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English idioms

English idioms are used in speech or when writing informally. Many English speakers use idioms – certain phrases or expressions that may be difficult to understand.

English idioms are best used in a more ‘relaxed’ type of speech or communication.

English idioms are expressions that have a meaning of their own, and where understanding all of the individual words doesn’t necessarily mean you will understand an idiom.

For example, the idiom ‘a can of worms’ actually has nothing to do with cans or worms – it means when a decision or action produces considerable subsequent problems, often much more than was expected.

Here are some common English idioms though there are many, many more!

At the drop of a hatWithout hesitation, immediately.She would help me at the drop of a hat, she is such a great friend.
Beat around the bush Avoid the important issue.Please don’t beat around the bush! Just tell me if there is something for me to worry about or not.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bushHaving something for certain is better than risking it for more as you may lose both.John won $100 dollars at cards last night. They wanted him to gamble again to win more, but he decided that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush so he kept the money.
Blood, sweat and tearsA lot of effort and hard workIt took a lot of blood, sweat and tears for him to get to the top of the mountain.
Best of both worldsHave all advantagesMy job is both well paid and flexible – I have the best of both worlds.
Ball park figureA rough estimate; approximationThey haven’t calculated precisely, but they suggested a ball park figure of nearly $2 million.
Catch someone red handedTo see or catch somebody in the middle of commiting a crime.He was just climbing through the window with the jewellery in his pocket when the police arrived. He was caught red handed!
Catch 22A frustrating situation – you cannot do the first thing until the second thing is done, but you cannot do the second thing unless the first is done.I can’t get a job without a driving licence, and I can’t afford a driving licence unless I have a job. It’s a Catch 22 situation.
Cut cornersSomething is not done properly (to save money)If they hadn’t cut corners, the accident wouldn’t have occurred.
Draw the lineDeciding when a person or an action has gone too far.I don’t mind you borrowing the car, but I draw the line at you not returning it all weekend.
Devil’s advocateTo present a counter argument.It’s good that he plays devil’s advocate – it makes us think about all possibilities.
Elbow greaseHard work or physical effortThe best way to clean the floor is hot soapy water and a lot of elbow grease.
Far cry from Very different fromThe reality of the situation is a far cry from what they wanted to achieve.
Give the benefit of the doubtBelieve what someone says without proof I always like to give people the benefit of the doubt – it’s better than not trusting anyone.
Get a kick out of (something)To find something funny or entertainingI really get a kick out of playing computer games.
Have a whale of a timeTo have a lot of fun. I had a whale of a time at the party on Saturday!
In the heat of the momentOverwhelmed by present circumstances.She didn’t mean it, she said it in the heat of the moment.
Jump on the bandwagonJoin a popular trend or activity.Other companies are jumping on the bandwagon as it is proving to be such a popular idea.
Judge a book by its coverTo assume something based on appearance.“See that man over there, with the old t-shirt and torn jeans? He’s actually a millionaire!” “Really? Well, I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover!”
Keep (your) eye on the ball To stay focussed, give something full attention.His boss advised him that he really needed to keep his eye on the ball if he wanted to succeed.
Let off steamRelieve strong / negative feelings without hurting others.I had to let off steam and tell them what I really thought rather than keep it all to myself.The children ran around in the playground and let off some steam after studying hard all morning.
Last strawFinal problem in a series of problemsThis is the last straw! I need to leave and look for a new job, I’ve had enough.
Make up (your) mindTo make a decisionShe still hasn’t decided what dress to wear – I wish she’d make up her mind!
On the ball Understand a situation well The new boss is so on the ball – he’s so efficient.
Once in a blue moonHappens very rarely. You were so lucky to win that. That happens once in a blue moon!
Over the moonTo be very excited or happyHe had a new car for his birthday and he’s over the moon with it!
Piece of cakeDone easilyThat exam was a piece of cake! I’m sure I’ve done well.
Pass the buckNot taking responsibility; passing the blame to someone else.Nobody admitted it was their fault – they just passed the buck and told me to contact customer service.
See eye to eyeBe in agreement with someone They have never seen eye to eye and are always disagreeing.
Sit on the fenceDoes not want to choose or make a decision.You really can’t sit on the fence, we need to know what you really think we should do.
To hear something straight from the horse’s mouthHear something from someone of authorityDon’t listen to office gossip, ask the boss and get the information straight from the horse’s mouth!

Click here to try the English idioms exercises.

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