Commonly Used English Idioms
Commonly used English idioms are those idioms that we hear across our daily life conversation. Native speaker use them frequently in their conversation. Sometime it is difficult for non-native speaker to comprehend the context of idiom. It is not possible for someone to remember all the English idioms but if you learn commonly used English idioms, you can survive in native English speaking community.
What are idioms?
Idioms are the most commonly used words that we read and hear across our daily life conversation. Idioms are the group of the words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words. Idioms do not match with surface meaning of the words but these are used very consciously in context of the conversation.
Commonly used English idioms
- A hot potato
Meaning: A difficult task or something difficult to deal
Example: Learning how to drive a car is not a hot potato.
- A piece of cake
Meaning: Something that is very easy. (1)
Example: The quiz was a piece of cake (very easy) so all of the students passed it with an A grade.
- Acid test
Meaning: To prove the effectiveness of something.
Example: I already know how to compute decimals but the acid test will come when our Math professor will conduct assessment orally.
- Add insult to injury
Meaning: To make a bad situation more badly.
Example: Father was angry, and then, to add insult to injury, younger brother broke the window pan.
- Add fuels to the flames
Meaning: Say something that makes a difficult situation even worse.
Example: Raul forgot Ali’s debt, and his excuses only added fuel to the flames.
- An arm and a leg
Meaning: A lot of money.
Example: It is the best car to buy, but it will cost you an arm and a leg.
- At the drop of a hat
Meaning: Instantly; without any hesitation
Example: Ali was ready to play a match at the drop of a hat.
- Back-room boys
Meaning: People who perform important work but have no contact with the public.
Example: Johnny Manahan and the writers of the show are the back room boys that deserve more applause than the artists performing on stage.
- Blow up in face
Meaning: This refers to a situation when a plan or project suddenly fails.
Example: It was difficult to be on time in the venue. It blew up in the face when the bus didn’t arrive on time at the station.
- Back to the drawing board
Meaning: Starting something again.
Example: We loss this match, but now we are back to the drawing board.
- Ball is in your court.
Meaning: It is your turn to take step
Example: I have given my opinion, now the ball is in your court.
- Barking up the wrong tree
Meaning: Accusing the wrong person; looking in the wrong place.
Example: He did not commit the crime, you’re barking up the wrong tree.
- Be glad to see the back of
Meaning: Being happy to see someone leaving.
Example: I do not want to see her. I’ll be glad to see the back of her.
- Beat around the bush
Meaning: Not speaking directly about the issue.
Example: Tell your problem don’t beat around the bush.
- Best of both the worlds
Meaning: Condition in which one enjoys two different opportunities.
Example: Amina had the advantage of a lecturer and freedom of a student. She had the best of both worlds.
- Best thing since sliced bread
Meaning: A good plan or idea
Example: I prefer your idea. It’s the best thing since sliced bread.
- Blind as a bat
Meaning: Someone whose vision is very poor, or who is unable to see anything.
Example: Sajida is totally dependent on her glasses. Without them, she is as blind as a bat.
- Blind leading the blind
Meaning: A person with very little ability trying to help or guide a person with no ability.
Example: Don’t ask me to help you in your speech. I could hardly speak English words right. I don’t want to be blind leading the blind.
- Blink of an eye
Meaning: happen nearly instantaneously with hardly enough time to notice it.
Example: Saif just vanished in the blink of an eye.
- Burn the midnight oil
Meaning: To stay up working late at night especially studying.
Example: She’s been burning the midnight oil for the last few days; her hard work will positively pay off in the upcoming exams.
- Chance on one’s arm
Meaning: It is among commonly used English idioms which mean something even though the chances of success are very little.
Example: Considering her height, Tahir knew that there was little chance of her to be casted in Bb. Panabo 2019 but he still decided to chance her arm.
- Cake not worth a candle
Meaning: Something in which results are too less compared to the effort.
Example: Henry studied so hard in English exam but still he got the low score. The cake wasn’t worth the candle.
- Caught between two stools.
Meaning: Difficult to choose between two alternatives.
