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The most common English idioms

Do idioms in English ever leave you scratching your head? If phrases like “bite the bullet” (to do something unpleasant) have you stumped, you're in the right place to learn how to understand them. In this article, we'll demystify the most common English idioms, so you can navigate any conversation with ease. What’s more? We’ll even teach you how to identify idioms out in the wild!

Definition and importance of idioms

What's an idiom, anyway?

An idiom is a group of words that, when strung together, take on a completely different meaning than the individual words suggest. Think of idioms as the special sauce of a language — spicing up conversations and making them flavorful.

Why are common English idioms important?

Sure, you could get by without them. But why just survive in a language when you can thrive? Idioms let you express feelings, describe situations, and even navigate complex social settings in a nuanced way. They also offer genuine glimpses into the culture and history of English-speaking countries.

Understanding English idioms

Relevance of context in idiomatic expressions

Guess what? Context is king! Idioms are like chameleons — they adapt to their environment. “Break a leg” could either mean you wish someone good luck, or you're instructing them to literally snap a limb (ouch, don't do that). Context clues you in on which one applies.

Literal and figurative meanings of idioms

Sometimes, the literal meaning of an idiom is a laughable mess. For instance, "don't let the cat out of the bag" has nothing to do with felines or sacks. The phrase actually advises you to keep a secret. Reading idioms word-for-word? That's like eating cereal with orange juice — just wrong.

Common English idioms and their meanings

Alright, friends, here's the fun part. We’re going to give you a taste of common English idioms based on different categories, and then we’re going to share a list of additional idioms you should become familiar with! Ready? Off we go!

Idioms related to time

Once in a blue moon: This idiom refers to something that happens very rarely. Nope, the moon doesn’t actually turn blue. Sorry, moon gazers!

Time flies: Sadly, this doesn't mean time has wings. It just points out how quickly time passes, especially when you're having fun.

Idioms related to emotions and feelings

Feeling blue: No, you're not suddenly turning into a Smurf. This idiom simply means you're feeling down or sad.

On cloud nine: The direct opposite of feeling blue. You’re so happy, you’re soaring among the clouds!

Idioms related to food

Piece of cake: Ah, don’t we all wish this was about real cake? It just means something is really easy.

Bite off more than you can chew: Basically, you've taken on more responsibilities than you can handle. No, you don't need to spit anything out.

Idioms used in business English

Idioms for negotiations and discussions

The ball is in your court: All eyes on you! It's your move, your decision. Don't fumble!

Break the ice: No, we're not talking about a Titanic situation. This idiom is about starting a conversation with a stranger or easing into a tense meeting.

Idioms for decision-making and problem-solving

Between a rock and a hard place: In a difficult situation? This idiom paints that picture perfectly. You're stuck, and both options look equally unpleasant.

Read the room: No, it doesn't involve literacy. It means gauging the atmosphere or mood in a meeting or discussion.

Idioms associated with teamwork and leadership

Take one for the team: Time to be a hero! This idiom means sacrificing your interests for the collective good.

A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for: A mouthful, but it's telling you to be daring and venture into the unknown. Great for encouraging risk-taking in business.

More common English idioms you need to know

Okay, now that you’ve got a few “under your belt” (experienced or achieved) — ready for a crash course? These idioms are some of the most common in English communication. Master them, and you’ll be ready for just about any conversation life throws your way.

Burn the midnight oil: Working late into the night. If you're up late studying or working, you're burning that oil.

Cry over spilt milk: Wasting time worrying about things that have already happened. No use crying, just clean it up!

Don't count your chickens before they hatch: Don't plan on something happening until it's confirmed. Life is full of surprises.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: Be sure not to risk everything on one venture. It’s not a good idea if you’re an investor — or a farmer!

Tie the knot: Get married. Forget about actual knots; it's all about wedding bells here.

Old flame: An ex-lover or partner. If someone's an "old flame," you've got some history together.

Blow hot and cold: Inconsistent behavior in relationships. No, it's not a weather update.

Play hard to get: Pretend to be disinterested to seem more attractive. A classic move, but use it wisely.

Foot the bill: Pay for something, usually a meal or outing. It’s not about feet, it’s about your wallet.

Break the bank: Expensive. If you're thinking of buying a yacht, prepare to break the bank.

A penny saved is a penny earned: Saving money is as good as making money. Pennies add up!

Penny for your thoughts: Asking what someone is thinking. It's cheaper than a therapist!

