A Short Guide on Idioms for English Language Learners

Imagine that you are about to take your final examination. As you are leaving your dorm room, your dormmate is smiling as he tells you to “break a leg.” Is he trying to say that he wants you to be hurt? No, he does not; your dormmate means is that he wishes you good luck - “break a leg” is an idiom. Idioms are often used in narrative writing as well as in many other forms of creative writing. For those who are starting out with learning the English language, idioms can be a startling concept to learn alongside other linguistic elements such as figures of speech. Learning idioms, however, is something that aspiring English language learners should do, as it has significance when it comes to communicative English. In fact, we list it as one of the ESL tips to master in both written and conversational English.

As such, here is a short guide on idioms for English language learners, followed by a list of idioms to bring you up to speed.

What is an idiom?

What are idioms? 

Idiomatic expressions, or idioms, for short, are ways of expressing ideas through phrases. The phrases often have a different meaning from the ideas expressed by idioms. In other words, an idiom is a phrase that contains an idea that is unrelated to the words that make it up.

Why should we use idioms? 

To be honest, idioms do not have real academic value. Simply saying the idea directly, instead of saying the idiom, is just as effective. In that case, idioms are not needed at all.

However, if everyday communication will only use direct language, it would become dull. For example, without idioms, everyone would just say “I will rest” every time he or she wants to rest. Imagine hearing that everyday—it will become boring, right?

On the other hand, if people equip themselves with a list of idioms to express the same idea that they want to rest, language will become more lively and dynamic. “Boris is letting off some steam in the park,” “Karen is watching one of the best series on Netflix to unwind,” “Connor is taking five after an hour of intense research for his term paper”—the bold phrases all have the same idea: they rested. Yet, the idea is expressed differently and, thus, dynamically.

While using idioms may be as inadvisable as using taboo words in academic writing, they tremendously enrich everyday personal communication. In addition, it indicates a proficiency in using the English language. Having a mental list of idioms is similar to having a rich vocabulary: you would know various ways of expressing the same idea aside from just saying the idea directly.

How to detect idioms?

Idioms are usually said in everyday language like it is natural. To those who are unfamiliar with idioms, it can be difficult to tell whether or not what someone said is an idiom. A helpful tip to know is if the person says something and it does not seem to make much sense in the conversation, or is not easily understood when it is first said. For example:

“The drug crisis definitely needs to be solved, but going after drug addicts as a solution is just barking up the wrong tree.”

What does barking have to do with drugs? Nothing much—but that is, partly, how you know if the person said an idiom.

However, this does not always work, especially those who are unfamiliar with the English language as a whole. There are some things that do not make sense, even if the person is saying the idea directly. In this case, asking the person what he means would not hurt.

Ultimately, The best way to detect idioms is to have knowledge about them. There are thousands of idioms—trying to learn all of them here will take a long time, which defeats of a short guide on idioms for English language learners. Instead, here is a short list of idioms, each with a meaning and an example of how it is used.