Example: Tahir had committed to both and now he’s caught between two stools.
- Cook someone’s goose
Meaning – Ruin other person’s chances of success.
Example: Sadia cooks someone’s goose when she failed to answer easy questions in the quiz test.
- Cross that bridge when you come to it.
Meaning: Deal with a problem if and when it becomes necessary.
Example: Ali: I think I need to hire a lawyer – Aalia: Cross that bridge when you come to it.
- Cry over spilled milk
Meaning: To be unhappy about something that cannot be undone.
Example: It can’t be helped, don’t cry over spilled milk.
- Curiosity killed the cat
Meaning: Being too curious can get you into trouble.
Example: Don’t ask about his divorce-curiosity killed the cat!
- Cut corners
Meaning: To take shortcuts; when something is done badly to save money.
Example: They always put quality first; they won’t cut corners just to save money.
- Cut the mustard
Meaning: Perform satisfactorily; to succeed.
Example: We need a better catcher; this one just doesn’t cut the mustard.
- Dead wood
Meaning: people or things which are no longer useful or necessary.
Example: The college acquires new laboratory equipment. They no longer want the dead woods.
- Devil’s advocate
Meaning: To present a counter argument
Example: The professor always played devil’s advocate to provoke discussion in the classroom.
- Don’t give up the day job
Meaning: You’re not very good at something. You could definitely not do it professionally.
Example: Why did you invest in business even after failing in it in the past? Don’t give up the day job!
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
Meaning: Don’t focus all of your attention on one thing or one area.
Example: I know you love Harvard, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Apply to other colleges too.
- Drastic times call for drastic measures
Meaning: When you’re extremely desperate you need to take drastic actions.
Example: Yes we had to let go of five of our workers! Drastic times call for drastic measures.
- Elvis has left the building
Meaning: The show has come to an end. It’s all over.
Example: We waited for another performance by the band but it looked like Elvis had left the building.
- Every cloud has a silver lining
Meaning: Be optimistic, even difficult times will lead to better days.
Example: I’m sorry your business is going badly, but remember every cloud has a silver lining.
- Far cry from
Meaning: A thing that is very different from something else.
Example: What you did was a far cry from what you said you were going to do.
- Feel a bit under the weather
Meaning: Feeling sick or unhealthy.
Example: I’m not coming to office today, I’m feeling a bit under the weather.
- Fast track something
Meaning: Rating something higher on a priority list to achieve the desired result.
Example: In view of the seriousness of the crime, the civil society is pressing up on a fast track decision from the court.
- Flying start
Meaning: something that is immediately successful.
Example: “Praybet Benjamin” hit the box office with a flying start and collected the highest revenue on day 1 of Metro Manila Film Festival.
- Fair-weather friend
Meaning: someone who acts as a friend when times are good, and is not there when you are in trouble.
Example: I thought I could count on Bill, but I’ve discovered he’s just a fair-weather friend.
- Fine-tooth comb
Meaning: examining something carefully so as not to miss out any details.
Example: My thesis adviser examined my report with a fine tooth comb before submitting it to the panel for defence.
- Go up in smoke
Meaning: It is among commonly used English idioms which mean something that ends before getting a result.
Example: His plan of cheating in the exam has gone in smoke after the proctor inspected all the examinees things.
- Go to the dogs
Meaning: Getting comparably less successful than before.
Example: With the inexperience of the SSC president on budgeting, the student council is going to dogs.
- Golden handshake
Meaning: Sum of money given to a person on retirement.
Example: When the company want to cut down on the man power, they usually offer a golden hand shake to many of their aged employees.
- Give the benefit of doubt
Meaning: Believe someone’s statement without proof.
Example: I knew him since the past 5 years, so I gave him the benefit of doubt.
- Hear through the grapevine
Meaning: To hear news from someone who heard that news from someone else
Example: I heard through the grapevine that she’s pregnant.
- Hard as nails
Meaning: It is among commonly used English idioms which mean a person without sentiments and sympathy for anyone.
Example: He has become as hard as a nail after his brother was brutally murdered.