Cost an arm and a leg: Extremely expensive. No body parts are actually involved, luckily.

Climb the corporate ladder: Progress through job promotions. More rungs, more success.

Throw someone under the bus: Sacrifice a colleague or friend for personal gain. Not a literal bus, thankfully.

Back to the drawing board: Start again because the current idea failed. Designers know this one all too well.

Get the ball rolling: Begin something. Time to take that first step!

Go the extra mile: Put in more effort than required. It’s not about distance, it’s about dedication.

In a pickle: In a difficult situation. Nothing to do with cucumbers, we promise.

The icing on the cake: Something additional that turns good into great. No, you can't eat it.

Eat your heart out: Feel extreme jealousy. Sorry, it’s not a diet tip.

Learning and using common English idioms

Strategies to learn English idioms

Contextual learning: Context is king when it comes to idioms. Whenever you stumble upon an idiom, try to understand how it fits within the conversation. This method helps you not just memorize the phrase but also know when to use it.

Idiom of the day: Make it a habit to learn one new idiom each day. Whether you find it in a book, hear it in a conversation, or pick it from iTranslate’s expansive phrasebook, daily exposure keeps your idiom game strong.

Flashcards: Old school? Maybe. Effective? Definitely. Make flashcards with the idiom on one side and its meaning on the other. Test yourself or get a friend to quiz you.

Visual aids: Some people find it easier to remember idioms through pictures or mind maps. Associate each idiom with a vivid image or story to help cement it in your memory.

Use iTranslate’s Custom Phrasebook: iTranslate doesn't just translate idioms; it explains them. Use this feature to get in-depth information, including the cultural nuances and historical context behind idioms.

Practice with a native speaker: If possible, converse with native speakers who can correct your usage in real-time. It’s an eye-opener to how idioms are naturally integrated into everyday language.

Practice incorporating idioms in everyday speech

When it comes to adding idioms into your daily language use, think of it as seasoning a meal — you wouldn't dump the entire salt shaker onto your dish, right? The same goes for idioms; start small. Incorporate one or two into your conversations until they roll off your tongue as effortlessly as your name.

But just like you wouldn't add sugar to a savory dish, be careful with the context of your idioms. For instance, saying you're "over the moon" (elated) at a somber occasion like a funeral might be inappropriate unless you're absolutely sure it fits.

Movies, TV shows, and podcasts can be gold mines for learning how idioms fit naturally into conversations — which brings us to our next section:

Learning English idioms in literature and media

Through literature and media, you experience idioms as living, breathing parts of speech that evolve and adapt, just like language itself.

Use of idioms in books

In literature, idioms aren't just scattered around; they're placed deliberately within conversations, inner thoughts, or descriptions to enhance the storytelling experience. The advantage here is that you get to see how native English speakers — or well-crafted characters, in this case — use idioms naturally in their conversations.

This isn't just about understanding the literal translation of an idiom; it's about capturing the nuanced emotional and situational context in which these idioms are used. When you see a character exclaim they are "at their wit's end" in a high-stress moment, you understand that the idiom conveys a sense of extreme frustration or desperation better than any dictionary definition could.

Idioms in movies and TV shows

In movies and TV shows, the real-time dialogues offer you live-action examples of how idioms are used in various scenarios by native speakers. When a character in a romantic comedy says they've "fallen head over heels," you understand from the tone, the setting, and the background music that it signifies being deeply in love.

You see, idioms often pop up in moments that are charged with emotion or importance, helping you understand not just the words but the sentiment they're meant to convey.

How to “catch” an idiom

Learning idioms can be a curveball for anyone new to the English language — yep, "curveball" itself is an idiom that means an unexpected challenge or surprise. So, how do you spot these tricky phrases?

Context is your best friend. If a sentence makes no sense literally, there's a good chance an idiom's lurking. Also, pay attention to native speakers. They often use idioms without even realizing it, and picking up on those instances can be educational.

If you're still stumped, consider consulting iTranslate's Custom Phrasebook. It's a goldmine for understanding idioms and their meanings. It can help you translate idioms into your native language, offer examples, and even provide the context in which they're used. It's a fantastic tool for anyone keen on mastering idioms like a native speaker.

Mastering common English idioms with iTranslate

Why slog through countless lists when you can have all these idioms right in your pocket? iTranslate offers a “killer” (amazing) phrasebook feature that helps you ace your idiom game. You're not just learning idioms; you're living them!

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