What are the most common English idioms used today? This post lists the 150 most popular idiomatic expressions to help you sound more like a native English speaker! Our A-Z of idioms gives you the meaning of each expression, along with example sentences. Don’t forget to download your free pdf copy of this guide and to practise your skills with the exercises at the end!
An idiom is a phrase or group of words that, when taken together, has a meaning that is different from that of each individual word. To put it another way: idioms cannot be understood literally.
For example, ‘Once in a blue moon’ means ‘when something happens rarely’. So the example sentence: ‘I eat McDonalds once in a blue moon’ doesn’t make any sense when the words are taken literally (you only eat McDonalds when there is a blue moon?!). But when you understand the meaning of the idiom, the sentence makes perfect sense (you don’t often eat McDonalds).
Idioms are very important when learning English because they are used a lot in everyday communication and can help you sound more like a native. To speak and understand conversational English better, learning the correct use of idioms is essential. Idioms also help give character to the language; making it more colourful and interesting.
In this study guide, we’re going to walk you through the most common 150 English idioms used today, with their meanings and example sentences. We will also highlight a few outdated idioms that you should avoid, and give you some exercises to practise your understanding.
Something that appears bad at first but ends up having good results
Missing that plane turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I got to spend more time with my family.
A humorous way of saying someone is stupid or is a bit mad
He brought only shorts and t-shirts when he went to Sweden in the winter – I think he might be a sandwich short of a picnic!
Something is very close or near
Luckily the wedding is just a stone’s throw from our hotel so we can walk there.
What you do is more important than what you say; someone’s words may not be trustworthy
Person A: “John keeps saying he wants to take me out for dinner, but then he never does!”
Person B: “Actions speak louder than words.“
When someone does something to make a bad situation worse
When Sarah started laughing during the argument, it really added fuel to the fire!
To make a bad situation worse
As if breaking my arm isn’t bad enough, to add insult to injury I have to pay £1,000 in hospital fees as I didn’t have travel insurance!
To be eagerly waiting to hear about something
Person A: “I have to tell you about what happened on our trip to Spain…”
Person B: “I’m all ears!”
To be at a point in your life when you need to make an important decision
I was at a crossroads when I was offered a job in the US, but my boyfriend wanted to stay in London.
To be wrong or misguided about the reason for something
He thinks the company’s problems can be solved just by firing the sales team, but he’s barking up the wrong tree.
To talk about unimportant things because you’re avoiding a particular topic
Stop beating about the bush! Are you planning to quit university, or not?
It’s better to do something late than not at all
Person A: “Sorry I missed your birthday! There’s a card in the post.”
Person B: “Don’t worry. Better late than never!”
To be in a difficult situation where both options are bad
Person A: “If I go to the wedding mum will be upset, but if I don’t go then I’ll be letting down the rest of the family!”
Person B: “Sounds like you’re caught between a rock and a hard place.”
To do too much or take something on that is too difficult
Person A: “I’m going to start that weekend job at the museum on top of my full-time job because I really need the money.”
Person B: “Sounds like a lot of work! Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
To decide to do something that is difficult or unpleasant, but necessary
You’re going to have to bite the bullet and tell your ex-(girlfriend) that you need the apartment back.
To do something that helps you get rid of stress, energy or anger
After my meeting with the boss, I went for a run to blow off steam.
To say that a set of instructions or task is simple or easy
To make the salad dressing, you just put oil, vinegar, honey and mustard into a bowl, mix them together and bob’s your uncle!
Something that is very ordinary or basic, nothing special
Despite the excellent reviews, we thought the restaurant was just bog-standard.
Work that has been done badly, in a clumsy, lazy way
The original builders did such a bodge job of our kitchen that we had to get it completely redone.
An informal way of asking someone to move to make room for you
Could you budge up a bit so I can sit down?
Strongly-brewed English breakfast tea with milk
I’ll have a builder’s tea, please.
To refuse to think about or confront serious issues or situations
Martin just buries his head in the sand when it comes to his financial problems.
To work very hard on something, or to harass someone
I was busting my chops all night to get that report finished!
Stop busting my chops! I’ll mow the lawn later.
Note: In British English slang, the word ‘chops’ is used to mean ‘mouth’. So the idiom above literally means ‘punch in the mouth’.
