The major difference between a native English speaker and a beginner is not just vocabulary or their accents.
Could you take a guess?
If you said knowing the most common English idioms, you’re spot on. If you don’t know how to express yourself properly, how will you ever build genuine relationships with other people? Idioms bring color to any language, and knowing how to use them (and when) will make every conversation you have moving forward much easier.
To help you out, we’ve curated 23 of the most common English idioms, what they mean, and how you can use it in your future conversations. Ready to get started?
23 Common English Idioms That Every Native Speaker Uses
1. ‘A piece of cake’
Also known as: This was darn easy
If this has your mouth watering, don’t get too excited. We’re not going to be talking about food with this idiom. When someone tells you that something was ‘a piece of cake’, they’re telling you how easy it was. Be aware of how you express this, because some people may perceive it as being cocky and overconfident.
Example: This exam was a piece of cake for me. How was it for you?
2. ‘Break a leg’
Also known as: Good luck!
Before you take this literally and get mad at us, let us explain. Break a leg is actually a form of expression to tell someone ‘good luck.’ Usually this is a common English idiom you would use right before someone goes up to perform or goes through an important event, such as a public presentation.
Example: Ready to get up on stage? Go break a leg!
3. ‘Rule of thumb’
Also known as: Generally speaking…
Why is there a rule that is associated with your thumb? We have no clue. But in English, you’ll hear most people refer to it as an unwritten rule that is commonly known by other people.
There’s no exact science or law that defines this rule. Just think of it as a general principle that’s understood by those in your culture. Keep in mind, a rule of thumb can be completely different from one culture to another. For instance, Australians are known to make jokes at a funeral, whereas a rule of thumb in the United States is to keep a straight face.
Example: As a rule of thumb, you want to tip at least 15% when you go to a fancy restaurant in Manhattan.
4. ‘Blow off steam’
Also known as: Relieve stress
Stressed out? Maybe it’s time to blow off some steam. Visualize a train blowing steam from the top, and you’ll probably get a sense of what the term means. It means to relieve stress, which could be in the form of punching a body bag, screaming into your favorite pillow, or getting an intense workout in.
Example: I’ve been working seven days straight this week. I’m going to Spain for a few days next week to blow off steam.
5. ‘Pull yourself together’
Also known as: Get yourself in order!
Picture a lazy looking person who’s slouching down on the couch. Now imagine a buff-looking character pulling this person up from behind to sit straight.
This may not be the best illustration in the world, but I hope this paints a picture for you. Pulling yourself together means to get your life in order when you’re a mess. Maybe you’ve been through a breakup with your partner, and you need to ‘pull yourself together’ by getting back on the dating train.
Example: We’ve got to finish this project by midnight tonight. Let’s pull ourselves together and get this done properly!
6. ‘Hang in there’
Also known as: Stay strong
Imagine hanging on to one arm at the end of a cliff. You’re hanging on for dear life to stay alive, even as you feel yourself slipping. When you or someone else is going through a rough patch, you can offer some words of encouragement by saying ‘hang in there’ or ‘stay strong!’
Example: We’ve just got one more mile left, you’re already 99% there — just hang in there!
7. ‘Cut to the chase’
Also known as: What’s your point?
Do you have a friend or family member who can’t seem to stay on topic? They jump from one story to another, and they can never get to the point of the story itself. This is when you can tell someone to ‘cut to the chase’ (in a nice way).
Example: OK, this person has been talking for thirty minutes about the same topic. Cut to the chase already.
8. ‘Get over it’
Also known as: Forget about it and move on.
Are you struggling to overcome a difficult past or experience? Whether it was from your childhood or a recent event, ‘getting over it’ is the best way to move on with your life. In other words, ‘get over it’ means to get over an obstacle that’s in your way (in most cases, mentally).
Example: I know she cheated on your with Mark. But it’s been five years already, you have to get over it man!
9. ‘Hit the books’
Also known as: Need to study
Please don’t hit yourself or anyone else with a book. What we mean by ‘hit the books’ is, you’re going to study hard for an upcoming exam or test (in most cases).
Example: Sorry guys, I can’t make it to your birthday party this Friday. I have to hit the books for my upcoming LSAT exam. Have fun!
10. ‘Blew me away’
Also known as: That was absolutely amazing
We’re full of expressive illustrations today. When you’re so taken back by a person, event, or experience, you can refer to it as being ‘blown away’ by it. Similar to a strong wind blowing away a branch of leaves, a breathtaking event can ‘blow you away.’
Example: Sally is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. She literally blew me away with her smile.
11. ‘Sold me out’
Also known as: (He/she) told on me!
