English Idioms and Phrases: A List with Meanings & Examples

English Idioms and Phrases

This page features a comprehensive list of common English idioms and phrases for language learners and teachers. The meanings for each expression are provided, along with example sentences to clarify the meanings in context.

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A Searchable List of 219 Common English Idioms and Phrases

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*Updated: August 22, 2017

Idiom / PhraseMeaningExample Sentence
a bitter pillsomething unpleasant that must be acceptedAwarding the trophy to her enemy was a bitter pill to swallow.
a dime a dozencommon and available anywhereCorrupt cops are a dime a dozen in this city.
a field daya very enjoyable timeMy children had a field day at the carnival.
a little bird told mesomeone told me a secretA little bird told me that you're getting a divorce.
a penny for your thoughtsask for adviceCould I have a penny for your thoughts? I don't know how to solve this problem.
ace in the holea hidden strength or advantageThey'll win the game since their rookie goalkeeper is an ace in the hole.
achilles' heelsomeone's weaknessVodka is his achilles' heel. He only loses his composure when he drinks it.
actions speak louder than wordsjudge what someone does rather than what they sayHe said he was faithful, but he always comes home late at night. His actions certainly speak louder than words.
add insult to injuryworsen an unfavorable situationShe added insult to injury by picking her little brother's ice cream off the dirty floor and sticking it in his mouth.
all earslisten carefully"Are you paying attention?" Jane asked. Jack responded, "I'm all ears!"
all thumbsclumsyI'm all thumbs today. I keep dropping my phone!
an arm and a legvery expensiveThat new car costs an arm and a leg.
ants in your pantsanxious or nervousFrank had ants in his pants before taking his exam.
apple of one's eyean adored personHis precious daugher is the apple of his eye.
at the drop of a hatinstantlyAt the drop of a hat, I called my sister when I heard she was pregnant!
back to the drawing boardbegin something all over againIt was back to the drawing board after the team failed to make the playoffs.
bad egga troublesome personBart is the bad egg of the class. He is always throwing paper airplanes.
ball is in your courtthe decision is up to youWe offered him an extra million dollars. The ball is in his court if he wants to sign the contract.
bark up the wrong treelook in the wrong place or falsely accuseHe asked me if I broke his laptop. I said he was barking up the wrong tree.
basket caseerratic or panickyShe became such a basket case when she discovered her ex was at the party.
be nuts aboutreally enjoyShe is nuts about her new boyfriend.
beat a dead horsedwell on a topic beyond resolutionI told you several times that I won't do it. Don't beat a dead horse!
beat around the bushavoid talking about something specificallyStop beating around the bush! Get to the point already!
best of both worldsenjoy two different opportunitiesJoe got the best of both worlds when he married Amy who was his best friend and a supermodel.
big cheesean important personWhere is the director? I want to talk to the big cheese.
bite off more than one can chewtake on more responsibility than what is manageableHe was multitasking and getting stressed, so I told him not to bite off more than he could chew.
bite the bulletto endure an unpleasant and unavoidable situationRebecca hated her job, but she bit the bullet and completed her contract.
bite the dustdie or failThe hunter fired his gun and the deer bit the dust.
black sheepunaccepted group memberTom was the black sheep of the family and preferred to do things on his own.
bread and butternecessities or main pointsTell me the bread and butter of the article and explain the gereral idea of it.
break a leggood luckBefore the final exam, the teacher told his students to break a leg.
bring home the baconearn incomeMy mother has to bring home the bacon for the family because my dad is unemployed.
buckle downwork hardLet's buckle down and finish the assignment.
burn a hole in one's pocketspend too much moneyHe burned a hole in his pocket overpaying on insurance.
burn the midnight oilwork late into the nightThe student burned the midnight oil in order to pass the test.
bust one's chopssay something insultingShe always busts his chops about his fashion style.
butter someone upbe really nice to someoneYou had better butter me up if you want a raise in salary.
by a landslideby a large marginThe Predators lost by a landslide in game 5. The Penguins beat them by 6 goals!
by the seat of one's pantsachieve instinctively or quicklyTony did his impromptu speech by the seat of his pants without any preparation.
