English speakers can be hard to understand for so many reasons: they talk fast, they use slang and they also use lots of English idioms.
Every language has its own idioms. Sometimes the idioms in your language might be similar to English ones, other times, they’re completely different.
In this post, you’ll discover 99 English idioms so you can talk about almost anything while sounding more like a native speaker.
Essential English Idioms You Need To Know
This list of 30 idioms contains some of the most common and most well-known English idioms that you’ll hear. If you only learn a few English idioms, make sure it’s these ones.
1. A Piece Of Cake
If something is a piece of cake, then it’s easy.
Example: That test was a piece of cake – I’m sure I’ll get a good grade.
2. Once In A Blue Moon
If you do something once in a blue moon, you don’t do it often. It’s rare or infrequent.
Example: We don’t speak that much any more. I hear from him once in a blue moon.
3. When Pigs Fly
English speakers use this expression to talk about something that’s impossible or highly unlikely.
A: When do you think you’ll get married?
B: When pigs fly!
4. Miss The Boat
If you miss the boat, then you miss the chance or the opportunity to do something you wanted to do, often due to lateness.
Example: You’ve missed the boat unfortunately – applications for the job closed about an hour ago.
5. Break The Ice
If you break the ice, you help strangers (people who are meeting for the first time) feel more relaxed and comfortable with each other.
Example: English teachers have lots of activities for breaking the ice with new groups of students such as playing “find someone who…?”
6. Beat Around The Bush
This idiom refers to avoiding an important topic or not speaking directly about something.
Example: Time to stop beating around the bush – we need to focus on the main point of this meeting.
7. The Ball Is In Your Court
Nothing to do with tennis! If someone tells you “the ball is in your court” it means that you have to make a decision or take a step to make progress in a particular situation.
Example: Well, you have all the information you need – the ball’s in your court now.
8. Cost An Arm And A Leg
This idiom has nothing to do with body parts! You use it to say that something is expensive.
You’ll hear several other idioms that mean the same thing such as:
- Cost a small fortune
- Cost a bomb
- Cost the earth
- Cost a packet
Example: Have you seen the price of petrol these days? It costs an arm and a leg!
9. Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining
An idiom for people who prefer to think positively. It means that we can find some good or something positive even in difficult situations.
Example: Losing your job is tough, but every cloud has a silver lining. Now you’ll get to spend more time with your family, like you’ve always wanted.
10. Bite The Bullet
If you bite the bullet, then you decide to make yourself do something difficult even though you don’t want to.
Example: I’m going to have to bite the bullet and tell her that I’m not in love with her any more.
11. Bury The Hatchet
If people who were arguing or angry at each other decide to bury the hatchet, then they decide to stop fighting and be friends.
Example: You haven’t spoken to your brother for 10 years – don’t you think it’s time to bury the hatchet?
12. A Blessing In Disguise
You’ll find an important life lesson in this idiom. It refers to a situation which is bad at first but actually turns out to be good later on.
Example: My accident turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it made me realise what wonderful friends and family I have to help me.
13. Actions Speak Louder Than Words
This idiom means that what you do is much more important than what you say.
Example: A lot of governments say they care about the environment and have promised to cut carbon emissions, but actions speak louder than words.
14. At The Drop Of A Hat
If you do something at the drop of a hat, you do it straight away, without hesitating.
Example: I can’t just go on holiday at the drop of a hat – I have to let my boss know before.
15. A Penny For Your Thoughts
If you haven’t said much and someone else wants to know what you’re thinking, perhaps because they’re worried about you, they might use this idiom.
Example: You’ve been quiet all afternoon – a penny for your thoughts?
16. Add Insult To Injury/ Add Fuel To The Fire
Both of these idioms are about the same thing – making a bad situation worse!
Example: What a day – I was already late for work and then, to add insult to injury, when I got to the station, my train had been cancelled!
17. Catch Someone Red-Handed
If you catch someone red-handed, you see them doing something bad or illegal.
Example: How can you deny stealing from me – I caught you red-handed, taking money from my wallet!
18. Back To The Drawing Board
You use this idiom when you need to start something over because it’s not working.
