20 English Idioms and How to Use Them

Many native speakers use idioms without really considering where they come from. They’ve become part of everyday conversation for English people and are a great way to conversate and communicate. As the saying goes, ‘actions speak louder than words’ and using an idiom can illustrate an idea or sentiment in a short and snappy phrase that is recognisable to the person you’re talking to.

An idiom is a popular phrase that is understood amongst most English speakers and has a different meaning from its literal meaning. For example, if someone said, ‘I’m just pulling your leg!’ it might come across as a little strange if you didn’t recognise that what they actually mean is ‘I’m just joking with you!’

The only way to get used to idioms is by listening out for them – generally they will pop up in conversation, films, TV programmes and books so the more you practise, the more familiar with idioms you’ll become.

  1. Hit the books

Meaning: This phrase is used when someone is about to start studying, usually when they have an urgent deadline or test coming up. 

Example: ‘I’m on my way to the library, I’ve got an exam next week – it’s time to hit the books!’

  1. Actions speak louder than words

Meaning: This phrase is used when someone’s words don’t align with what they are doing. For example, someone may tell you they value your time, but if they repeatedly turn up late or don’t show up, you may begin to believe they don’t.

Example: ‘Let me tell you something Paul – this is the last time I trust your words! Actions speak louder than words and your actions keep saying otherwise.’

  1. Kill two birds with one stone

Meaning: To achieve two goals or solve two problems with a single action.

Example: ‘I’ll walk to the shop. I can get some exercise and pick up my food shopping for the week – that way I’ll kill two birds with one stone.’

  1. Once in a blue moon

Meaning: Something that doesn’t happen very often, a rare event or occurrence.

Example: ‘Yes, I do like to enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner. I don’t drink often though, only once in a blue moon’

  1. It takes two to tango

Meaning: This idiom is used to highlight that two people have been involved in a situation or scenario and are therefore both equally responsible.

Example: ‘Hey, don’t blame me! It takes two to tango.’

  1. Ignorance is bliss

Meaning: This means that it can sometimes be better to not know something, e.g., if information is harmful or hurtful, you may prefer not to know.

Example: ‘I found out my favourite writer has some controversial opinions… now I can’t enjoy their books the same. I guess sometimes ignorance is bliss.’

  1. A piece of cake

Meaning: This is used to describe an extremely easy task, something that doesn’t require any effort at all. It could also be replaced with another idiom, ‘a walk in the park’ or ‘a breeze.’

Example: ‘I passed my driving test first time. It was a piece of cake!’

  1. Break a leg

Meaning: A common phrase used to wish someone good luck before a major event, its commonly used in theatre and thought to have originated from there.

Example: ‘I won’t see you until after your show, so I hope it goes well. Break a leg!’

  1. Barking up the wrong tree

Meaning: Barking up the wrong tree means pursuing the wrong line of thought or course of action. If you know someone is wrong, you might tell them they are barking up the wrong tree.

Example: ‘I think the culprit is Claire.’ ‘I’m not fully convinced about that angle. Claire was last seen running by the canal at 3pm… I think you may be barking up the wrong tree.’

  1. Pot calling the kettle black

Meaning: This expression is used to refer to someone who criticises someone else, for something they themselves are guilty of.

Example: ‘You never finish your vegetables!’ ‘I never finish my vegetables? You never finish yours! That sounds like the pot calling the kettle black to me.’

  1. Play it by ear

Meaning: This idiom is used when you don’t plan on sticking to a tight schedule or plan, instead, you’re just going to ‘go with the flow’ and see how things pan out.

Example: ‘What time do you think we will be ready to leave?’ ‘I’m not sure, it depends what time the band finishes. Let’s just play it by ear.’

  1. Under the weather

Meaning: If you’re ‘under the weather’ it means you aren’t feeling very well.

Example: ‘Do you want to come to the pub tonight?’ ‘No thanks, I’m staying home tonight. I feel a bit under the weather and I need to rest.’

  1. The ball is in your court

Meaning: This idiom doesn’t have anything to do with sports! People use it when they are giving the other person responsibility to make the decision.

Example: ‘I’ve invited you to dinner, but I don’t want to put any more pressure on you so, the ball is in your court!’

  1. Spill the beans

Meaning: This is a casual phrase used when someone wants to know a secret!

Example: ‘How was your night? Come on, spill the beans!’

  1. Through thick and thin

Meaning: Sticking by someone ‘through thick and thin’ means you are extremely loyal to that person or cause. People generally use the idiom to talk about their friends or family.

Example: ‘We’ve been friends for a long time. We’ve stuck together through thick and thin.’

  1. On the fence

Meaning: This is when you are not really sure about something e.g. you haven’t quite decided which side of the fence you are on.

Example: ‘I’m on the fence about going to the party, I’ll let you know later.’

  1. Take it with a pinch of salt

Meaning: This means don’t take things too seriously, or don’t believe everything you hear.

Example: ‘John told me he got accepted to study at Oxford University next year but he failed most of his exams.’ ‘Hmmm, I’m not sure I trust John – I would take what he says with a pinch of salt.’

  1. See eye to eye

Meaning: When you see eye to eye it means you agree with someone. It is often used in a negative form e.g. ‘I don’t think we can see eye to eye.’

Example: ‘After hours and hours of passionate debate, something shifted in the room. Sarah and Tom finally began to see eye to eye.’

  1. Elephant in the room

Meaning: An elephant in the room is a known fact in the room that goes unspoken, either out of politeness or awkwardness. The ‘elephant in the room’ is usually something embarrassing or undesirable that people ignore out of politeness or their own fear of embarrassment.

Example: ‘Her ex-husband was there, but they both pretended they didn’t know each other. Their dual presence became the elephant in the room.’

  1. Plenty of fish in the sea

Meaning: This means there’s lots of people out there in the world, so you shouldn’t worry about losing one person. The idiom is commonly used when someone breaks up with their partner, it’s a phrase of encouragement to tell them that they will meet someone new in time.

Example: ‘I’m sorry things didn’t work out but try not to worry so much. There’s plenty of fish in the sea.’

So, do how do I use English idioms effectively?

Sometimes idioms can be used to express a feeling or sentiment more effectively than speaking about it literally. The more you speak, hear, write and listen to English, the better you will become at using idioms. With practise, you will be able to memorise different idioms’ meanings, various forms, usage, context and levels of formality. Once you do this, you will become a pro at using idioms in no time.

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