by the skin of one's teethbarely or narrowlySara finished the test by the skin of her teeth just before the bell rang.
call it a dayfinish workLet's call it a day. It's time to go home.
call the shotsmake the decisionsThe new coach is calling the shots.
cat napa short sleepMy father always takes a cat nap after work.
cat's got one's tonguesaid when someone doesn't speakCat's got your tongue? You haven't said a word since we arrived.
caught with one's pants downunpreparedDon't get caught with your pants down at a red light. Be ready to drive when it turns green.
cheap as chipsvery inexpensiveThis cup of coffee was only 50 cents. Cheap as chips!
chicken outavoid doing something because of fearMary was going to go skydiving, but she chickened out.
chink in one's armorvulnerable areaBob was a great teacher, but the chink in his armor was his fear of public speaking.
chip indonate money or timeWhy don't you chip in and support the refugees?
clam upbecome quietTom always clams up when you ask him about his ex-girlfriend.
commit Harry Carrycommit suicideUnfortunately, some of the world's greatest singers committed Harry Carry.
copy catsomeone who copies anotherYou're such a copy cat! Do your own work!
couch potatolazy personDon't be such a couch potato and do some work for once!
cream of the cropthe bestThe team has the cream of the crop of draft picks. They will probably win the cup soon.
crocodile tearsfake tearsHer little daughter always cries crocodile tears to get whatever she wants.
cry over spilled milkget upset over something insignificant or about something irreversibleI know you forgot your phone, but there is no need to cry over spilt milk. You can live without it for an hour.
cup of joecup of coffeeLet's get a cup of joe at Starbucks.
cut the cheesefartWho cut the cheese? It smells awful in here.
cut the mustardmeet expectationsGeorge's work ethic didn't cut the mustard, so he got fired.
cut the rugdanceI love this song! Let's go on the dance floor and cut the rug!
dig deeplook hard for information or try hardWalt had to dig deep to find a solution to the chemistry problem.
dirt cheapvery inexpensiveMy clothes are dirt cheap, but they still look fashionable.
dog daysvery hot daysThe dog days of summer are really humid and uncomfortable.
don't count chickens before they hatchdon't plan for something that may not happenZoe bought the dress, before anyone asked her to the prom. I told her not to count her chickens before they hatch.
down to earthnatural personalityAlexander is very wealthy, but he is still down to earth.
down to the wireto the endThe game is coming down to the wire and nobody has scored.
dress to killdress in glamorous clothesShe is always dressed to kill when she goes to the bar.
drop like fliesdye or give up quicklyThe other candidates dropped like flies at the end of the election.
eager beaversomeone who is excited about somethingShe's such an eager beaver when checking updates on Instagram.
egg someone onto urge or provoke someoneThe hockey player tried to egg his opponent on by dropping his gloves.
elephant in the rooma sensitive unaddressed issueThe couple's money problem was an elephant in the room. They never talk about finances.
every cloud has a silver liningbe optimisticShe got fired but found a better job she. Every cloud has a silver lining.
fair-weather frienda person who is only a friend in good timesI try to avoid fair-weather friends. They aren't very sincere.
fine-tooth combin detailThe detective analyzed the crime scene with a fine-tooth comb.
fishystrange or suspiciousSomething fishy is going on. He takes his wedding ring off when he leaves.
fit as a fiddlegood physical healthLook at those abs! You are as fit as a fiddle!
fit like a glovefit perfectlyThose jeans fit her like a glove.
freeze one's buns offbe very coldShe froze her buns off on top of the mountain.
front runnerfavorite to winThe stallion is the front runner. He'll be hard to beat.
full of beansenergeticThe elementary students are always full of beans.
get a head startstart before othersDon always gets a head start and wakes up at dawn.
get a second windhave new energy after an attemptI was exhausted after 3 kilometres of running, but I got a second wind after I passed the beach.
get bent out of shapeget upsetThe waiter got so bent out of shape when the customer tipped him a penny.
get into the full swingbe comfortable doing something after some timeIt took her a month to get into the full swing of things. Now she is the best employee.
get wind of somethingoverhear something about someone or something (often gossip)Sherry got wind that her ex-boyfriend was coming to the same bar, so she went home.
give a cold shoulderto deny or ignoreShe game him a cold shoulder when he asked for her phone number.