Example: The new product launch was a disaster – back to the drawing board!
19. Fly Off The Handle
This idiom is used to describe someone who reacts in an angry way to what others say or do, often for no reason. You have to be careful around people who fly off the handle!
Example: I want to quit my job – my boss flies off the handle whenever something goes wrong.
20. The Best Of Both Worlds
If you get the best of both worlds thanks to a situation then lucky you – that means that you’re enjoying the advantages of two things simultaneously.
Example: My cousin’s family lives in a village, but it’s a twenty minute bus ride from a city centre so they get the best of both worlds: the calm of the country and the excitement of the town.
21. Kick The Bucket
This is a rather depressing idiom that simply means to die.
Example: We all have to kick the bucket one day
22. Burn The Midnight Oil
If you’re using this idiom then you must be working a lot as it means to work into the night.
Example: We’re going to have to burn the midnight oil to get this presentation ready on time.
23. Burn The Candle At Both Ends
Hearing this idiom is a sign you need to take a break as it means that you’re working very hard and not getting enough rest. That might look like working from early in the morning till late at night.
Example: So many students burn the candle at both ends these days because they have to study full-time and work part-time.
24. You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover
This idiom means that you can’t really know what someone or something is actually like just based on appearance.
Example: The house looked small and ugly from the outside, but inside the rooms were bright, spacious and comfortable – you can’t judge a book by its cover.
25. Rub Someone (Up) The Wrong Way
If you rub someone up the wrong way, then you annoy them even though you didn’t intend to.
Example: My best friend rubs my boyfriend (up) the wrong way – they just don’t get on.
26. Call It A Day
This idiom means that it’s time to stop working on something. You might have done enough or you might not want to continue any more.
Example: You look tired. This meeting has been going since 2pm. Shall we call it a day?
27. Cut Someone Some Slack
If you cut someone some slack, then you judge them less harshly than normal because you know they’re having problems.
Example: Cut me some slack here – I didn’t sleep well last night and I’m really tired.
28. Under The Weather
This idiom means that you’re not feeling well.
Example: I’m feeling a bit under the weather today so I won’t be coming to work.
29. Cut Corners
If you cut corners, you do something in a way that saves time or money, but sometimes that means the outcome is not good.
Example: Wow, look how bad the work is on this house – you can tell that the builders cut corners.
30. Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater
If you do this, then you lose the good while getting rid of the bad.
Example: Ok so he can be a bit annoying sometimes, but you love each other so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by leaving him!
English Idioms About Food And Eating
Different types of food have inspired a variety of colourful English idioms that you’ll find below.
31. A Hot Potato
A problem or a situation that no-one wants to talk about because it’s so controversial and causes so many arguments.
Example: I can’t believe that journalist asked the president about immigration – it’s a hot potato at the moment!
32. Butter Someone Up
If you butter someone up, then you’re very nice to them so that they will do what you want them to do.
Example: She buttered up her teacher so that she’d get better grades – she actually hates her!
33. To Be The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread
From a negative idiom to a positive one! If something is the best thing since sliced bread, then it’s very good. You can use it to refer to a person, a thing, or an invention.
Example: In their marketing, they say that their new product is the best thing since sliced bread – but I tried it and it’s not that good!
34. Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
If you bite off more than you can chew, then you have too much work to do or work that’s too hard for you.
Example: I thought writing this article would be easy, but I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.
35. Put All Your Eggs In One Basket
Putting all your eggs in one basket can be risky, because it means you depend on just one person or thing for your success
Example: I know you’ve always dreamed of working for this company, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Apply for some other jobs, just in case.
36. Cry Over Spilt/Spilled Milk
You’ll often hear people saying “it’s no use crying over spilled milk” as a way to say that it’s not helpful to feel bad about something that happened in the past that you can’t change.
Example: Yes, you failed the exam, but you’ll have the chance to re-take it so it’s no use crying over spilt milk. Focus your energy on doing better next time.
37. Cut The Mustard
If someone or something cuts the mustard, then it succeeds or meets expectations.
Example: I’m afraid that your work just doesn’t cut the mustard.
