Common Idioms in English--What Do They Mean?

Common Idioms in English–What Do They Mean?



Every language has idioms. You have them in your native language, but you may not realize when you are using an idiom. When you hear one in English, however, you may think, “This doesn’t make sense. I understand the words, but I have no idea what the expression means.”

Today I talk about what an idiom is, and when and how to use idioms. I also give you 20 common English idioms with definitions and example sentences. At the end, there is a sheet to download to give you additional practice using common English idioms.

What are idioms, and what do they mean? An idiom is an expression. The words may be easy, but the expression itself doesn’t appear to make sense. Idioms are very old parts of a language. If you know the history of the expression, you might understand the why the idiom exists, but that isn’t important in everyday conversation. Unlike grammar points, there are no rules for idioms. If you are a native speaker of English, you know them. If not, you can learn them.

We often use idioms in conversation and reading, so it is important to have a good knowledge of as many idioms as possible. I can’t talk about every English idiom in this posting. There are just too many of them. However, you will learn twenty of the most common idioms in English. As you read along, you may note similar idioms in your language.

Below are 20 common English idioms, and an explanation of what they mean. You will see the idiom, a definition and, finally, an example of the idiom used in a sentence.

Here are some common idioms and explanations of what the mean.

  1. To twist someone’s arm–This means to convince someone do to something that he or she doesn’t want to do.  My brother told me he didn’t want to help me with my homework, but I asked him over and over again. I guess I twisted his arm, because he finally gave me the help I needed.
  2. To stab someone in the back–This means to hurt someone who trusts you.  My best friend stabbed me in the back when went out with my boyfriend.
  3. Being up in the air–When you say this, it means  your plans are uncertain, so you’re not sure what your are going to do.  My sister and her fiance are planning their wedding, but they’re up in the air because they can’t decide on a date.
  4. Being on the ball–This means to be smart, to quickly understand a situation, and to do what is needed for a good outcome. The new salesman was on the ball. He understood exactly what his customers wanted, and he gave them what they needed.
  5. To ring a bell–When something rings a bell, it means it is familiar to you, or you remember it. A man I met at a party told me we met last year. I didn’t remember him. Nothing rang a bell.
  6. Rule of thumb or as a rule–These expressions mean in general or most of the time.  As a rule (or as a rule of thumb), you should pay for the meal the first time you ask a girl out to dinner.
  7. To look like a million bucks (or a million dollars)–We say this about a woman who is really, really beautiful. My girlfriend looked so beautiful. In fact she looked like a million bucks (or dollars).
  8. To be under the weather–This means to feel a little bit sick. I’m not going to the movies tonight. I feel  a little under the weather, so I need to stay home and rest.
  9. To get over something–This means to recover from a difficult time when you were  angry or sad. I was so sad when my boyfriend and I broke up last year. But I got over it. I’m happy now, and I have a new boyfriend.
  10. A piece of cake–We use this expression when something is very easy. I was worried about my math class, but it was piece a piece of cake. In fact, it was the easiest class I ever had.
  11. To hit the nail on the head— This means to show an excellent understanding of a situation and to express it correctly and perfectly. I didn’t know why I was in a bad mood. My friend knew that I did not eat  lunch. He hit the nail on the head when he suggested that I was hungry.
  12. To bite off more than you can chew–This means to take on more work than you can handle. I’m taking 3 college classes, I have a full time job, and two part time jobs. I feel very tired, and I’m not doing very well in anything. I think I bit off more than I can chew.
  13. To scratch someone’s back–This idiom means to do a favor for someone. It often implies that you expect them to return the favor or do something for you..  I helped my neighbor fix his leaky sink, and he bought me dinner. I scratched his back, and he scratched mine.
  14. To kick the bucket–This means to die. This is used in a very informal sense. If your friend loses a loved one, you never say, “I’m sorry your mother kicked the bucket.” Instead, you say, “I’m sorry about the loss of your mother.” You can also use this expression when a machine dies, or no longer functions. My old car finally kicked the bucket. I guess I have to buy a new one.
  15. Hold your horses–These expression mean, stop, slow down, or be patient. When my son talked about  the new car he he expected for his birthday, I said, “Hold your horses. You don’t even know if your getting a car. Wait and see.”
  16. Hit the books–This means to study. I have a test tomorrow, so I really need to hit the books tonight.
  17. Hit the sack–This means to go to bed.  It’s late and I’m tired. It’s time for me to hit the sack.
  18. To pitch in-This idiom means to help. When you pitch in, you help because you want to, or because it is the right thing to do. You do not expect anything in return.  My wife was tired because she had a hard day at work. So I pitched in and helped her clean the house.
  19. To go cold turkey–This means to quit a bad habit suddenly, without a transition period.  My brother quit smoking slowly. He reduced the number of cigarettes he smoked every day. But I quit cold turkey. I just stopped and never smoked another cigarette again.
  20. To face the music–This idiom means to take responsibility for mistakes you made. My boss is angry at me because I made so many mistakes. I need to talk to him and face the music, even if he fires me.

These are some very common idioms in English.

Now you have an idea of some common idioms and what they mean. You may wonder, “When can I use them?’ You can use the everywhere! All the idioms in this posting are informal, but you can use them is everyday speech with everyone you meet. When you master these, and other idioms, your understanding of English will grow.

You can download the practice sheet now!


Now it’s your turn! I packaged all of this vocabulary into some flashcards for you to study. Test yourself on this common idioms in English with the flashcards below:

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