What is an idiom?

Hello lovely students! Have you ever heard a sentence on a TV show or film you were watching and thought that sentence makes no sense? Has one of your friends ever said a phrase and you had no idea how to respond? The chances are, these phrases were probably idioms.

What is an idiom you ask?

Find out more by reading below.

What are idioms?

Pure idioms

Binomial idioms

Partial idioms

Prepositional idioms


What are idioms?

The word idiom is an Ancient Greek word that means peculiar phraseology. Idioms are common expressions or sayings composed of a combination of individual words, used by native English speakers and non-native English speakers in everyday, figurative language.

There are many idioms in the English language. They do not have a literal meaning so they should not be taken literally.

They have figurative meanings, like metaphors and proverbs. People assume idioms and proverbs are the same. However, idioms differ slightly from proverbs as proverbs tend to give some sort of moral advice. Idioms tend not to.

An example of a popular English proverb is an apple a day keeps the doctor away. This means if you eat healthily, you won’t get ill.

Eating an apple a day, may keep the doctor away, but it isn’t an idiom

Idioms exist in other languages too, from Spanish to Indonesian. They are not English-language specific. Yet, it is almost impossible for idioms in the English language to have the exact same translation as idioms in another language.

This is why it is important to learn about them in the language of a specific country or even a specific region of that same country because sometimes different regions have different sayings.

In English, idioms are divided into four categories: pure idioms, binomial idioms, partial idioms and prepositional idioms.

Let’s take a look below at some idiomatic expressions and their meanings. You’ll be incorporating them into your everyday speech in next to no time.

Pure idioms

These idioms express sayings where the words have no literal resemblance to the phrase in its overall meaning. For example, you wouldn’t necessarily do or have done the actions mentioned in these idioms. There are many idioms in this category.

Let’s take a look at some and their usage.

1) Spill the beans – to tell a secret intentionally or accidentally

I accidentally spilt the beans on Greg’s promotion.

2) Break a leg – to wish someone luck, typically before a performance

I just saw Rhonda backstage and told her to break a leg.

4) When pigs fly – to describe something that will never happen

He will get a pay rise when pigs fly.

5) Down to the wire – a situation whose outcome is not known until the last moment

The count for who will win the general election is down to the wire.

6) Throw a spanner in the works – to do something that prevents a plan from succeeding

Josh threw a spanner in the works when he told me he did not want to marry me anymore.

7) Three sheets to the wind – to be very intoxicated

I don’t think Jules should have had that last drink. He was three sheets to the wind by the end of the party.

8) Extend an olive branch – to make an offer of peace

After years of fighting, Kat finally extended an olive branch to Anna and apologised.

Olives on an olive branch

9) It cost an arm and a leg – when an item or event is expensive

It cost an arm and a leg to throw this party.

Fun fact: this idiom has a lot of rumoured origins, but the most popular theory is that it came from a time when oil painting portraits were in demand. Since painters would charge on the size of the painting, it was more expensive to have your arms and legs included.

10) It’s raining cats and dogs – it is raining heavily

People always assume it rains cats and dogs in the UK, but actually, the rain is usually light.

11) Barking up the wrong tree – a mistaken line of thought, usually in accusation of someone else

Linda thought Harry stole her trophy but he didn’t. It was Annabella. I told her she was barking up the wrong tree.

Fun fact: hunting with packs of dogs used to be very common. The dogs would often chase animals up trees. However, they did not realise the animal had escaped and continued barking. Thus, they were barking up the wrong tree.

12) Once in a blue moon – a rare occasion

Carolyn invited me over for dinner. That happens once in a blue moon.

Fun fact: blue moons are very rare and happen once every two to three years.

13) Go back to the drawing board – to plan something again because the first plan failed

He didn’t like Sid’s idea for the event so he told him to go back to the drawing board.

14) Piece of cakepiece of cake means when a task is easy

I convinced Georgina to stay here and she has. It was a piece of cake.

15) Not the sharpest tool in the shed – to describe a person who is unintelligent

He was not the sharpest tool in the shed. He thought Rome was the capital of Greece.

16) Put all one’s eggs in one basket – when you put all of your effort and resources into something or someone so you have no alternatives if what you are trying to achieve fails

I put all my eggs in one basket because I have put all my savings into England winning the World Cup. I hope they win!

Putting all of your eggs in one basket can be a dangerous thing

Can you understand the pure idiom examples and how we use them? For instance, we don’t actually want someone to break their leg when we say break a leg. The words we say and what they symbolise with these idioms are two different things.

Let’s move on to the next idiom type – binomial idioms.