38. Hear (Something) Through/On The Grapevine
This idiom is about hearing rumours, or getting information informally, by hearing it from someone who heard it from another person.
Example: We heard it through the grapevine that they’re going to make half their staff redundant – is it really true?
39. Take Something With A Grain/Pinch Of Salt
If you take what someone says with a grain of salt, you don’t take it too seriously.
Example: He’s got a reputation for being a bit of a liar so take what he says with a pinch of salt.
English Idioms To Do With Nature, Animals, Plants
The natural world has been a source of many famous English idioms. You’ll find some of the best-known ones below.
40. A Bed Of Roses
If something is a bed of roses then lucky you, as it refers to an easy or pleasant situation.
Example: So you think my life is a bed of roses do you? Well it’s actually a lot harder than it looks!
41. A Walk In The Park
If you describe something as a walk in the park, then you’re saying it’s easy.
Example: My new job is a walk in the park compared to the old one
42. Curiosity Killed The Cat
If you hear this English idiom, then it means you’re asking too many questions. Consider it a warning – too much curiosity can create problems!
Example: You ask a lot of questions don’t you – curiosity killed the cat you know!
43. (Has The) Cat Got Your Tongue?
If you hear this, it’s because the other people are annoyed that you’re not speaking.
Example: You haven’t said much – has the cat got your tongue?
44. Let The Cat Out Of The Bag
If you let the cat out of the bag, then you reveal a secret, usually by accident. Oops!
Example: We were going to have a surprise party for my parents’ wedding anniversary but my brother let the cat out of the bag.
45. Barking Up The Wrong Tree
Barking up the wrong tree is a bad sign because it means you’re trying to do something in a way that just won’t work.
Example: The detective has been barking up the wrong tree by assuming the husband is the number one suspect.
46. Straight From The Horse’s Mouth
If you hear a piece of information straight from the horse’s mouth, then you get it directly from the person who is the source of the information.
Example: It must be true – I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth.
47. Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
This idiom means that you shouldn’t talk about a bad situation that most people have forgotten about.
Example: He seems to have forgotten about why we started arguing in the first place so I’m going to let sleeping dogs lie and not mention the topic again.
48. Kill Two Birds With One Stone
This idiom means that you manage to do two different things at the same time.
Example: Cycling is an excellent way to get around because you kill two birds with one stone – you get to your destination and you get some exercise on the way there.
49. Pull The Wool Over Someone’s Eyes
This idiom means to deceive someone.
Example: Oil companies pulled the wool over people’s eyes for years, making us believe that global warming wasn’t happening.
English Idioms About Body Parts
Plenty of English idioms contain words for parts of the body, even if their meanings have nothing to do with bodily functions!
50. Break A Leg
This idiom means “good luck” and it’s especially common to hear it before someone goes on stage to perform.
A: It’s the first night of the play tonight and I’m so nervous.
B: You’ll be fine – break a leg!
51. Let Your Hair Down
If you let your hair down then you give yourself permission to have fun and to relax more than you usually would.
Example: You’ve been working so hard recently – why don’t you let your hair down a bit this weekend?
52. Turn A Blind Eye
If you turn a blind eye then you ignore behaviour or situations that you know are wrong.
Example: We had to move our children to another school because the teachers turned a blind eye to bullying.
53. The Apple Of Someone’s Eye
Here’s a heart-warming idiom. If you’re the apple of someone’s eye, then good news, that means you're the person they love the most!
Example: Parents shouldn’t have favourites but his daughter is clearly the apple of his eye.
54. See Eye To Eye
When two people see eye to eye it’s good news as it means that they agree.
Example: We don’t see eye to eye on many issues, but we have a lot of respect for each other.
55. Skeleton In The Closet/The Cupboard
If you’ve got a skeleton in the closet (or cupboard if you’re British), then you’ve got an embarrassing secret.
Example: Oh believe me, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, I’ve got one or two skeletons in the closet too!
56. See The Back Of Someone/Something
If you’re glad to see the back of someone, then you’re happy about them leaving!
Example: I’ll be glad to see the back of him when he finally leaves!
