English Idioms And Phrases Guide - Language Resources

Idioms or idiomatic phrases exist in every language worldwide and are part of the rich tapestry of figurative language. When looking at idioms, it’s important to remember that they are a play on words.

Unlike verbs or nouns, idioms and phrases aren’t meant to be taken seriously, and we can’t understand them by considering each word in the phrase as fact. For example, let’s look at the common idiomatic phrase, ‘chickened out.’ If taken literally, you might conjure up an image of a chicken, but not much else. This phrase means someone didn’t do something because of fear, because they didn’t want to, or because they were nervous. Let’s take a look at it in an example sentence.

  • He was going to tell the teacher he didn’t do his work, but he chickened out at the last minute.

In this case, the person decided not to tell their teacher that the work wasn’t completed because, presumably, they were scared or worried about the reaction.

Idioms and phrases guide example

What Do Idioms Do?

Idioms are examples of figurative language. They allow speakers to play around with language, which can be fun to learn.

Idioms and phrases are expressions that take literal language and turn it on its head by inferring meaning from the phrase. Idioms are also heard daily in advertising, marketing, and common speech, and if learned and expressed correctly, they can help you to shorten and simplify complex ideas.

Idioms are also used for:

  • Adding flair and interest to a story by captivating the listener or reader.
  • Adding humor to your writing or story.
  • Adding a point of view to a particular story. Since Idioms are part of the culture, they can offer insight into a country’s point of view, history, and individual ideals.
  • Giving context. Idioms and phrases can also be region-specific, adding context to where the writer or speaker is from.

Why Are Idioms Important To Culture?

Idioms are heavily intertwined into the culture because they come from people. Many idiomatic phrases are also related to the cultural history of a specific place, where you gain insight into the speaker’s societal standards, morals, ethos, and experiences through the idiom used.

Let’s look at some idioms with a long history that we still use today.

 ‘Bite the bullet.’

  • Idioms meaning: To get on with something or do something you don’t particularly want to.
  • Cultural history: This idiom has a few historical origins; some say it refers to soldiers in battle who would have to bite down on a bullet when receiving anesthetics to avoid making noise on the battlefield or to help them deal with the pain. Others cite that this idiom comes from the 1850s when soldiers fighting for the British colony, called the Sepoys, fought back against the British commanders on religious grounds because they were forced to bite the bullet on their greased paper rifles to shoot.
  • Modern history: This phrase is used to mean ‘get on with it,’ and though cultural history has almost been forgotten, we still use it today.

‘All hands on deck’

  • Idioms meaning: Everyone needs to help with a particular task or get on board with helping.
  • Cultural history: ‘All hands on deck’ originated back on sailing boats, when sailors were told to help with all tasks on board and quickly.
  • Modern history: Nowadays, this phrase is still used in business, in everyday life, and in response to worldwide issues. For example: ‘We need all hands on deck to stop the global effects of climate change.’

‘Putting the cart before the horse.’

  • Idioms meaning: You’re rushing through something without thinking or doing something in an unorganized manner.
  • Cultural history: This idiom originates back when we owned horses and carts, and the horse would be placed in front of the cart; otherwise, it wouldn’t move.
  • Modern history: Though most people no longer own a horse and cart, we still use this phrase to signify that the person needs to slow down and think about the steps to make something work.

5 Common English Idioms With Examples

‘Hit the books.’

Idiom meaning: To study hard.

Example sentence:

  • I’ve got an important exam tomorrow. Time to hit the books!

‘Hit the nail on the head.’

Idiom meaning: To understand something perfectly.

Example sentence:

  • That’s right; you hit the nail on the head with that one!

‘Pull yourself together.’

Idiom meaning: Calm down or collect yourself.

Example sentence:

  • You really need to pull yourself together; this is an important presentation.

‘Best of both worlds’

Idiom meaning: The advantages of one situation without the cons.

Example sentence:

  • Working from home really gives you the best of both worlds.

‘On cloud nine.’

Idiom meaning: Pleased and content.

Example sentence:

  • I was on cloud nine when I finished today.

If you want to learn more about English idioms and phrases, we’ve got a list of common idioms and a complete guide to English idioms for kids; and remember, idioms are fun to master. Every time you learn a new one, write them down and check their meaning.