Some Common English Idioms and How to Use Them

Idioms are set phrases that have a specific meaning that is different from the literal meaning. In fact, with many idioms, the literal meaning of the words is either absurd or doesn't make any sense at all. It's the particular phrase as a whole that has meaning in an idiom.
Every language has idioms. Different countries and even regions that speak the same language do as well. While some English idioms are common among most native speakers, there are idioms in Australia or the United Kingdom that would make no sense to someone in the United States, for example, and vice versa.

The tricky thing about idioms is that the only way to really learn their meaning is to ask or look it up and then memorize it. You can't figure it out through logic--that's what makes it an idiom in the first place.
It can help to start looking at lists of some of the most common English idioms. For practice, you can try to use these in speech and notice when others use them as well.

idiom example

Common Idiom Examples

Below are some of the English idioms that you will encounter very frequently.

  • "This period of hard work will be over soon if you just hang in there." "Hang in there" means to wait a little longer and don't stop what you're doing.
  • "I'm tired. Let's call it a day." "Call it a day" means to stop work for now. If you "call it a night," you are going to bed.
  • "When the police were called, I knew the party was getting out of hand." When something "gets out of hand," it gets out of control.
  • "She had to cancel her plans because she was under the weather." Someone who is "under the weather" is feeling ill.
  • "How is work on the project going?" "So far, so good." When you say "so far, so good" about something, you mean that at this point, things are fine.
  • "I don't like our new boss." "You can say that again." "You can say that again" means that you agree with what has just been said.
  • "If we don't do something now, we're going to miss the boat." "To miss the boat" means to miss an opportunity.
  • "I should be able to learn this; it's not rocket science." Something that is "not rocket science" is not hard. Sometimes, "it's not rocket science" is also said to someone who is having difficulty with something that the other person doesn't think is hard.
  • "I hope we can hire her. She's really on the ball." Someone who is "on the ball" is competent, intelligent, and good at what they do.
  • "That email rubbed me the wrong way." If something (or someone) rubs you the wrong way, you dislike it, or it upsets you.

Other English Idioms

The idiom examples below are also common ones.

  • "I'm on the fence about how to vote." If you are "on the fence" about something, you haven't made a decision yet.
  • "She posted something on Instagram, and of course, everyone jumped on the bandwagon." People who "jump on the bandwagon" are following the crowd or a trend. This has a negative connotation.
  • "They quit working together because they just don't see eye to eye anymore." If you see "eye to eye," you agree about most things.
  • "I don't know what she's mad about, but she really gave me the cold shoulder." "Giving someone the cold shoulder" means ignoring someone or being unfriendly to them if you can't ignore them.
  • "He always beats around the bush before he tells you what he means." "Beating around the bush" means not saying something directly and taking a while to get to the point.
  • "He told me her name, but it didn't ring a bell." Something that "rings a bell" sounds familiar.
  • "I'm worried about what will happen, but it's time to face the music." "Facing the music" means facing the negative consequences of your actions.
  • "We found out that Ben losing his job was just the tip of the iceberg." Something that is "the tip of the iceberg" is only part of the story. This is generally used for something that is bad or outrageous.

Less Common Examples of English Idioms

The idioms below are somewhat less common than the ones above, perhaps because they are not useful in as many different situations or they are not used as frequently among younger people as they once were. However, they are all still examples of English idioms you will encounter sometimes.

  • "That sounds crazy. Are you pulling my leg?" If you "pull someone's leg," you are saying sometime that isn't true but in a teasing or joking way.
  • "I don't know how we'll explain it to them, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." "Crossing that bridge when we come to it" means waiting until the time arrives to deal with the problem. It often implies that you have more immediate things to worry about right now.
  • "Our team only wins once in a blue moon." Something that happens "once in a blue moon" happens very infrequently.
  • "You should take anything he tells you with a pinch of salt." "To take something with a pinch of salt" means to be skeptical about it.
  • "I don't think anyone is coming to meet us here. This is a wild goose chase." When you have gone on "a wild goose chase," you have pursued something that is pointless. Sometimes, it's because someone has deliberately deceived you.
  • "They won the game by the skin of their teeth." Something done "by the skin of your teeth" is something you barely managed to do. It often means succeeding at the last minute.

Idioms are usually casual in nature, so in most cases, you wouldn't use them in a piece of formal writing. However, like many other types of figurative language, idioms make speech and writing more colorful and interesting, and you will encounter them in many different settings and situations.

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