand…’

This is probably true. Most people speak very quickly in their native language and foreign students have to practice listening/speaking for a long time to get adept.

However, learning expressions can be easier. Moreover, they can be fun. English speakers have long enjoyed using certain combinations of words to express all kinds of feelings. Students that have been through the rigours of English grammar and vocabulary classes can learn expressions called idioms, and put them into practice to better improve their overall fluency.

Here are fifteen common English idioms that are regularly used and have specific meanings:

 

Idiom

Meaning

Example

Burn the midnight oil

To stay up late and work, like an old oil lamp left on all night

Jenna was up burning the midnight oil reading her political theory books. She loves that stuff.

Off the hook

Related to a fish escaping a fishing hook, someone gets away from a typically bad situation

Since Counselor Davis wasn’t involved with the government corruption scandal, he was the only one in his office that got off the hook.

Hit the nail on the head

To be exact and specific

I think investor Charles Munger always hits the nail on the head about money ideas because he makes accurate economic forecasts.

Spinning wheels

To be wasting time

The company spun its wheels dealing with that bad contractor.

Pulling one’s leg

A joke, lie, or exaggeration

I knew Karl was pulling my leg about us winning the lottery. I wish he wasn’t though!

Jump ship

Changing locations

The drummer realised his jazz band wasn’t doing well, so he jumped ship to play with a touring rock band to get more work.

Hit the sack

Going to bed

Dad said we have to hit the sack early. We have to be up early to catch our flight to Rome.

Crocodile tears

Fake, exaggerated, and untruthful crying

The judge didn’t believe the defendant’s crocodile tears about how sorry he was.

Ball in one’s court

When a decision needs to be made by someone specific

We left the ball in the CEO’s court about purchasing that small technology firm.

Cut corners

To do something to save money, usually with bad results

Whenever that publishing company cuts corners, they lose good staff and get behind in their deadlines

Sit on the fence

When someone is indecisive

Ken always sits on the fence when Ted and I talk politics. He doesn’t side with any party.

Piece of cake

Something easy

We thought the algebra and geometry exam would be tough but it was a piece of cake.

On the ball

When the situation is well understood

When she was on the sales trip in Shanghai, Corinne was on the ball and sent us updates every day.

Kill two birds with one stone

To accomplish two jobs at once

This year, the Robinsons killed two birds with one stone by getting an accountant to pay their taxes and establish them a pension plan.

Costs an arm and a leg

When something is too expensive

I sold my city house and bought some property out in the country. It costs an arm and a leg to live in the city now.

 

As one might expect, there are many more idioms to learn.

To learn more idioms and expressions:

  1. Search out ‘idioms and expressions’ online. There are many, many websites available as reference.
  2. Read street-wise fiction, such as Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn or John Fante’s Ask the Dust. Also try the detective novels of James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett. They are exciting and have many comical idioms in crime scenarios.
  3. Watch English language films, such as crime films, comedies, or westerns. The dialogue in these films often use idiomatic expressions, often centric to the English-speaking country of origin.
  4. Register at The Language Gallery’s General English classes, Speaking Skills elective, and English for Work to learn more idioms in a classroom setting. 
  5. Check out our post on the most popular English idioms at work.