Understanding English demands more than learning the meaning of words. It requires speakers to also have comprehension of figurative language that is the unique expressions used by native speakers – idioms which include clichés and slang.
Idioms and idiomatic expressions comprise a substantial part of the average native speakers’ lexicon. Even though English learners do not have to learn every idiom but to become more comfortable with English they had better be exposed to a greater amount of native English language.
Depending on their field of specialization and interests they will also need to acquire a large number of idioms that are commonly used in formal and informal conversations and are part of standard business communication, education and the media.
If you are planning to work or study in an English-speaking country you are expected to understand a variety of common idioms, that are an important as part of the shared knowledge among English speakers. Some of them are provided below.
English Idioms for Expressing Extreme Happiness
- I am thrilled to bits.
- I am/feel on top of the world.
- I am on cloud nine.
- I am over the moon.
- I am in seventh heaven.
English Idioms for Expressing Happiness
- Get a (real) kick out of something – very much enjoy doing something (informal)
- Do somehting for kicks – do something because it is exciting (usually something dangerous)
- Jump for joy – be very happy and excited about something that has happened
- Be floating/walking on air – be very happy about something good that has happened
- Something makes your day – something makes you feel very happy
English Idioms for Expressing Sadness
- Be down in the dumps – be miserable
- Be out of sorts – be slightly upset/slightly ill
- It’s not the end of the world – it will not cause serious problems
- Just grin and bear it – accept a situation you don’t like because you can’t change it
- Be a misery guts – be a miserable person/someone who complains all the time
English Idioms for Describing Problems
- I’ve come across a brick wall. – Something is blocking me from doing what I want to do.
- I’ve come up against a stumbling block. – I am facing a problem which stops me from achieving something.
- I put my foot in it. – I said something tactless and embarrasing.
- I am in dire straits. – I am in a very difficult and dangerous situation.
- I’ve spread myself too thin. – I am trying to do too many things at the same time (with the results that I can’t give any of them the attention they need).
- I’ve drawn a blank. – I am unable to find information or to achieve something I’d hoped for.
- It’s a fact of life. – An unpleasant situation which has to be accepted because it cannot be changed
English Idioms for Dealing with Problems
- Make do – Manage to get along with the means available
- Give it a shot. – Give something a try (informal)
- Get to grips with it. – Make an effort to understand or to deal with a problem/situation
- To be on the safe side. – To protect oneself even though it might not be necessary
- Get to the bottom of (it) – Try to discover the truth about (something)
- Shed/throw a great deal of light on (something) – Help (people) understand the situation
- See the light at the end of the tunnel – Something makes you belive that a difficult and unpleasant situation is coming to an end
English Idioms for Expressing Success
- Make all the difference to … – have a very good effect on a situation/thing
- It works/goes/runs like a dream – it works/goes/runs very well indeed
- It works like magic – it works immediately and very well
- It goes from strength to strength – it gets better and better
- It did the trick – it solved a problem very well
- It is/turns out to be a blessing in disguise – it has a good effect even though at first it seemed it would be bad
- He/she has really hit the big time – he/she has become successful nationally/internationally and made lots of money
English Idioms for Expressing Failure
- He/she is a victim of his/her own success – his/her success has negative effects as well as/or instead of positive ones
- He/she doesn’t have the ghost of a chance of doing something – he/she has no chance at all
- He/she gives up the ghost – he/she stops trying to succeed because he/she knows he/she will not
- He/she leaves his/her mark on something – he/she has an effect (usually negative) that changes things forever
English Idioms for Expressing Praise
- Be out of this world – to be extremely good or enjoyable
- Be second to none – to be better than anything/anyone else
- Be a hard act to follow – to be so good it is not likely that anyone/anything that comes after will be as good
- Be made for somebody/something – to be exactly suitable for someone/something
- Like gold dust – if things are like gold dust, they are difficult to get because a lot of people want them
English Idioms for Expressing Criticism
- Be all sweetness and light – to be very pleasant and friendly, especially when other people are not expecting you to be
- Get on one’s nerves – irritate/annoy somebody
- Give somebody a hard time – to criticize someone and make them feel guilty about something that they have done; to treat someone severely or to cause difficulties for them
- Poke fun at somebody – tease/mock/make fun of somebody
- Add insult to injury – to make a bad situation worse; to hurt the feelings of a person who has already been hurt
- Ask for trouble – to do something that would cause trouble
English Idioms for Expressing Knowledge
- Know something inside out – To know something thoroughly
- (Not to) know one’s stuff – (Not to) know what one is expected to know
- (Name) rings a bell – Have a vague memory of someone with that name, but do not remember exactly
- (It/Name) doesn’t ring any bells with me – I don’t think I have ever heard it/name before, it is unfamiliar
- Don’t have a clue how to… – Don’t know (something) at all
- Don’t have the faintest idea… – Really don’t know at all
- Don’t have the foggiest idea… – Absolutely don’t know at all
- Be a bit out of touch with… – Used to know about (something) but don’t know the latest developments
English Idioms for Expressing Experience
- I have decided to put it down to experience – When something bad has happened, but you decide to learn from it (instead of being upset by it)
- I just want to know where I stand – When you don’t know what your position/situation is with someone
- The events/suggestions have given me food for thought – (The events/suggestions) make you think very seriously about…
- (I’ve) learnt my lesson – (Something bad happened to you) you will never let it happen again
- I think he/she has got the message – He/she finally becomes aware of a fact (often an unpleasant one)
- I just want to set/put the record straight. – You tell the true facts to someone who has believed a different set of facts up to that moment
- Have second thoughts about… – Hesitate over a previous (action, position, decision, or judgment)
English Idioms for Talking about Arguments
- On the one hand/on the other hand – to present the opposite facts or two different ways of looking at the same issue.