- Hit the nail on the head
Meaning: To do or say exactly the right thing.
Example: You’ve spotted the flaw, Robert. You’ve hit the nail on the head.
- Hit the road running
Meaning: This means to start performing immediately.
Example: She came late that’s why she hit the road running just seconds of her arrival.
- In the heat of the moment
Meaning: Overwhelmed by what’s happening at the moment.
Example: He doesn’t hate you. He just said that in the heat of the moment.
- In the bag
Meaning – Refers to a situation when you are sure that success is sure.
Example: The BPA Team fans rise to yell, the victory seems to be in the bag after the opponent’s best player failed to shoot in last two seconds time.
- Jack of all trades
Meaning: It is among commonly used English idioms which mean a person who can do many different things but is not very good at any one of them.
Example: I can sing, I can dance, I can write, I can act but I do not excel on any of them. Now, I realize that I am a jack of all trades.
- Jump on the bandwagon
Meaning: Join a popular trend or activity.
Example: So many people are playing that game that I might as well jump on the bandwagon and check it out.
- Keep something at bay
Meaning: Keep something away
Example: A good way to keep your anxiety at bay is through meditation.
- Keep up appearances
Meaning: Maintaining an outward show of prosperity or well-being while hiding your difficulties
Example: Her smile and taste of fashion keep up her appearances to her friends and colleagues.
- Kill two birds with one stone
Meaning: To solve two problems at a time with just one action
Example: John practiced his words while peeling the potatoes. He was killing two birds with one stone.
- Last straw
Meaning: The last problem in a series of problems
Example: This is the last straw. I’m calling the police.
- Let slip through fingers
Meaning: Failing to obtain or keep up a good opportunity.
Example: This reporting could be your chance to chosen as the class debater. Please don’t let it slip through your fingers.
- Lick one’s wounds
Meaning: When someone licks one’s wounds, it means that he is trying to regain their confidence or boost up the spirits after a defeat.
Example: Janna is licking her wounds after being dropped from the Deans List.
- Live on the breadline
Meaning: Having very little income.
Example: The war in Kashmir caused many natives live on the breadline.
- Live beyond means
Meaning: spending more money than you can afford.
Example: Carol has a habit of living beyond her means. Most of the times, you will find her borrowing the money from her friends.
- Live in an ivory tower
Meaning: living a lifestyle that saves you from the real world problems.
Example: Jay has problems in dealing with poor people because she has lived in an ivory tower.
- Lump in your throat
Meaning: It is among commonly used English idioms which mean emotion like sadness or gratitude.
Example: I have a lump in my throat seeing my daughter receiving a gold medal today after all the hard years we have in the family.
- Mean business
Meaning: Being serious about what you announce.
Example: We mean business when we posted announcement on the internet site.
- Make or break
Meaning: Circumstances causing total success or total ruin.
Example: Your performance in the Q and A portion will make or break you.
- Make a long story short
Meaning: Come to the point – leave out the details.
Example: And – to make the long story short – I never got back the money I lent him.
- Makes your blood boil
Meaning: It is among commonly used English idioms which mean make someone really angry.
Example: The absence of Pres. Aquino on the arrival of the FALLEN 44 made the Filipinos blood boil.
- Method in the madness
Meaning: A purpose in what one is doing, even though it seems to be crazy.
Example: What I’m doing might seem strange, but there is method in my madness.
- Make a go of
Meaning: This means you are succeeding in your enterprise.
Example: With his hard work and dedication, he has made a go of his new venture.
- Makes your blood run cold
Meaning: If something makes your blood run cold, it means it shocks or scares you a lot.
Example: The tiger look of our English teacher made my blood run cold
- Murphy’s law
Meaning: This means that if anything can go wrong, it will.
Example: Sofia prepared for the worst in the debate but she doesn’t forget the Murphy’s law.
- Miss the boat
Meaning: To miss out on something.
Example: Pay attention, John, or you’ll miss the boat and never learn algebra.