To narrowly succeed in doing something
The traffic was terrible so we only made the plane by the skin of our teeth!
To state the truth about something even if it’s unpopular or unpleasant
I know he’s your brother, but let’s call a spade a spade: he’s pretty lazy.
To stop working on something
It’s almost 9pm. I think we should call it a day and finish the report tomorrow.
When something is inexpensive or good value for money
It doesn’t look it, but our new sofa was (as) cheap as chips!
Information or rumours that have been passed on by many people and are no longer reliable
John and Maggie from the office haven’t actually announced they’re getting a divorce. It’s probably just Chinese whispers.
To hold a grudge/be angry about something that happened in the past, or to be arrogant and think too highly of oneself
Whenever we mention his childhood, he gets really angry. He’s got a chip on his shoulder about it.
The new sales guy at the office has a real chip on his shoulder. He’s not even that good!
To become silent or stop talking
When Bill came into the room, Jenny just seemed to clam up. I think she likes him!
To get nervous or to have second thoughts about doing something
He’s getting cold feet about the wedding, but I told him that was perfectly normal.
To deliberately ignore someone
I got the cold shoulder from Anna at the party. I guess she’s still annoyed with me.
When something is very expensive
That Italian meal cost a bomb! We won’t be going back there, unless we win the lottery!
When something is very expensive
The new bar in town was really fancy, but my drink cost an arm and a leg!
A lazy person who doesn’t do much exercise and spends a lot of time on the sofa watching television
My husband has turned into a couch potato since he lost his job.
To show indifference to something or a total lack of interest
I couldn’t care less if Harry comes out tonight or not! I don’t really like the guy.
A warning that being inquisitive or curious can get you into trouble
Person A: “Where are you going at this time of night?”
Person B: “Curiosity killed the cat!”
To get to the point, to not include unnecessary detail
To cut a long story short, she has to move back to the US until her new visa comes through.
To do something in the easiest way possible (usually not very well) in order to save time or money
We had to cut corners to get the project done within our budget and by January.
To avoid being critical or judgmental of someone (even if they deserve it)
Person A: “Hannah’s late for the second time this week!”
Person B: “Cut her some slack! The traffic’s awful this morning.”
To get directly to the point when speaking, to not give unnecessary detail
I have to leave in a minute so can you cut to the chase? What exactly do you want me to do?
To refuse to do something or change your mind, especially when people are trying to persuade you
I wanted to go on the earlier train, but Mary dug her heels in so we had to get the later one.
A situation that is very competitive, where people are willing to harm each other’s interests to get ahead
The music industry is dog eat dog these days.
I’d stay out of the legal sector. It can be a cut throat business.
Used in a humorous way to tell someone they’re not very good at something
Person A: “What do you think of the haircut I gave Hannah?”
Person B: “Don’t give up the day job, mate!”
A warning not to put all your resources or efforts into just one thing
Although you’ve made an offer on this house, I would still visit some others. You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket.
A warning not to try something difficult before you understand the basics
If you’re not very good at swimming, I’d stay in the shallow end and keep close to the side. You don’t want to run before you can walk.
In a very challenging situation you need to take extreme actions
She moved to Australia after she found out about her husband’s affair. I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures!
To slow down or do something slowly/carefully
Easy does it! Those boxes you’re holding are very fragile.
To be extremely hungry
I am so hungry I could eat a horse.
An important and obvious topic that everyone knows needs to be discussed, but that isn’t brought up or mentioned
David leaving the company was the elephant in the room during that meeting – no one wanted to bring it up!
Even a bad situation may have a positive aspect to it
I might have lost my job, but at least I don’t have that awful journey into work every day. Every cloud…!
To accept responsibility for something bad you have done
I’m meeting Hannah tonight and it’s the first time I’ll have seen her since our argument. I guess I’ll finally have to face the music.
To adjust or settle into a new environment or situation
I’ve only been at the new company for a month so I’m still finding my feet.
To be involved or have influence in many things (often has a negative association)
Person A: “Steve offered to sell me some secondhand TVs and holiday to Spain!”
Person B: “That guy’s got a finger in every pie!”
When someone is (or feels) out of place in a situation
Judy was like a fish out of water at the kids’ party. I don’t think she likes children at all!