Examples of Idioms

  • Take a load off - To relax, like removing the load of burden or stress for some time. “This project is getting difficult. I will take a load off by watching the best YouTube channels to watch."
  • Let off some steam - To relax, especially after something that was stressful or caused anger. “Bruce wants to let off some steam after finding out his favorite NBA team lost in their latest match.
  • Hit the hay - To sleep. “My husband hit the hay as soon as he got home.
  • Call it a day - To stop the current task and to rest. “After hours of working on the project, my group decided to call it a day.
  • Unwind - To relax after experiencing stress or exerting effort. “John is unwinding on the couch with his phone.
  • Take five - The full meaning is to take five minute-break. It means to take a short break. One of our favorite examples of idioms, as having a break is an important part of studying effectively. “After starting the research process with huge success, the group decided to take five.
  • Throw the towel - One of our least favorite examples of idioms. It means to quit. The idiom was popularized in boxing, when boxers throw their towels as a way of expressing that they quit. “After an entire day of looking for his pet dog in the city, Keith decided to throw the towel.
  • Hit the road - To go somewhere or to travel. “Joe has to use the restroom before hitting the road again.
  • Two seconds - The full meaning is “I need two seconds of your time.” This is said to ask for someone’s attention for a short time. “Two seconds for an explanation, please.
  • Hold up - Often said in place of telling someone to wait. “Hold up, I thought the paper is due next week, not tomorrow!
  • Hang in there - Usually said to tell someone to endure something that is currently hurting or burdening them. “The doctor is on his way, so hang in there.
  • Hold your horses - Said to have someone, who is acting very quickly, to stop or slow down. “Tell Clark to hold his horses since everyone is still packing up to leave.
  • Hold down the fort - To stay and defend an area, or simply to stay put in a place. "You guys go to the grocery store. I will hold down the fort here in the house.
  • Stay frosty - To be cautious and ready for what happens next. "After he witnessed a car accident, Ben has been staying frosty as he drives down the highway."
  • Stay on your toes - To be mentally aware and prepared. "You should stay on your toes whenever you walk down dark street alleys.
  • Like a broken record - Saying the same thing all over and over again. "Ironically, my mom has been stressing me out by reminding me to learn how to reduce stress in college like a broken record.
  • Beating a dead horse - Repeating or emphasizing the same argument or problem numerous times. "My professor gave me a C for my paper and made marks all over it that were all beating a dead horse about using semicolons wrong."
  • Keep tabs - Constantly checking on someone or something, usually in secret. “Rick hired a private investigator to keep tabs on his neighbor who has been behaving unusually.
  • Keep you posted - Remind someone with updates about a particular topic. "The results of his exam have not been released. His classmate will keep him posted about it.
  • Keep in check - Make sure that something or someone is under control. "Ms. Jackson got Kevin to keep the classroom in check as she left to get her documents in the faculty room.
  • Keeping score - Usually said to refer to points in a game, this also means to have a constant record and attention of what has been done or happening, often between conflicting parties. “Those who intend to keep score of hate crimes in the US would realize that these will not stop any time soon.
  • Bring up to speed - Teach someone about an or object that is not known to him or her yet. “After a week of being absent in school, Brandon was brought up to speed by Ken about the lessons he missed.
  • Face the music - Witness the bad consequences of one’s actions. “Philip would eventually face the music after it was discovered that he plagiarized his paper.
  • Reality check - Be shown what is really going on amidst a false thought of the events. “Many children had a big reality check about the existence of Santa Claus.” 
  • Lose edge - Lose significant ability or proficiency in something. “Athletes lose their edge after weeks of no training.” 
  • Feel on edge - Feel very anxious or nervous. “Tom has been feeling on edge lately after realizing that he may have committed one of the types of plagiarism.
  • Dead to rights - Be caught doing something bad. “The burglars were caught dead to rights by the police officers who were called to the scene.
  • No frills - Without having anything that is extra or unnecessary. “His report is excellent: it presents what is needed with no frills.
  • The catch - The condition behind doing or having something pleasurable. “The catch behind getting a new laptop: it can be taken away if he gets failing grades.
  • No strings attached - Without having any secret condition or compromise. “Roderick prefers full transparency and no strings attached."
  • No holds barred - Having no limitations and being free to do anything, especially in a game or event. “Rules and regulations are important, as things will be chaotic if there are no holds barred."
  • Dead weight - Useless and only brings more harm than good, used to refer to people or objects. “If an employee is considered dead weight in the company, he can be terminated for redundancy.
  • Give a piece of one’s mind - Express anger to someone who did something wrong. “If Mr. Anderson catches Abigail using her cellphone again during his class, he will give her a piece of his mind in front of everyone.” 
  • Take something up a notch - Improve something substantially, usually a skill or product. “The swimming coach took the training of his team up a notch to prepare them for future competitive events.
  • Turn a blind eye - Ignore something, especially a mistake, on purpose. “Just because you were successful in learning how to become friends with your professor, it does not mean that he will turn a blind eye whenever you plagiarize your paper.
  • Swimming with the fish - A euphemism which means that someone will die. “The Mafia threatened that he will be swimming with the fish if he tries to tell anyone about their plan.
  • Kick the bucket - Another euphemism that also means that someone would die. “I am 76 years old, ready to kick the bucket any time now.