- Not a spark of decency
Meaning: It is among commonly used English idioms which mean a person who has no manners
Example: Her brother has not a spark of decency. I don’t like the way he acts in public.
- Not turn a hair
Meaning: This refers to not exhibiting any emotion where it is expected.
Example: Martha didn’t turn a hair even after her name was called as the Grand Prize Winner.
- On the ball
Meaning: When someone understands a situation well; attentive.
Example: If you were on the ball, this wouldn’t have happened.
- Miss the boat
Meaning: Failure to take advantage of an opportunity because of slow actions.
Example: I wasn’t able to pass my project in advance and failed to earn an early bird bonus points. Submitting late made me miss the boat.
- Oldest trick in the book
Meaning: A well known and much used trick/method
Example: Oldest trick in the book to treat cold and cough is drinking turmeric milk.
- On the pig’s back
Meaning: A person, event, idea in successful and well situation.
Example: Her studies were on the pig’s back before she met Adrian.
- Old habits die hard
Meaning: People find it difficult to change their accustomed behavior.
Example: She retired last month, but still gets up at the same time in the morning. Old habits die hard.
- Once in a blue moon
Meaning: Very rarely
Example: Jill has a very rocky relationship with her father. She speaks to him once in a blue moon.
- Out of the blue
Meaning: Happen unexpectedly
Example: She had given up all hope when out of the blue she got a call from Harvard.
- Out on a limb
Meaning: Do something risky or something that others do not support (leaving the doer in a difficult situation)
Example: She was out on a limb with her project – nobody supported her idea.
- Over the top
Meaning: Totally excessive and not suitable for the occasion.
Example: Her sari was way over the top for a somber occasion like this.
- Pen is mightier than the sword
Meaning: Words and communication have a greater effect than war
Example: A simple handwritten note put an end to their week long cold war – pen is mightier than the sword.
- Plum job
Meaning: This is a desirable position which is well-paid and considered relatively easy.
Example: This looks like a plum job but it has its own bunch of complications.
- Reduce to tears
Meaning: It means getting into tears because of some one’s behaviour.
Example: Greta reduced to tears when her boyfriend stopped seeing her.
- Reap the harvest
Meaning: It is among commonly used English idioms which mean benefit or suffer as a direct result of past actions.
Example: When he cleared MS, he reaped the harvest of all his hard work.
- Sink your teeth into
Meaning: Do something with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.
Example: Robin immediately sank his teeth into his new job.
- Skating on thin ice
Meaning: Do or say something risky or something that could cause trouble.
Example: Don’t say anything that hurts her self esteem or you could be skating on thin ice.
- Take a back seat
Meaning: Choose to be less important in a role
Example: He finally decided to take a back seat and let his son run the family business.
- Take a nosedive
Meaning: Rapid drop or decrease in value
Example: The share prices took a nosedive when there were rumors of the company’s CEO resigning.
- Take the plunge
Meaning: Venture into something of one’s interest despite the risks involved
Example: Jack finally took the plunge and opened a restaurant.
- Tricks of the trade
Meaning: Clever way of doing something.
Example: It is among commonly used English idioms which mean being a entrepreneur for 20 years, I know all tricks of the trade.
- Weather the storm
Meaning: Succeed in surviving a difficult period of time
Example: Given the current global market conditions, the Indian economy is weathering the storm pretty well.
- Waiting in the wings
Meaning: Waiting for an opportunity to take action, mostly to replace someone else in their job.
Example: Dr. Santos is going to retire in next 2 months. Two of his juniors who are waiting in the wings will have a fierce competition.
- Wet behind the ears
Meaning: Inexperienced and immature
Example: Instead of a full time job, she should be offered an internship as she is still wet behind the ears.
- Wooden spoon
Meaning: This refers to imaginary prize for the last person in a race.
Example: We won a wooden spoon at the fashion show.
- Worth one’s salt
Meaning: Good or competent at the job or profession specified
Example: She deserves respect as she is totally worth her salt.
- Zero in on something
Meaning: Focus all attention onto one thing
Example: The teacher immediately zeroed in on the weaker students of the class.