give it your best shottry your hardestI know the homework is difficult but give it your best shot.
give one a run for one's moneytry hard to defeat another personConnor is going to give Floyd a run for his money.
give someone a fair shakegive someone a chanceHe never got a fair shake. He got fired after a week.
go downhillget progressively worseHis health started to go downhill when he started smoking again.
go overboarddo more than neededDon't go overboard or you'll get stressed out. Just do one page.
go to bat for someonedefend someoneHis colleague went to bat for her and testified on her behalf.
go with the flowgo along with what everyone else does without conflictNancy just goes with the flow at her work and doesn't cause any interference.
grass is always greener on the other sideothers always have it betterWhenever she complains about her hometown, I remind her that the grass is always greener on the other side.
gravy trainhigh pay for minimal workGovernment workers ride the gravy train while sitting at their desks doing nothing.
handle with kid gloveshandle delicatelyPlease handle those wine glasses with kids gloves.
hard nut to crackdifficult to understand or persuadeThe criminal was a tough nut to crack. He never revealed any of his accomplices.
have a blasthave a good timeWe all had a blast at the party!
have a bun in the ovenbe pregnantMary has a bun in the oven so she can't drink alcohol.
have a card up one's sleevehave a secret planThe goaltender had a card up his sleeve when he pushed the net off.
have a cowget upsetDon't have a cow! It's not like I scratched the car on purpose!
have eyes in the back of one's headperceptiveHis girlfriend must have eyes at the back of her head. She always knows what he's up to.
have one's cake and eat it toowant more than you needFrank is married but he also wants to date other women. He wants to have his cake an eat it too.
have the upper handhave a better chance of winningThe experienced boxer has the upper hand.
heard it through the grapevinehear a rumorI heard it through the grapevine that you were getting nose surgery.
hit a snagface a sudden problemWe've hit a snag. I don't think we can finish it on time now.
hit below the beltdo something that is unfairYou hit me below the belt when you said that lie about me.
hit the nail on the headto be precisely accurate or correctI couldn't have said it better myself. You really hit the nail on the head.
hit the roadleaveWhen the bell rang, the teacher told the students to hit the road.
hit the sack / sheets / haygo to sleepI'm so tired. It's time to hit the sack.
hold all the acesexpected to winThe home team holds all the aces. I don't think the other team will win.
hold your horseswait and be patientHold your horses! I'll be ready in a minute.
holy cowthat is surprisingHoly cow! Did she really dye her hair blue?
horse aroundplay roughlyStop horsing around kids. You're in the library.
hot potatoa controversial subjectTrump's last Tweet was a hot potato in the news.
hot shot or big shotvery confident or successful personAll the hot shots in New York live on the Upper East Side.
I betI think soI bet she's going to arrive late to work again.
in a nutshellto sum upIn a nutshell, she is sick because she drank too much last night.
in the dog housein troubleThe coach won't let me play. I'm in the dog house.
it takes two to tangoit takes more than one personThere is now way she robbed the store alone. It takes two to tango. Someone helped her break in.
jump shipescapeThe employees all jumped ship when they heard the company was going bankrupt.
jump the gunbegin too soonIf you jump the gun then you may make a mistake. Go at your own pace.
keep one's head above waterhave barely enough money to liveAfter my company went bankrupt, it was difficult to keep my head above water.
keep one's head above watertry not to fall behindI have so much work to finish. It's hard to keep my head above water here.
kick the bucketdieI hope I can travel the world before I kick the bucket.
kill two birds with one stoneaccomplish two things at onceWhy not kill two birds with one stone and brush your teeth in the shower?
kitty cornerdiagonally across fromStarbucks is kitty corner to the gas station.
know which way the wind blowsknow the end resultNobody knows which way the wind will blow. Just try to be positive.
learn the ropeslearn new thingsI spend the whole morning learning the ropes for the job.
let the cat out of the bagreveal a secretDon't let the cat out of the bag about the birthday party.
level playing fieldequal chanceThe team leveled the playing field after the penalty kick.
long shotdifficult thing to accomplishIt will be a long shot to finish in the top three positions.