To be in good physical health
He’s in his 90’s, but he’s fit as a fiddle!
To do the same as someone else did before you (often a family member)
All the men in my family are doctors so I’ll probably follow in their footsteps and go into medicine too.
To become very angry, scared or excited (can be negative or positive)
I freaked out when I saw The Rolling Stones perform. I’d wanted to see them my whole life!
That Goth at the club freaked me out a bit because he was dressed like a vampire!
Someone who is energetic, lively or enthusiastic
You’re full of beans this evening! You must have had a good day at work.
When someone won’t stop criticising, bothering or telling you what to do
I wish she would get off my back about the meeting! I know I have to send the agenda out, but I’ll do it in my own time.
To become difficult to control
The protest got out of hand and the police had to intervene when some demonstrators broke down a fence.
To overcome or move on from a difficult situation
Moving out of the city for a while might help you get over Harry. (This could be the breakup of a personal relationship/marriage, or the person’s death)
Do something you have wanted to do so that you can then move on from it
I don’t drink much anymore; I got it out of my system when I was at university!
To wake up in a grumpy or bad mood for no obvious reason
You’re very argumentative today! Did you get up on the wrong side of bed, or something?
To take action in order to be more effective
I haven’t got any work done this morning – I really need to get my act together!
To believe or trust what someone tells you (even though it might not be true)
Hannah said she missed the exam because her car broke down. I’m not sure that was the case, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.
To be happy that you no longer have to deal with someone
I was very glad to see the back of John because he made the atmosphere in the office so uncomfortable.
Start planning something again because earlier attempts were unsuccessful
The client didn’t like our original concept so let’s go back to the drawing board!
To suddenly and completely stop using an addictive substance
I gave up smoking by going cold turkey; it was difficult but it was also the only thing that worked for me.
To take a particular course of action, both literally and figuratively
Let’s not go down that road again! It always leads to an argument.
To make more effort than is expected or necessary
Frank is a great asset to our team as he always goes the extra mile.
To mean a person is never satisfied with their own situation, they always think others have it better
I always think the countryside looks nicer than the city, but I guess the grass is always greener…!
To be good at gardening, able to make plants grow
I’ve heard you have green fingers – we’ll have to get your advice about our garden!
To persist with something, to not give up
Hang in there! I know it’s tough but you’re almost halfway through the course.
To be able to see or sense what’s going on all around you, when you can’t physically see everyhing
You need eyes in the back of your head when you have two small children!
To be extremely in love with someone
They’re head over heels in love with each other!
To hear news about something from someone else, not directly
I heard (it) on the grapevine that you and Alex are splitting up. Is that true?
To start studying seriously
After dinner I’m really going to hit the books. Not much time left before my exams!
To be completely right or correct about something
I think Lucy hit the nail on the head when she said there’s no such thing as an ideal school. There are pros and cons to all of them.
To leave somewhere or start a journey
It’s getting late so I’m going to hit the road.
To go to bed in order to sleep
It’s been a long day so I’m going to hit the sack. Night night!
Another way of saying ‘Wait a moment’ or ‘don’t rush’
Person A: ‘The train’s at 9. Grab the bags, find your shoes and call a taxi!’
Person B: ‘Hold your horses! We’ve got plenty of time.’
Sometimes it’s better not to know all the facts about something
Person A: “Did you know that cake you just ate was 600 calories?”
Person B: “I didn’t…ignorance is bliss!”
To say something isn’t very complicated
You just need to fill in the form and you’ll get an e-ticket. It’s not rocket science!
To join an activity, trend or opinion that has become popular
Everyone thinks Boris is going to win the election so they’ve jumped on the bandwagon.
To leave or abandon a difficult situation
I don’t think the company is going to survive. We should probably jump ship!
To encourage someone to stay positive in a difficult situation
It’s been a difficult month for you but keep your chin up! It will get easier.
To achieve two things at once
I could pick up the dry cleaning on my way the doctors. That way we’d be killing two birds with one stone.
To do everything you can to achieve something
During firm’s the financial audit they left no stone unturned.
To leave a situation as it is, in order to not make it worse
Don’t bring up what happened at Alison’s party again. You should just let it lie.
To avoid being punished for something or to avoid doing something
It was my turn to do the washing-up, but mum let me off the hook because I wasn’t feeling well.
