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How to Master Common English Idioms

Updated on May 19, 2022Grammar

Idioms can be heard everywhere: in the workplace, at the local bar, and even at home. Each language has its own set of unique idioms, but they don’t often translate well across languages. 

So what exactly is an idiom? Technically speaking, an idiom is a common phrase or group of words that has meaning in its own culture or language, but that doesn’t make much sense when broken down into its individual components. The most important thing to remember about idioms is that they should not be taken literally. 

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Below are thirty common American English idioms that you’ve likely heard—and maybe a few that are new! Idioms are a fun way to get familiar with a language—try using them in conversation next time you’re speaking English with a friend.

30 Common American English Idioms

1 Add insult to injury (part of a sentence)

To add another bad situation on top of an existing one.

Example: To add insult to injury, it started to rain after I locked my keys in my car.

2 At the drop of a hat (part of a sentence)

To do something without any hesitation.

Example: If Tara hears her favorite song, she’ll belt out the lyrics at the drop of a hat.

3 Beat around the bush (part of a sentence)

To avoid the difficult part of the conversation.

Example: Quit beating around the bush.

4 Better late than never (used on its own)

It is better to be late than to never arrive or never complete a task.

5 Best of both worlds (part of a sentence)

To have the best parts of two things. 

Example: I get to work from home and go into an office once a week to see my colleagues. I have the best of both worlds.

6 Blessing in disguise (part of a sentence)

Something unexpectedly good.

Example: After she was laid off, she got into a fellowship she wanted—that layoff was really a blessing in disguise.

7 Cut corners (part of a sentence)

To take a shortcut, often leading to a lapse in quality.

Example: Whoever put together this worksheet really cut corners—there’s no space to write!

8 Cut the mustard (part of a sentence)

To meet acceptable standards.

Example: Unless you raise the stair treads up, this project won’t cut the mustard. 

9 Easy does it (used on its own)

Be careful.

10 Far cry from (part of a sentence)

A great distance in quality. 

Example: This frozen pizza is a far cry from the pizza at the restaurant down the street.

11 Give the benefit of the doubt (part of a sentence)

To give someone or something a chance.

Example: I know he’s let us down before, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

12 Hang in there (by itself)

To wish someone to persevere through hardship.

13 Hit the nail on the head (part of a sentence)

Completely accurate.

Example: Your thesis statement really hit the nail on the head.

14 It takes two to tango (by itself)

Two people are at fault.

15 Last straw (part of a sentence)

The last time one will allow this situation.

Example: I’ve tolerated a lot, but this missed appointment was the last straw.

16 Make a long story short (part of a sentence)

To take a long series of events and condense it down to the end.

Example: To make a long story short, it was a tough choice, but we hired him.

17 On the ball (part of a sentence)

Doing well at an activity or task.

Example: Their detail work is always on the ball.

18 On the fence (part of a sentence)

Between two choices, and typically indicates indecisiveness.

Example: I’m between two options for dinner, but I’m on the fence about which to choose.

19 Out of hand (part of a sentence)

Uncontrollable, usually in reference to a person or a situation.

Example: This rumor has really gotten out of hand.

20 Piece of cake (part of a sentence)

A task or activity is easy.

Example: Merging those datasets was a piece of cake.

21 Pulling [your/my/their] leg (part of a sentence)

To joke with someone.

Example: I didn’t mean it, I’m just pulling your leg.

22 See eye to eye (part of a sentence)

To agree with someone.

Example: He and his uncle don’t see eye to eye on politics.

23 Speak of the devil (by itself)

The person who was just being discussed shows up.

24 Stab in the back (part of a sentence)

To betray someone.

Example: I told them a secret and they stabbed me in the back and told my boss.

25 Steal [your/my/their] thunder (part of a sentence)

To take credit for something someone else has already taken credit for.

Example: Not to steal Danny’s thunder, but I was actually the one who proposed that solution.

26 Take [someone’s advice/information] with a grain of salt (part of a sentence)

A warning against taking something seriously.

Example: She said it’s okay not to go by the guidelines, but I’d take that advice with a grain of salt.

27 Taste of [your/my/their] own medicine (part of a sentence)

Usually used when something bad happens to someone that they have also done to someone else.

Example: Kim got a taste of her own medicine when Reggie took all the credit for their project.

28 Twisting [your/my/their] arm (part of a sentence)

To force someone to do something. Usually said as a joke.

Example: You don’t have to twist my arm to get me to dogsit for you.

29 Under the weather (part of a sentence)

Feeling ill.

Example: Jamie’s under the weather and cannot come into work today.

30 Wouldn’t be caught dead (part of a sentence)

Would never do something, usually the activity is embarrassing. 

Example: I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a clown wig in public.

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