make a mountain out of a molehillto overemphasize small problemsThe car only got a tiny dent. You're making a mountain out of a molehill.
make from scratchmake with original ingredientsMy wife made me a delicious omelette from scratch.
make the cutchosen to be part of a groupI don't think I made the cut. Other people will probably get hired instead.
method to my madnesshaving a purpose despite some disorganizationI know my desk is a mess, but there is a method to my madness. It makes everything easier to access.
monkey see, monkey dosilly people copy each otherMonkey see, monkey do. Your brother spilt ketchup on his shirt too.
neck and neckvery closeThe race cars were neck and neck until the end.
nest eggsaved moneyShe has a huge nest egg, so she doesn't have to work anymore.
no sweatno problemSara said it would be no sweat to finish the assignment on time.
not playing with a full decklower mental abilityGeorge isn't playing with a full deck. He forgot to wear his socks.
not up to parnot good enoughIf you're not up to par by the end of the month, you're fired.
off one's rockercrazyJanet is licking food off the floor. She must be off her rocker.
off the cuffimprovisedThe groom made did wedding speech off the cuff.
off the hookescape obligationThe boss let him off the hook and said he didn't have to work today.
on a silver platterreceive benefits without workingTom gets everything from his parents on a silver platter. He even got a new car for his birthday.
on cloud ninevery happyElizabeth was on cloud nine when she put on the diamond ring.
on the ballready and ableI'm on the ball today. I finshed everything before lunch.
once in a blue moonrarelyThe truck driver visits his kids once in a blue moon.
one's cup of teasomething enjoyableMusicals aren't my cup of tea. I prefer regular movies.
out in left fieldstrange or unconventionalHis response was so way out in left field that everyone couldn't stop laughing.
out of someone's leaguenot as good as someone elseShe's way out of my league. There's no way she'll go out with me.
out of the woodsclear of a dangerous situationThe Lakers aren't out of the woods yet. They still have to play one more quarter.
out to lunchcrazy or distracted or confusedThat guy is so out to lunch. He is difficult to get business done with.
over the hillold ageMy boss is over the hill, but he still doesn't want to retire.
piece of cakeeasyThe test was a piece of cake. Everyone got an A!
piece of cakevery easyThe final exam was a piece of cake.
pig outeat a lotLast night, I pigged out on a bag of potato chips.
piss in one's cornflakesto annoy out of spite She always pisses in his cornflakes because of what he did to her last year.
plenty of other fish in the seathere are many other available partnersDon't worry. You'll find another girl. There are plenty of other fish in the sea.
pull somebody's legtease or joke aroundI'm just pulling your leg. Don't take it too seriously.
pull up one's sockstry hardThe student pulled up her socks and aced the test.
pushing up daisiesdieYou'll be pushing up daisies if you don't quit smoking.
put a sock in itstop talkingPut a sock in it and listen to the teacher!
put all of one's eggs in one basketrely on one thingHe dedicated all of his time to baseball. If he puts all of his eggs in one basket, he may not have an alternative career to rely on.
put one's thinking cap onconcentrateThe advertisers put their thinking caps on and created a brilliant ad for the product.
put oneself in someone else's shoessympathizePut yourself in the President's shoes. It must be a difficult decision.
rain on someone else's paradeinfringe on someone's happinessStop raining on my parade whenever you get miserable.
raining cats and dogsraining heavilyIt's raining cats and dogs. Remember your umbrella.
rat racecompetitive struggleI escaped the rat race in the office and moved to Hawaii.
ride one's coattailsdo nothing and let others do all the workShe has been riding my coattails all year and I don't get any credit for my effort.
right as rainfeeling very well or fitAfter a walk through the park, I feel as right as rain. My mind feels clear.
roll up one's sleeveswork hardHe rolled up his sleeves and got the job done.
screw the poochfailCarl really screwed the pooch on the exam. He's the only one who failed.
settle a scoreget evenIt's time to settle the score. I'm sick of losing against these guys.
shoot the breezechitchatLet's grab lunch and shoot the breeze.
shooting fish in a barreleasy or not challengingFor my brilliant little brother, setting up the Wifi connection is like shooting fish in a barrel.
shot in the darkguessIt was a shot in the dark, but her answer was correct.
skate on thin icedo something riskyHe was skating on thin ice when he insulted the boss.
sleep with the fishesdieBefore pulling the trigger, he told the gangster to sleep with the fishes.