To reveal a secret by accident
Their engagement was meant to be a secret, but Adam let the cat out of the bag!
To look very good, often due to what you’re wearing
You look like a million dollars in that black dress!
No longer able to do something as well as you could before
I tried to chat a girl up at the bar the other night, but she just ignored me. I must be losing my touch!
To be slow and not take an opportunity when it’s offered to you
I would call the company back now about the job and not wait until the morning. You don’t want to miss the boat!
To stop something at an early stage, before it has a chance to develop
I’ve noticed that people are starting to arrive late for work. I think we need to have a meeting about it and nip this in the bud before it becomes a real problem.
You need to suffer or work hard to get what you want or deserve
Person A: “That gym class was so hard I thought I was going to pass out!”
Person B: “No pain, no gain!”
An easy decision, something you don’t need to think too hard about
Person A: “Do you think I should get travel insurance before I go to Nigeria?” Person B: “That’s a no-brainer. Of course you should!”
Something you don’t like or are not interested in
She’s a great cook, but the meal she made really wasn’t my cup of tea. It was far too spicy.
Someone who acts very strangely, seems crazy or insane
You must be off your trolley if you think I’m going to climb up there! It’s way too high!
From memory, without a lot of thought or consideration
Off the top of my head I think we’re expecting about 18 guests for the party, but I’ll check to make sure.
To be alert, quick to understand and react to things
You really need to be on the ball in this job because it’s fast-paced with lots happening all the time.
To go out with the intention of finding someone to have sex with
Those lads on the dance floor look like they’re on the pull tonight!
To live in a way that is honest and moral, to stay out of trouble
He was very wild for many years, but he seems to have grown up and he’s on the straight and narrow now.
Something that happens rarely
I eat McDonalds once in a blue moon, when I feel like a treat!
Something that is very easy
My English exam was a piece of cake.
Something that will never happen or is very unlikely
Person A: “I’m going to play tennis at Wimbledon one day!”
Person B: “And pigs might fly!”
To join in, contribute or help with something
If we all pitch in we can get Charlie a really nice birthday present.
To plan something in an improvised way (instead of planning ahead), deciding what to do as the plan develops
Person A: “Shall we have dinner before or after the cinema on Friday?”
Person B: “Perhaps we should just play it by ear – we don’t know how hungry we’ll be.”
Tease or joke with someone by saying something that’s not true
You’re pulling my leg! I don’t believe you met Elton John at the pub!
To regain control of your emotions after you’ve been upset, to calm down
You need to pull yourself together! Stop worrying about work so much.
To make an effort to improve at something or perform better
You’ll need to raise your game if you’re planning on beating Anna’s time in the half marathon.
When something seems familiar or you’ve heard it before
Person A: “Do you know Hannah Stewart?”
Person B: “That name does ring a bell, but I can’t think why.”
To do or say something that could cause a problem or disturbance
The kids are all getting along fine at the moment so let’s not rock the boat.
Judging a situation by experience rather than an exact assessment
As a rule of thumb, you should use two cups of water for one cup of rice.
To do someone a favour in the hope that it will be returned, can relate to corruption (commonly used as: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours)
My boss got caught taking free holidays from a company client! I think it was a case of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”.
To agree with someone
We don’t see eye to eye when it comes to politics, but I do like her as a person.
To reveal information about something or to clarify something
You were in the office on Tuesday when the incident took place so perhaps you could shed some light on it for us?
To speak honestly and directly or to react to a situation very quickly without thinking it through
Person A: “What do you think we should do about Harry’s poor sales this quarter?”
Person B: “If I can shoot from the hip, I’d say he probably needs to leave.”
To adopt a position of compromise, take neither stance on an issue, not yes or no
There are a lot of people still sitting on the fence over Brexit.
To wait patiently
Sit tight! The nurse will be with you in just a moment.
To delay making a decision for a short period of time
You don’t have to decide straight away. Why don’t you sleep on it and let us know in the morning?
To suspect someone is a traitor, behaving illegally or is up to no good
I thought I could smell a rat when john refused to give me a straight answer about his sales figures! Now we know he’s been stealing from the company.
To express satisfaction with how a situation is progressing
Person A: “How is the building work going?”
