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English idioms for general conversation

English idioms for general conversation

One of the hardest things about learning a new language is following a conversation. Especially when people use phrases as shortcuts to meaning. 

For example, what would you think if a friend wants 'to chew the fat’ over a coffee? Would you expect to spend your lunchtime eating a piece of fat? No need to panic, that person has used an idiom.

What is an idiom?

An idiom is:

“A group of words (or a phrase) that have a meaning that is different from the meanings of the individual words (e.g. over the moon, see the light).

There are approximately 25,000 idioms in the English language. This might seem daunting but you will soon learn the most common ones. And you become more confident to use them in a conversation.

It is almost impossible to have a conversation in English without the use of an idiom. They offer a shortcut to meaning and engage the imagination. They allow you to convey meaning, an idea or feeling without offering a full definition. This makes them rich in conversational possibilities.

Next time you ask to meet a friend at a coffee shop for a chat, ask if they want to ‘chew the fat’ or ‘put the world to rights’. You are telling them that you want to talk about something important. That you have opinions and thoughts on the matter you want to share.

In this blog, we will look at some of the idioms commonly used during conversations in English.

Telling someone your own news

Tell you a tale/Have I got a tale to tell you:

Use: Meet me at lunchtime,  have I got a tale to tell you!

Meaning: You have some interesting news to share. It’s the stuff friendship is based on.

To cut a long story short:

Use: A group of us went out to a restaurant last night and, to cut a long story short, we agreed…

Meaning: To condense a long explanation into a shorter one.

In a nutshell:

Use: I met with the manager to discuss a few things and, in a nutshell, he agreed with me.

Meaning: In very few words. Another way to condense a long explanation into a much shorter one.

Get it off my chest:

Use: I had a quick chat with her yesterday as I had to get it off my chest. Or, I had to get something off my chest.

Meaning: To say something that has been bothering you for some time. When you have finished, it brings you a sense of relief.

I’m not holding my breath:

Use: I heard they were going to offer free cakes in Starbucks but I’m not holding my breath.

Meaning: Used at the end of a sentence to imply that you don’t expect something to happen. You’d have an unfortunate end if you held your breath until it happened.

Giving me a shoulder to cry on:

Use: He’s a really nice person. Always happy to give you a shoulder to cry on if you’re feeling really down.

Meaning: To provide sympathy and support in a difficult/bad moment.

Out and about

It costs an arm and a leg:

Use: Going into space on Jeff Bezos’ rocket will cost you an arm and a leg. I was going to buy a ticket to see Taylor Swift but it cost an arm and a leg.

Meaning: Very expensive, an enormous amount of money.

A rip-off (also, daylight robbery):

Use: I was going to buy a drink at the cinema but it was a total rip-off.

Meaning: Something that is far too expensive for the quality or quantity. More expensive than it should be. Someone is trying to make money out of you.

Once in a blue moon:

Use: When does he pay for his own drinks in the pub? Once in a blue moon, he’s very mean.

Meaning: Hardly ever, infrequently. A blue moon does not appear very often.

Pigs might fly:

Use: When will there be peace and prosperity across the whole world? When pigs fly!

Meaning: Pigs can’t fly, which means it will never happen.

A bit OTT (over the top):

Use: I must say, as a presenter, he really puts on a show, but it was a little too OTT if you ask me.

Meaning: Too exaggerated, too much (a thing, situation or personality).

Talking about the news

I heard it on the grapevine:

Use: I heard on the grapevine that there is going to be a big change.

Meaning: I got this information from an unofficial or unverified source. It came from a 2nd or 3rd hand source or a rumour. The nature of a grapevine is that things travel along it…

You’re barking up the wrong tree (or, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick):

Use: You’re barking up the wrong tree if you think I was the one who left that note.

Meaning: Believing or following a mistaken or misguided line of thought. A different version of reality. You’ve got the wrong person.

A little bit fishy:

Use: If you ask me, there’s something a little bit fishy about him.

Meaning: A bit suspicious, strange, hard to believe, a bit off.

From the horse’s mouth:

Use: If you want to know the truth, you’ll have to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.

Meaning: Get the information from the person who knows it is definitely true. The person who is the subject of gossip or rumour.

Dealing with uncertainty or ambiguity

It’s on the tip of my tongue:

Use: I know the answer to this. It’s on the tip of my tongue.

Meaning: You feel like you can almost say it, just trying to remember something but can’t quite recall it.

Off the top of my head:

Use: Off the top of my head, I think there are about 25 people going on the next trip.

Meaning: Not 100% certain. You gave a spontaneous response. Without thinking too much about something or without concrete evidence.

But don’t quote me:

Use: I think the tickets cost about £17 but don’t quote me on it.

Meaning: The meaning comes from a quote in a newspaper or journal that has a name and source attached. Ask someone not to make you the source of the information or to tell anyone that you are responsible for it.

Have mixed feelings:

Use: I’m not sure whether to join the gym, I have mixed feelings about it.

Meaning: Have positive and negative feelings at the same time. There are positives and negatives to both options/choices.

I’m in two minds:

Use: I’m not sure whether to join the gym, I’m in two minds over it.

Meaning: Like ‘having mixed feelings’. It means you can’t decide between two different options.

I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it:

Use: I don’t know whether I’ll accept the job if they offer it to me, I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Meaning: Referring to the future, I’ll deal with it, if and when it happens. Often used as an excuse for not planning ahead.

I’m sitting on the fence:

Use: I’m not getting involved in the discussion about Harry’s book and interviews, I’m sitting on the fence on this one.

Meaning: I’m not committing to one view or the other.

Ending a conversation

I’ll keep you posted:

Use: I’m not sure what time it will be, I’ll keep you posted.

Meaning: I’ll update you with further news or the latest news when I have it.

Break a leg:

Use: Good luck with the presentation. Break a leg!

Meaning: This idiom comes from the theatre. It is traditional to tell an actor or actress to break a leg before going on stage. Use it ironically. It means, be lucky.

Hang in there:

Use: I know things are tough right now, but hang in there.

Meaning: Things will get better if you stay strong and determined. If you stick around long enough, things are bound to change.

Time flies (when you’re having fun):

Use: I’ve had a great time this evening, thank you, but time flies.

Meaning: I’d better be off, or you need to go, i.e. time’s up. Time goes quickly when you have a nice time.

You will hear idioms used regularly when English is being spoken. Be curious, listen to the radio, watch TV and read newspapers and magazines. The London School of English provides a safe and encouraging environment in which to develop your language skills.


Idiom: A group of words (or a phrase) that have a meaning that is different from the meanings of the individual words (e.g. over the moon, see the light).

Chat: Talking with someone, an informal conversation.

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