Learning English isn’t as easy as some might think. First, grammar muddies the waters (makes things unclear), and idiomatic expressions only add fuel to the fire (make things worse).
If you’re taking the TOEFL or the TOEIC, or just want to know more common idioms, study this list of 40 common idiomatic expressions before you take the test. They may just help your English language acquisition soar (get much better).
Common English Idioms
- 24/7: Twenty-four hours a day; seven days a week; all the time; constantly. My little sister irritates me 24/7!
- A short fuse: A quick temper. Jamie is known for his short fuse; just a few days ago he screamed at his coach for not letting him play.
- A taste of your own medicine: Bad treatment deservedly received for treating other people badly. After constantly being prank-called, Julian decided to give Juan a taste of his own medicine and ordered twenty-seven pizzas to be delivered to Juan’s house.
- Butterflies in my stomach: To be nervous. Liam had butterflies in his stomach before he went on stage to play the violin.
- By the skin of your teeth: To just barely get by or make it. Lester made the dance team by the skin of his teeth; you can tell he hasn’t been dancing jazz for very long.
- Cat got your tongue?: Can’t you speak? (Usually said to embarrass the other person). I just saw you kissing my boyfriend. What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?
- Crying wolf: To ask for help when you don’t need it. You have cried wolf so many times that no one believes you when you’re really hurt.
- Cut someone some slack: To not judge someone too harshly. Hey. Cut me some slack. I was really busy with my frog hunting business last week and forgot to call. I’m sorry!
- Down for the count: Tired; giving up; unable or unwilling to participate any longer. No, you can’t take my dog for a walk—she’s down for the count after chasing cats all day.
- Draw the line: To stop; to know the point where something goes from okay to not okay. Now I draw the line at speaking in front of 34,000 people.
- Easier said than done: Not as easy as it appears to be. You want me to come to work at 6:00 AM? Easier said than done!
- Every cloud has a silver lining: You can find good in every bad situation. Even though you just got fired, remember that every cloud has a silver lining—at least you don’t have to work for that grouchy boss anymore!
- Finding a needle in a haystack: Virtually impossible to find. Trying to get a new job these days is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
- Fish out of water: To be out of place. Tom felt like a fish out of water at the Star Trek convention his new girlfriend begged him to attend.
- Get something off your chest: To talk about something that has been bothering you for a long time; to admit something you have done wrong. I have to get this off my chest—I copied your answers on the SAT. Thanks for the percentile score, by the way.
- Give it a whirl: To try something. I’ve never gone kite-boarding, but I’m prepared to give it a whirl!
- Go down in flames: To fail suddenly and spectacularly. The football player’s career went down in flames after the media learned he’d been losing on purpose to settle gambling debts.
- Go the extra mile: To make an extra effort. My dentist always goes the extra mile, offering free back massages at the end of a stressful tooth extraction.
- Hang in there: Be patient. Wait it out. I know you’re struggling right now in school but just hang in there. It’ll get easier. I promise.
- In the fast lane: A life filled with excitement. When Curtis turned forty, he decided he needed to live life in the fast lane, so he quit his job as a dentist and decided to tour Europe by motorcycle.
- In the nick of time: Almost too late. You gave me that main idea help in the nick of time—my teacher just gave us a quiz on that reading skill and I passed it!
- Let the cat out of the bag: Tell a secret. Brady’s surprise party is going to be great if you don’t let the cat out of the bag.
- Let the chips fall where they may: To let something happen, no matter if it’s good or bad. Look. I’m going to just try out for the cheerleading squad and let the chips fall where they may.
- Lose your marbles: To go crazy; insane. Mom has really lost her marbles; she’s making me practice writing the ACT Essay seven times this week!
- Once in a blue moon: Rarely. In Florida, the temperature drops below freezing only once in a blue moon.
- Plain as day: Obvious; clear. It’s plain as day that you’re in love with her, so just admit it.
- Play second fiddle: To be less important. I hate playing second fiddle to my sister; she always does things better than I do!
- Put your foot in your mouth: Saying something you shouldn’t have. Jessica really put her foot in her mouth when she asked about John’s job right after he lost it.
- Pull yourself together: Calm down and behave normally. Pull yourself together, man! Sure, your girlfriend just dumped you and then you got hit by a car, but you can’t let those things get you down.
- Sick and tired: To be bothered or annoyed by. She is sick and tired of her dog chewing up her shoes every day.
- Sleep on it: To think about something for a while before making a decision. Don’t tell me whether you’ll move to Texas with me or not today. Sleep on it, and get back to me tomorrow.
- Snug as a bug in a rug: Warm and cozy; content. That baby looks as snug as a bug in a rug cuddled up next to his mother.
- Step up your game: To start performing better. Listen, Jen. You’d better step up your game if you want to get all A’s in Miss Finch’s Physics class. She isn’t easy!
- Stick your nose into something: To interfere. Sharon always sticks her nose into everyone else’s business.
- Straight from the horse’s mouth: Directly from the person involved. Listen to the news straight from the horse’s mouth; we’re all getting bonuses this week!
- Take it easy: Relax. I know you’re not feeling well, so try to take it easy today.
- Tip of the iceberg: The small easily visible part of a larger problem. The fact that Carrie is dating a member of the mafia is just the tip of the iceberg; she’s also smuggling contraband into the country.
- To not see the wood for the trees: To be so involved with the details that you don’t get the most important facts. She always argues about the silliest things; it’s like she can’t see the wood for the trees.
- Up a creek without a paddle: In an unlucky/bad situation. If you don’t have any money to pay for the repairs we just made to your car, I guess you’re up a creek without a paddle because you can’t have your car back.
- You rock!: You are great. Dude. You rock. Thanks for offering to watch my pet iguana all week.
These are just a few of the thousands of idioms in the English language. Get your feet wet (start) with these, and then move on to the idioms that will knock your socks off (astound you).
Roell, Kelly. "40 Common English Idioms." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/common-english-idioms-3211646 (accessed January 27, 2022).