  • Turn over a new leaf - Used to refer to when someone decides to change the way he or she lives, usually a change from bad to good. “After being in prison for a decade, Winston decided to turn over a new leaf.
  • Put the nail in the coffin - The last thing that supports something or concludes something satisfactorily. “The video showing the defendant clearly committing the crime simply put the nail in the coffin for his case.
  • Last resort - The last, possible solution, used especially when it becomes hopeless. “Uber has become a last resort for those who cannot find a guaranteed means of transportation.
  • Bury the hatchet - Put an end on a feud or fight. “Madeline and Casey realized that their grudges against each other have been meaningless and decided to bury the hatchet.
  • In the flesh - Said often in place of “in person,” or when someone is physically present. “As soon as Peter complained that Tony is not supporting him enough, Tony suddenly appears in the flesh and takes Peter by surprise.
  • Get out of one’s hair - Be removed from someone as a problem or burden. “I will just use the printer to print out my paper then I will get out of your hair.” 
  • Come clean - Confess or be honest about something. “It is better to come clean to your parents than to pretend that you have been successful in finding your career path.
  • Cold shoulder - Be willfully ignoring someone out of hatred or annoyance. “Gwen has been giving her boyfriend Billy the cold shoulder after he forgot to pick her up after work.
  • Cold feet - Be nervous about something. “Ever since the recent Australian fires, I have been having cold feet.
  • Hit the showers - Sometimes said in place of saying “take a shower.” “The drill sergeant ordered the trainees to hit the showers after a long day of training in the obstacle course.
  • By a country mile - By a large margin, often used when comparing two things that are very different from each other in intensity or skill level. “Vince said that the old Star Wars movies are better than the new ones by a country mile.
  • Buckle up - The full meaning is “buckle up your seatbelt.” This means to get ready, especially for something big or exciting. “I buckled up in preparation for next semester by learning how to balance college and work."
  • Bark up the wrong tree - Wrongly place blame or emphasis on an irrelevant element of the problem. “Catherine barked up the wrong tree in her review for the test, causing her to fail because of studying the wrong materials.
  • Jump ship - Quit or escape a cause when a fatal problem arises. “Many law school freshmen jumped ship after their first week of classes.
  • Put one's foot down - Become firm and strong on a cause when someone has been violating it or committing mistakes multiple times. “Derek's father put his foot down when he left home one night after sneaking out to another late night party.
  • Get the show on the road - An encouraging way of telling someone to go out and perform well. “After an hour of warming up for the match, Andy finally got the show on the road.
  • Cross the line - To violate a specific boundary or limit of a rule or rules. “Ronald eventually crossed the line when he tried to enter the campus with someone else’s ID, after two weeks of forgetting to bring his own.
  • Spilled milk - An opportunity or mistake that already takes place. It is part of the saying “do not cry over spilled milk,” which means that people should not waste time thinking about something bad that has already happened. “After causing a lot of spilled milk, Adrian decided that he wants to be better.
  • Bring home the bacon - A way of telling someone to gain the victory and bring home the reward - the bacon. “Hopefully, Leon will pass the Bar exam and bring home the bacon.
  • Break a leg - A way of wishing someone well, especially in a performance. “Go break a leg with your Shakespeare recital!
  • Cost a leg and an arm - Is very expensive. “Every new version of the iPhone always costs a leg and an arm.
  • Get one's head in the game - Remind someone to focus more on something. “I have to get my head in the game and study more if I want to get an A+ for my English class.
  • Lose it - Become crazy, especially after witnessing something stressful. “If I see him one more time, I am going to lose it!
  • Lose one’s mind - Similar to “lose it.” “Being alone on an island for a long time like Robinson Crusoe can make anyone lose his or her mind.
  • Out of one’s mind - Become very nervous, paranoid, and illogical, as shown in actions. “Serial killers are out of their minds and lose empathy whenever they prowl on their victims.
  • Park the bus - Often used in games, where a team slows down the entire match after gaining a huge advantage - the bus - on purpose to prevent the other team from getting any points. “When the drag racer finally got to first place, he became arrogant and decided to park the bus by blocking the other racers from passing him.
  • Take with a grain of salt - Have some level of doubt when you learn something. “Students are warned to take everything they see in the Internet with a grain of salt, as some of them may be erroneous.
  • Hit someone up - Not literally hitting someone; rather, to hit someone up means to contact him or her, usually when something is needed. “If you need some advice on writing your essay, do not hesitate to hit me up.
  • All ears - A synecdoche where a person gives full attention in listening. “Tell me what happened. I am all ears.
  • Stay sharp - Be attentive and cautious, especially during a stressful situation. “Regardless of the situation with the NRA and Gun Control, people must always stay sharp.
  • High note - A successful, pleasant, or victorious event. “The talent show ended on a high note with Rachel’s interpretative dance number.
  • Low blow - An unfair maneuver, one that is clearly disadvantageous and hurtful against another person. “Allan made a low blow when he insulted Cameron about his sick parents.
  • Drop the bomb - Reveal a very surprising, unpleasant truth. “His essay about the American Dream dropped the bomb about the reality of such a vision.
  • Throw under the bus - Betray someone, especially a friend or loved one. “After a night of working hard together on the project, Will threw Stanley under the bus and removed his name on the submission paper.” 