smart cookiean intelligent personGeorge is one smart cookie. He got 100 percent on all his tests.
smell a ratsuspect deceptionI smell rat. I know I left my wallet on my desk, but it's gone.
spice things upmake more excitingSara spiced up her room by hanging paintings on the walls.
spill the beansreveal a secretWho spilt the beans about my brother's surprise birthday party?
start the ball rollingstart somethingLet's get the ball rolling and start with some ice breakers.
steal someone's thunderto take credit for someone else's achievementSome companies steal another's thunder and ignore copyright laws.
step up to the platetake responsibilityYuna is going to step up to the plate and admit that her team's decision was wrong.
stick-in-the-muda dull or unadventurous personJerry is such stick-in-the-mud. He never wants to go out with his friends.
straight from the horse's mouthdirectly from the sourceThe boss said we're bankrupt. The news came straight from the horse's mouth.
take a raincheckreschedule at another timeCan I take a raincheck? I don't have time to hangout tonight.
take one's hat off to someonehonor someoneI take my hat off to Frank. He was the best singer of the century.
take the bull by the hornsbe brave and face a challengeIf you want to be rich, take the bull by the horns and work harder.
take the bull by the hornsattempt the challengeLet's take the bull by the horse and get started on the project.
take the cake especially good or outstandingHis slapshot definitely takes the cake. It's the best in the league!
take the wind out of one's sailsto feel deflatedYou really took the wind out of your husband's sails when you laughed at his invention.
take with a grain of saltnot take too seriouslyYou should take everything she says with a grain of salt. Don't get too offended by her.
take with a grain of saltdon't believe it is completely accurateI always take whatever I read in the news with a grain of salt.
the birds and the beessex educationI remember learning about the birds and the bees in middle school.
the home stretchnear the endWe're on the home stretch now. We'll be there in a few minutes.
the lion's sharethe majorityShe was upset because her sister got the lion's share of the inheritance.
the tip of the iceberga small part of a bigger problemThe tax evasion was just the tip of the iceberg. The company has commited countless other crimes.
the whole nine yardseverythingWe covered the whole nine yards in the meeting. There's nothing left to do.
through thick and thinin good and bad timesHe loved his wife through thick and thin.
throw in the towelgive upRocky never threw in the towel during his fighting career.
throw under the bussacrifice someone as a scapegoatThe player threw the goaltender under the bus saying he was the reason they lost the game.
time outbreakCan we take a time out and work on this later in the afternoon?
to be off basenot making a fair statementMandy was off base when she said that I needed a hair transplant to get the acting role.
tongue in cheeknot meaning what one is sayingWhen I said to fly to Hawaii, I was speaking tongue in cheek. I didn't actually think you would book a ticket!
under my thumbunder my controlMick said the girl was under his thumb. She was the sweetest pet in the world.
under the tableconcealed or by secretWe should keep this under the table until we know it's safe to tell everyone.
under the weatherfeel sickSorry, I can't come to work today. I'm feeling a bit under the weather.
until the cows come homefor a long timeShe can watch Netflix until the cows come home.
up the creekin troubleIf I don't wash the dishes tonight, I'll be up the creek. Mom said to wash them two days ago.
wear one's heart on one's sleeveshow emotions openlySamantha wears her heart on her sleeve and gives annual donations to chairity.
wear the pantsbe in chargeShe wears the pants in the family. Her husband stays home and sleeps all day.
wild goose chaselengthy undertaking that accomplishes littleMaking the playoffs is now a wild goose chase. The team should focus on player development.
win hands downeasy victoryThe team one hands down because their opponents had three red cards.
you betabsolutely or "of course"Marge told Bart to take out the trash. He said, "Sure, mom. You bet!"
you can say that againthat is definitely true"This movie is so boring," she said. "You can say that again," her friend replied with a yawn.


More Idiom Resources Online for Teachers and Students:

Ways to Practice Idioms in Class on ESLlibrary.com

Idiom Quizzes for Students on A4ESL.org

Common English Idioms and Slang on The Internet TESOL Journal

Idiom Worksheets on ESLflow.com

*Movie Idioms ESL Activity on ESLexpat.com


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