Person B: “So far, so good…the house is still standing!”
Something that prevents or disrupts an event from happening
We had invited everyone round for a BBQ today, but the rain has really thrown a spanner in the works!
Said when the person you are talking about appears unexpectedly
Did you hear about what happened to Michael? …Oh speak of the devil, here he is!
To reveal information that was secret
We are throwing David a surprise birthday party, but please don’t spill the beans!
To spend a lot of money on something
We splashed out on new phones for the whole family.
To betray or hurt someone who trusts you
This industry is so competitive; it’s easy to get stabbed in the back by your closest colleagues.
To take attention or praise away from someone else’s accomplishments by outdoing them with your own
My sister is always stealing my thunder – I announce I’m getting married and she tells everyone she’s pregnant!
To refuse to change your mind or beliefs about something
I really respect Sarah. She always sticks to her guns, even if others disagree.
Information straight from the person who saw, heard or experienced the event
Person A: “Are you sure Andy is quitting his job?”
Person B: “Positive. I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth!”
To make fun of someone, or to take liberties
Dave’s a laugh, but he always taking the mickey out of you down the pub.
£4 for a cup of coffee? They must be taking the pi*s!
To doubt the accuracy of what someone is telling you
I would take Sam’s motoring advice with a pinch of salt. He doesn’t actually know much about cars.
When someone does something unpleasant and the same is wished on him/her
My boss is a real bully. Someone should give her a taste of her own medicine!
It is up to you to take the initiative or make the next move
I’ve told you how I feel about the wedding so the ball’s in your court now.
Where you can enjoy the advantages of two different things at the same time – an ideal situation
He lives in England during the summer and lives in Australia during the winter months so he gets the best of both worlds.
The last in a series of bad things to happen, when your patience has run out
When the dog destroyed their antique furniture it really was the final straw. After that, they decided to give poor Rex away.
To continue to support someone even during difficult times
John and Chloe have stayed together through thick and thin.
When you’re enjoying something time seems to move faster and you don’t notice the passing of time
I can’t believe it’s 10pm already! Time flies when you’re having fun!
To convince someone to do what you want them to
I didn’t want to go out tonight, but Ruth twisted my arm!
Not feeling very well, a little sick
Sarah’s not going to come out tonight. She’s had a busy week and is feeling under the weather.
A decision or plan is uncertain or unsure
Person A: “Are they still getting married?”
Person B: “We don’t know as it’s all up in the air at the moment.”
If you use what you have to the full, then you won’t desire or need more
Person A: “Are you going to finish those carrots on your plate?”
Person B: “If not, I’ll have them. Waste not, want not!”
To deal with something when it happens rather than worrying about it before
Person A: “What if there’s bad traffic on the motorway?”
Person B: “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it“.
A hopeless pursuit, something that is unattainable
We were told that if we searched the library archives we might get some answers, but it turned out to be a wild goose chase.
Dislike or would never do something
I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing those shoes – they’re so ugly!
To understand something that is complicated or shocking
I can’t wrap my head around why Megan would leave London for Rotherham!
To agree with someone
Person A: “It’s absolutely boiling in here!”
Person B: “You can say that again!”
Warning not to judge someone or something just based on appearance
Person A: “I’ve only met Richard a couple of times, but he seems a bit shy.”
Person B: “You can’t always judge a book by its cover. He’s actually a really outgoing guy once you get to know him!”
To have no idea about something
Person A: “Do you think Ivan is going to remember all 150 idioms in this guide?!”
Person B: “Your guess is as good as mine!”
Choose the correct option that best expresses the meaning of the idioms below.
Watch out because in one of the exercises two answers are possible!
Choose the appropriate idiomatic expression for the sentences below:
|Task A||Task B. I||Task B. II||Task C|
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Lay and Lie are both verbs (actions). They have similar meanings, but lay means ‘put something on a surface carefully’ – e.g. Chloe lays her clothes on the bed. Lie means ‘move into a horizontal position (independently)’ – e.g. Sarah lies on the sofa after work. Simple rule: Lay (put something down flat) vs. Lie (get into a horizontal position).
Warning! We are not talking about the verb lie that means ‘to tell an untruth’. Here, we are only interested in lie – movement into a horizontal position. Continue reading