Binomial idioms

This particular group of idioms may be used to express either a disconnect and opposition or a link between two words. They are often joined by the conjunction and or or. These are used frequently and are common idioms. Let’s take a look at some examples

1) Chalk and cheese – to describe two very different people

Though Hannah and Abigail are twins, they are chalk and cheese. Abigail is extroverted and Hannah isn’t.

Fun fact: there are multiple theories on where this comes from, but many say it comes from the 13th century when cheesemongers used to add chalk to their cheese to add more weight to it. Over time, people realised this was happening and used this phrase to distinguish between good and bad cheese sellers.

2) Odds and ends – small, unimportant items that you may or may not need/want

I have packed most of my things for the holiday in the suitcase. I have a few odds and ends though, like my book light and an extra pair of flip-flops.

3) Part and parcel – an essential component

Stress is part and parcel of any job.

4) Skin and bones – to refer to a very slim person

After his jungle adventure, Rick was skin and bones due to having one meal a day.

5) Make or break – no middle ground between success or failure

If we add this word to our company slogan, it could be make or break for us.

6) Spick-and-span – to describe something very clean

We always keep our room spick-and-span.

7) Short and sweet – when an action is pleasantly brief

That meeting was short and sweet. It only lasted five minutes, but it was uplifting.

8) Live and learn – used when someone learns something from a particularly unpleasant and surprising experience

I thought I could trust them, but you live and learn.

9) Wear and tear – the damage that has been done to an item after long use of it

There’s a lot of wear and tear on my old jeans now. There are holes everywhere in them.

Italian cooking. Fresh ingredients with pasta for italian cuisine. Cheese variety on chalk board

Partial idioms

These are idioms that are so well integrated into the language by native speakers and learners that they become shortened, usually by mentioning the first two words. Yet, people will still know their meaning.

Let’s look at common idioms and their usage.

Full idiomPartial idiomMeaning Example
When in Rome, do as the Romans do.When in RomeWhen visiting a foreign country, follow the customs of those living there.I just drank an espresso instead of an americano for breakfast. When in Rome.
If the shoe fits, wear it.If the shoe fits Used to tell someone that they should accept a criticism or general remark that another person has made.“Are you calling me a liar?” “Well, if the shoe fits.
Birds of a feather, flock together.Birds of a featherPeople who are alike tend to do things together.Those two girls are the definition of birds of a feather.
Cross that bridge once we get to it.Cross that bridgeYou don’t need to deal with a situation until it happens.The caterers might cancel because of the situation.”

Well, we’ll cross that bridge.
Time flies when you’re having fun.Time fliesTime goes quickly in times of joy.I can’t believe the holiday is over. Time flies.
To kill two birds with one stone.two birds, one stoneTo achieve two things at once.I went to Natalie’s house to return her book and, oddly enough, Lara was there too and I had her jumper in my bag. I was going to drop it off around there after going to Natalie’s. Talk about two birds, one stone!

Fun fact: the idiom ‘to kill two birds with one stone’ comes from a time when birds used to be hunted with a slingshot and stone.

When in Rome…

Prepositional idioms

The last group of idioms are not entirely figurative language, but they are nonetheless classed as idioms. They have fairly literal meanings but not quite and they are used in everyday language.

Prepositional idioms are phrases in which the preposition used changes the meaning of the phrase in a way that is not intuitive. Let’s look at some idiom examples in this category.

1) Agree on – to collectively decide

We agreed on a wedding venue.

2) Agree to – to accept

Mara agreed to the new salary

3) Agree with – to concur with another person

I agree with Mark and think blue is a horrible colour.

4) Report on – to provide information

I report on sports for Channel 4 News.

Journalists holding microphone and dictaphone, interviewing female speaker.

5) Make up – when you reconcile after an argument, to invent a story and to compensate for something missed

Dora and Viv have made up now after not talking to each other for five weeks.

Shaun made up how much money he has.

I am sorry I missed Christmas this year. I will make up for it next year.

6) stand for – to support a cause or principle and to refuse to tolerate another person’s behaviour

I stand for animal rights issues.

Jane is good because she won’t stand for nonsense.

7) stand by – to be present when something bad is happening but don’t take any action, to remain loyal to someone and to abide by something promised

Witnesses stood by when the man started screaming.

I will stand by Donny even if no one else will.

We made a promise to the general public and we must stand by it.

8) wait on – to act as an attendant to someone

I waited on her day and night.

9) get one down – when something, someone or a situation makes you feel depressed or demoralised

Rainy days really get me down.

10) boost + object pronoun + up – when someone needs to increase their confidence or morality

He  boosted me up with his  compliments.

Sometimes compliments can boost you up

Is that everything?

Absolutely not! I hope you have enjoyed what these English idioms mean and start using them when speaking in English.

There are plenty of other idioms out there. If you would like to know more, check out these videos on my YouTube channel, English with Lucy.