- Be that as it may. – You accept that something is true, but it is still does not change your opinion
- To put it in a nutshell. – When you are describing something as briefly as you can.
- Pros and cons – Advantages and disadvantages
- Tie oneself (up) in knots – Become very confused when you are trying to explain something.
- Be brought/called to account – Be forced to expalin you actions and (probably) punished.
- Give (somebody) the benefit of the doubt – Belive soemthing good about someone, even though you could belive either good or bad
- Go round in circles – Make no progress in an argument or discussion
- Won’t budge/give an inch – Won’t modify an opinion or agree to even small changes that another person wants
English Idioms for Showing Indifference
- It’s neither here nor there – It’s not very important.
- It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other – Two (people/groups) are equally responsible for a bad situation.
- I can take it or leave it – When you don’t hate something, but you don’t particularly like it either
- You name it… – Anything you say or choose…
English Idioms for Expressing Opinions
- Have a lot to answer for – … Is the main cause of the problems
- It (Something) is not all it’s cracked up to be – It’s not as good as people say it is
- (He/She/Something) has the edge over (something/someone) – (He/She/Something) is slightly better than…
- Leave a lot to be desired – … Not as good as it should be/as we might expect
- Have all the makings of… – Likely to develop into…
- On the big/expensive, etc. side – Bigger/more expensive than you want it to be
- A dead loss – Completely useless
- Rough and ready – Crude and lacking sophistication
English Idioms for Commenting on People’s Actions
- Get/jump/leap on the bandwagon – Get involved in something already very successful
- Play devil’s advocate – Pretend to be against an idea so that others discuss it
- Drive someone to distraction – Make someone very angry or very bored
- Make an exhibition of oneself – Do things in public that make (someone) look stupid
- Do something under false pretences – Tell lies about who they are or what they are doing
- Never do anything/things by halves – Always make a great effort and do things very well
- Be a laughing stock – Be laughted at/mocked by everyone
English Idioms for Reacting to What Others Say
- Really? You could’ve fooled me. – i.e. you don’t belive what someone says about (something) you saw/experienced yourself
- There is no accounting for taste(s). – You can’t understand why others like/do not like (something)
- Yes, if all else fails. – If all other plans do not work
- The lesser of two evils, I suppose … – It is the less unpleasant of two bad options.
- One thing just led to another. – A series of events happened, each caused by the previous one.
- I know, I will never live it down. – i.e. you think you have done something bad/embarrassing that people will never forget
- Yes, go on… strike while the iron is hot. – i.e. do something immediately while you have a good chance of success.
- I don’t know – one way or another. – i.e. you are not sure exactly how yet, but it will happen
- It’s a bit over the top. – i.e. it is more extreme than it is necessary or appropriate
- If I were in your shoes, I would/wouldn’t do that! – If I were in your position, I would/wouldn’t do that.
- It would/wouldn’t be at the top of my agenda. – It would/wouldn’t be the most important priority for me.
- It’s just not on! – i.e. it is not an appropriate way of behaving
English Idioms for Describing Relationships
- Be in someone’s good books – i.e. the person is pleased with you (possibly only temporarily)
- Keep/get/be/stay in touch with someone – keep/get/be/stay in contact with (someone)
- Make it up to someone – i.e. do something good for someone you have done something bad in the past
- Have a soft spot for someone – feel a lot of affection for one particular person (often without knowing why)
- Keep yourself to yourself – i.e. prefer to be on your own and avoid talking to others
- Keep someone at bay – i.e. prevent someone from coming near/harming you
English Idioms for Describing Effort
- Give something your all – i.e. use all your energy/effort to do something
- Go all out – i.e. use a lot of energy and effort to do something
- Go out of your way to do something – i.e. try very hard to do something (usually something nice)
- Pull your weight – i.e. work as hard as other people in a group
- Go through the motions of doing something – i.e. do something because you are expected to do it
- (without putting much effort/enthusiasm into it)
- It’s not worth my while doing (something) – i.e. I will not benefit from doing it.