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25 useful idiomatic expressions In English

An idiom is a group of words in a fixed order that have a particular meaning different from the meanings of each word when used individually. Did you know there are an estimated 25,000 different idioms in English? In this blog post we explain 25 common idiomatic expressions, and give you tips on how to work out the meaning of idioms you may not have come across before. There is also a short quiz at the end for you to practise your idiom-solving skills! 

In the box below is a text with 10 idiomatic expressions in bold. Can you a guess what they might mean? 

COVID has forced many companies to think outside the box and adopt more creative and unconventional solutions to stay ahead of the pack.  Many companies have had to change their game plan, especially as some sectors have become more cut-throat. For some companies, adapting to the new environment has not been rocket science, whilst for others it has been more challenging. Some companies have had to go out on a limb, taking more risks than usual to ensure targets are reached, and many employees have been burning the midnight oil. The bottom line is that COVID has forced all of us to change at lightning speed. For some people this process has been a steep learning curve.

Now let’s take a look now at the meanings of these idioms:  

1. Think outside the box: to think of creative or unconventional solutions, instead of common ones; to go beyond a normal idea. 

2. Ahead of the pack: to be more successful than one’s competitors.  

3. Game plan: a strategy or plan for success. 

4. Cut-throat: very intense, aggressive, and merciless competition. 

5. It isn’t rocket science: something that isn’t complicated to understand. 

6. To go out on a limb: to do or say something risky. 

7. Burning the midnight oil: to consistently work beyond normal business hours, usually late 

8. The bottom line: the most important point or conclusion. 

9. Lightning speed: extremely quickly. 

10. Steep learning curve: the rate of someone’s progress in learning a new skill or set of information, usually in a short space of time. This is almost always expressed in a term associated with climbing hills or mountains, ie. steep. 

How many did you know or guessed correctly? Here are strategies you can use to work out expressions you may come across in the future 

  • The context in which they are found will give you clues as to their meaning. 
  • If there is a similar expression in your native language, translating each word of the idiom will reveal its meaning.  
  • It isn’t crucial to know the exact meaning to understand what is being written, as long as you get the general idea, or ‘gist’. 

Here are some other common idioms, and how to use them. 

11. Back to square one 

  • Meaning: to start something over again because a previous attempt failed. 
  • Example: ‘Unless we can resolve the problem now, we will be back to square one.’ 

12. By the book 

  • Meaning: to do things exactly according to the rules. 
  • Example: ‘We told our clients that we will do everything by the book and so we must follow procedures properly.’ 

13. Get down to business  

  • Meaning: stop making small talk and start talking about the topic. 
  • Example: ‘Now that everyone is here, let’s get down to business.’ 

14. Go the extra mile 

  • Meaning: to do more than what people expect. 
  • Example: ‘At The London School of English we go the extra mile to ensure that our clients have the best experience.’ 

15. The elephant in the room 

  • Meaning: An obvious problem or controversial issue that no one wants to talk about. 
  • Example: ‘I know it’s uncomfortable, but we really should talk about the elephant in the room.’ 

16. Touch base 

  • Meaning: to make contact with someone. 
  • Example: ‘I’ll touch base with you next week.’ 

17. Word of mouth 

  • Meaning: information or a story that is passed on through speech.  
  • Example: ‘Many companies rely on word of mouth to get new customers.’ 

18. See something through 

  • Meaning: to continue until something is finished. 
  • Example: ‘I would like to see this project through before taking on another one.’ 

19. In a nutshell 

  • Meaning: using as few words as possible; summarising. 
  • Example: ‘In a nutshell, the best way to improve your English is to practise using it.’ 

20. Twist someone’s arm 

  • Meaning: to convince someone to do something that he or she does not want to do. 
  • Example: ‘My boss thought the budget was a bit high, so I had to twist her arm to get her to agree.’ 

Test yourself! 

These last five idioms are used in an example sentence, followed by three definitions. One of the definitions is the correct one. Can you guess which one it is? 

21. Stand one’s ground  

Example: ‘They tried to offer me a voucher for my airline ticket, but I stood my ground and got my money back.’ 

(a) To hold a position in battle. 

(b) Something that you do when you gamble. 

(c) Something that you do when talking on the phone.  

22. Up in the air 

Example: ‘Our worldwide expansion is up in the air.’ 

(a) It is undecided or plans have been upset by something 

(b) It’s far away or not achievable. 

(c) You will always find it. 

23. Learn the ropes 

Example: ‘I started my new job last month and I’m still learning the ropes’ 

(a) Something you do when you go climbing. 

(b) A sporting term. 

(c) Learning the basics of something, especially a job. 

24. On the same page 

Example: ‘Let’s go over the details of the contract again, to make sure we are both on the same page.’ 

(a) To be in agreement about something. 

(b) To make sure we read the same page together. 

(c) To make sure our page numbers are the same. 

25. Red tape 

Example: ‘This new law is going to create a lot of red tape.’ 

(a) Official rules and processes that seem excessive and unnecessary. 

(b) Official rules and processes that must be written in red. 

(c) Official rules and processes that are necessary. 

The answers for the idioms above are a a c a a. How many did you get right?  

This blog has been written at level B1. Practise your reading and listening by reading the blogs below.

Improve your confidence in spoken English with our General English course or Individual English training in our centre in London or online.

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