Remember when you were little, and someone you know told on you for something you did? It wasn’t the greatest feeling, was it? A common English idiom that adults use when this happens is ‘you sold me out!’
Example: After everything I did for her, especially when she was struggling back in LA, I can’t believe she sold me out! I thought we were friends…
12. ‘To feel under the weather’
Also known as: Not feeling too well….
Feeling sick? Well, another way to express this is to tell someone you’re feeling under the weather. It’s hard to say if there’s a literal translation to this, but you could say it’s a more colorful way to say you’re not feeling well.
Example: Ever since we ate Mexican food at lunch, I’ve been feeling under the weather…
13. ‘To cut corners’
Also known as: Taking a shortcut
When you visualize cutting a corner, you can probably visualize it as reaching your destination faster (instead of going all the way around). That’s pretty much what this means. Instead of going the extra mile and giving your best effort, cutting the corner means taking a shortcut to your end goal.
Example: This is why we don’t like to work with people from [Department] at this company, they’re always cutting corners and making us look bad!
Also known as: Always on!
There are 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. In short, 24/7 means you’re always on without break. Normally, it’s an exaggerated form of expression when someone’s describing their work schedule or lifestyle. In literal terms, a convenience store could be referred to as being open 24/7.
Example: I’m in it to win it. That’s why I’m training 24/7 to make sure I’m ready for the race.
15. ‘Draw the line’
Also known as: That’s it!
Ever been in a situation when someone has taken it too far? Maybe you were in an argument and they brought up a sensitive topic that really got you frustrated. That’s when you need to ‘draw the line’ and stand up for yourself. This is, of course, an imaginary line that you draw between you and someone else to show that you won’t take it anymore.
Example: Alright that’s enough talk about my past, I’m drawing the line here.
16. ‘Go the extra mile’
Also known as: Do more than what’s expected of you
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Imagine a marathon runner who finished running a 25-mile race, and wants to run an extra mile. In an everyday situation, you can also ‘go the extra mile’ with your project, relationship, or anything else by doing more than what’s expected of you.
Example: I want to hire James because whenever we work together, he’s always willing to go the extra mile to get things done.
17. ‘Sleep on it’
Also known as: Let’s talk about it after a good night’s rest
Say you have a big decision to make, perhaps an investment or what job you’re going to take. You’re probably not going to want to make it on the spot, or when you’re not at the right state of mind. That’s usually when you can tell yourself or someone else that you’ll ‘sleep on it.’
Basically, it means that you’re going to think about it overnight and make a more rational decision the next day.
Example: OK, we’ve been talking for hours about this decision. We’re all tired at this point, so why don’t we just sleep on it, and make a decision tomorrow?
18. ‘Hit the nail on the head’
Also known as: That’s exactly right!
Hitting the nail on the head means to precisely understand something that may not have been obvious before. Let’s say you had trouble understanding a topic, but when a friend of yours explained it, you suddenly understood it. That’s what ‘hitting the nail on the head’ means.
Example: I couldn’t quite understand what was wrong with me until I visited my family doctor. He hit the nail right on the head as soon as I saw him!
19. ‘Bite off more than you can chew’
Also known as: Taking on way too much
Whenever you are overloaded with numerous projects or a busy schedule, you’ll commonly hear native speakers saying they ‘bit off more than they can chew.’ It’s a reference to when an animal is biting off more than they can actually eat, leaving unnecessary waste.
Think about this in your own life. Maybe you’re taking too many classes, working too many hours, or starting too many businesses.
Example: I don’t know about this Harold. This is the third business you’ve started in three months, maybe you’re biting off more than you can chew right now.
20. ‘Elephant in the room’
Also known as: The obvious topic that needs to be addressed
What would happen when an elephant was to actually show up in your living room? Well, you’d probably not be able to focus until it’s removed from your presence. When someone refers to something as the ‘elephant in the room’, it’s usually a situation or topic that everybody in the room is thinking about.
Example: Before we move on to the meeting, let’s first address the elephant in the room.
22. ‘Add fuel to the flame’
Also known as: To make things worse/To make things even better
Another visual definition to make it easier for you to understand. Adding fuel to the flame would literally make the flame grander and stronger. In everyday conversations, a fuel could be an additional piece of information or action that makes a situation even worse (or sometimes better).
Example: First he wasn’t able to get his work done in time for our presentation. Then to add fuel to the flame, he was ten minutes late to the presentation!
23. ‘Once in a blue moon’
Also known as: A rare event
When a rare event happens, you refer to this as ‘once in a blue moon.’ Is that because a blue moon is something we don’t ever see? Perhaps.
Example: You’ll rarely see John coming into the office now, especially since he had his first child. But once in a blue moon, he’ll show up when you least suspect it.
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