Want to Know English like the back of your Hand? Learn some Idioms!


4 minutes

Mastering a language takes much more than just memorizing vocabulary and conjugating verbs. In order to use English like a native speaker, it's also a good idea to learn some idioms. An idiom is a phrase that is unique to one language and cannot be easily understood or translated based only on the combination of words used. Understanding and employing some of these key expressions will impress your colleagues and demonstrate your superior English skills!

Here is a list of some common English idioms with definitions and examples:

  • Know something like the back of your hand
    Definition: To know something very well, to be an expert on something. "After living in New York City for 10 years, Brian knew the subway system like the back of his hand."
  • Bite the bullet
    Definition: To do make oneself do something, to accept a difficult situation that is unavoidable. "Stop procrastinating; bite the bullet and do your homework!"
  • Benefit of the doubt
    Definition: A favorable judgment granted in the absence of full evidence, to believe the positive in someone, to assume someone is credible if not proven otherwise. "I have no evidence that Tim is lying. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and believe him."
  • Hold your peace
    Definition: To stay silent, to not express your opinion. "Speak now or forever hold your peace!"
  • Cat got your tongue?
    Definition: This is a question asked to someone who will not give an answer or remains silent, it means, "Why aren't you speaking?" "When Jane would not tell her mother where she had hid her wedding ring, her mother asked 'What? Cat got your tongue?'"
  • Bite the dust
    Definition: To finish, to fail, to die. "My old laptop finally bit the dust yesterday when the hard drive crashed."
  • The early bird catches the worm
    Definition: Whoever does something first has the best chance of success. This is a proverb that teaches you to act early in order to succeed. "If you find a job opening, apply as soon as possible. The early bird catches the worm!"
  • Spill the beans
    Definition: To tell a secret, to give away secret information.  "Abby accidently spilled the beans when she told Mary about her surprise birthday party."
  • Take the bull by the horns
    Definition: To attack a problem directly, to take control of a difficult situation or task. "If you do not like your job, take the bull by the horns and find a new one!"
  • Get the ball rolling
    Definition: To start, to begin a project or process. "To get the ball rolling on his apartment search, John went online to look for listings in his neighborhood."
  • Learn the ropes
    Definition: To learn the basics of a new position or environment, to adjust to new surroundings. "It took Jen a few weeks to learn the ropes at her internship, but eventually she felt as though she had been there for years!"
  • Up in the air
    Definition: Undecided, uncertain. "Max's plans for New Year's Eve were still up in the air because he couldn't decide what he wanted to do."
  • Shot in the dark
    Definition: A random guess, an attempt with little chance of success. "Sam took a shot in the dark and chose in a random response when he did not know the answer on his exam."
  • Icing on the cake
    Definition: An additional benefit, an extra bonus. "After a great day on the beach, a beautiful sunset was the icing on the cake."
  • In over your head
    Definition: To be in situation you cannot handle, to be involved in something too difficult, overwhelmed. "When Tim realized he was in over his head with his recent project, he asked one of his coworkers for help."
  • Keep an eye on
    Definition: To monitor, to watch. "On the subway, it's always a good idea to keep an eye on your purse."
  • Put your best foot forward
    Definition: To make a good impression, to try your best. "On her first day of work at her new job, Christina made sure to put her best foot forward."
  • Water under the bridge
    Definition: Something that occurred in the past that no longer matters, a past experience or conflict that one chooses to forget. "Judy and her brother fought all the time when they were kids, but now that's water under the bridge."
  • Don't judge a book by its cover
    Definition: Don't judge someone or something based on appearances, don't judge someone until after you know them. "Although the restaurant looked run-down from the outside, the food was excellent. Don't judge a book by its cover!"
  • On the fence
    Definition:  To be undecided, to be unsure. "Maria was on the fence about who she was going to vote for in the upcoming elections."

We hope that you have learned some new expressions from this list of idioms. Try to remember a few and use them in a sentence sometime soon! This is just a sampling of the many idioms in the English language. Do you have any favorites that we left out?

Ani Kington Ani Kington

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Ani is a fan of exploring new places through photography and the local cuisine. After earning her BFA in photography from NYU and gaining communications experience at International Planned Parenthood Federation, she joined InterExchange in 2012, and worked as the Marketing Producer until 2016.

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