  • Catch wind - To know or learn something that is usually surprising or controversial. “Thanks to their lessons in college, students have caught wind that misinformation in the United States is still running rampant.
  • Word goes out - This refers to the idea of information about a certain event, especially a bad one, coming out. “The superintendent told the teachers to never let the word out that the scholarship for orphans program has been secretly removed.
  • Give/lend a hand - Offer to help someone. This idiom is also a synecdoche, one of the kinds of figures of speech where a part of something is used to refer to the whole - in this case, the hand is a part of the whole, which is the body. “Always give your mother a hand whenever she comes home with the groceries.
  • Milk something for its worth - Make the most out of something, regardless if it is fair or not. “Some applicants decided to milk the application process for its worth and left in the middle of the process just for the $20 bonus for taking it.
  • Cheese something - Make a wild, unplanned decision or action when the current situation is unclear. “When Daniel realized that he did not study enough for the test, he decided to cheese it with the rest of the questions.
  • Heads up - Give an important reminder about something. “Al Gore produced the film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ as a heads up about the effects of global warming.
  • Have one’s eyes on someone - Be very attentive and cautious of someone. “Ms. Gretchen has been having her eyes on every student ever since the cheating incident.
  • At a crossroads - Be forced to make a critical decision. “Luke was at a crossroads: he must either continue his training or leave to save his friends.
  • Being in someone’s shoes - Imagining oneself to be in someone else’s situation. “It is easier to empathize with drug addicts once you imagine yourself in their shoes.
  • Look at the bright side - View the situation, especially a sad one, from a more optimistic perspective. Another one of our favorite examples of idioms - no matter how hard school becomes, there is always something good about it. “Even though he will not be able to afford going to graduate school this year, Evan looked at the bright side and decided to try exploring the gap year.
  • Silver lining - The single, hopeful aspect of a bad or desperate situation. “The silver lining of his performance was that he tried to be innovative.
  • Bite off more than you can chew - Said when someone tries to do something that is more than what he or she can handle. “Jack bit off more than he can chew when he signed up for an advanced course on Anglo-Saxon literature.
  • Test the waters - Try something new out, especially when it is very unfamiliar. “Jill wanted to test the waters on how she can study better for tests.
  • Gnashing of teeth - When someone gnashes his or her teeth, it is an expression of anger. “Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN Climate Summit has caused a great gnashing of teeth among environmentalists.
  • Hold your tongue - Tell someone to be silent or to stop from speaking the rest of the idea. “The superintendent told the teachers to hold their tongues about him secretly removing the program granting scholarship for orphans."
  • Have a bone to pick with someone - Have a reason to be angry at or fight someone. “Jordan has had a bone to pick with Jennifer ever since she failed to fulfill her promise of submitting his bullying essay for him when he was sick.
  • Have a field day - Have a very successful and rewarding time. - “Ever since he learned a book on how to write faster, Abel has been having a field day every time there is a paper assigned.
  • Hold water - Is valid and supported by facts. “After the detective tracked some inconsistencies in his alibi, it no longer held any water.
  • Hold a candle to someone - Be at the same, or higher, level with someone or something, usually in skill or magnitude. “After weeks of training and hard work, the football team can finally hold a candle to their rivals.
  • Raise eyebrows - Cause suspicion and doubtful attention. “The Amazon Fire and the incompetence of the surrounding governments in resolving it raised the eyebrows of some environmentalists.
  • To be fed up - To lose patience or tolerance for something. “Tristan eventually submitted a report to his landlord after being fed up with the constant noise that his neighbor has been making throughout the weeks.
  • Rough around the edges - Unrefined, dirty, incomplete. “His car was rough around the edges after being in the garage for 5 years.
  • Bring to light - Present something that is not known yet. “News of the basketball team’s victory was brought to light as they came back from the game.
  • Brighten one’s day - Cheer someone up, especially after something sad or tragic. “Seeing my dog lie down in a funny position brightened my day after I saw my poor test results.
  • Watered down - An inferior version. “After losing the file for a paper that she worked on for days, Bridget submitted a watered down version of her work that she wrote hours before the deadline.
  • Eat one’s heart out - Make someone feel jealous for something that you have. “Eat your heart out. I got an A+ on my essay!
  • Spill the beans - Reveal a secret that is often unpleasant. “Eventually, someone spilled the beans about the secretly proposed regulation of school uniforms in the university.
  • Significant other - Someone’s loved one. “Kenneth married his significant other at the humble age of 32.
  • Feast one’s eyes - Invite someone to look at something that will aesthetically please him or her. “If you think that the latest iPhone looks incredible, then feast your eyes on the upcoming Samsung Galaxy phone!

These are just a hundred out of thousands of idioms that are in the English Language. You do not need to memorize each one; in fact, you can use this list of idioms as a reference or even a place to start with learning idioms. Rest assured that when you memorize and use many idioms, you will improve your English communication by a country mile and be able to hold a candle to a native English speaker.

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We hope that we did not make you bite off more than you can chew with the hundred idioms above. Again, you do not need to memorize each one—we only want to get you started with a short guide on idioms for English language learners. 

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