57. Give Someone The Cold Shoulder
You give someone the cold shoulder when you choose to ignore them or be unkind or unfriendly.
Example: We had a great first date and got on well but then at the second one, he gave me the cold shoulder.
58. Give Someone A Hand
This idiom is all about helping people or doing them a favour.
Example: You’re good with numbers aren’t you? Could you give me a hand with my taxes?
59. Give Someone A Heads Up
This idiom means that you tell someone what’s going to happen beforehand.
Example: Could you give me a heads up when you’re ten minutes from the station, so that I can leave in time to come and collect you?
English Idioms With “Never”
Several famous English idioms use the adverb of time “never”. Here’s a selection.
60. Better Late Than Never
This idiom means that it’s better for someone to arrive late or do something late than not to arrive or do it at all.
A: The party’s almost over but I’m glad you came.
B: Better late than never right?
61. Never Hear The End Of It
This is a funny English idiom that means having to listen to someone for a long time talking about something embarrassing or annoying.
Example: Did he get the new job? Oh no, we’ll never hear the end of it!
62. Never Live Something Down
If something happens that you’ll never be able to live down, that means it was really embarrassing and you feel like you’ll never stop feeling that way.
Example: If I say something stupid to the boss on the first day, I’ll never live it down.
63. Never Look Back
This idiom is a positive one. You use it when you continue to be successful after an initial good result.
Example: After her first hit song came out, she never looked back.
64. Never Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth
This idiom means that if someone offers you something good, then don’t refuse it.
Example: You should accept her offer to help – never look a gift horse in the mouth!
English Idioms With “Don’t”
These idioms with “don’t” might seem negative at first, but don’t judge a book by its cover!
65. Don’t Give Up The Day Job
You can use this idiom as a funny way to tell someone they’re not very good at something.
A: What did you think of my acting skills?
B: Don’t give up the day job!
66. Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch
This idiom is a warning. It means that you shouldn’t make plans that depend on something good happening before that thing has actually happened.
Example: You’ve bought a new car ! But you haven’t finished your trial period at work or even been paid yet – don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
67. Don’t Be A Stranger
Telling someone “don’t be a stranger” means that, even though they’re leaving, you want to keep in touch with them or see them again one day.
Example: We’re going to miss you so much – don’t be a stranger though, come in and have a cup of tea with us now and again.
68. Don’t Bet On It
This idiom as well as the expression “I wouldn’t bet on it” mean that something is unlikely to happen.
A: Do you think he’ll come to the party tonight?
B: I wouldn’t bet on it.
69. Don’t Even Go There
When you see or hear this idiom, then a subject is so difficult that you can’t even talk about it.
A: So is your boss still making your life difficult?
B: Don’t even go there.
70. Don’t Get Me Wrong
You use this English idiom if you’re worried that someone might be upset by what you say or misunderstand you.
Example: Don’t get me wrong – I think she’s a lovely person, I’m just not interested in her romantically.
English Idioms With The Verb “Give”
Lots of English idioms have the verb “give” in them. Here are a few that will be useful for your to learn.
71. Give As Good As You Get
This English idiom means that you’re tough enough to treat people how they treat you, especially in a fight.
Example: She teases me a lot, but don’t worry, I know how to give as good as I get.
72. Give Someone A Hard Time
If you give someone a hard time, then you make life difficult for them.
Example: My boss is giving me a hard time – I don’t think he likes me very much.
73. Give Someone The Benefit Of The Doubt
If you do this, then you decide to believe that someone is innocent until proven otherwise.
Example: He could be lying but I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt.
74. Give Someone A Taste Of Their Own Medicine
If you do this, then you treat someone as badly as they have treated you.
Example: Bullies hate it when someone gives them a taste of their own medicine.
75. Give Someone A Break
If you do this, then you stop criticising someone or being angry with them.
Example: Give the guy a break – he’s only been working here a week. You can’t expect him to know how to do the job well after such a short amount of time!
76. Give Someone A Piece Of Your Mind
If you give someone a piece of your mind, you tell them why you’re angry with them.
Example: I can’t believe what she's done – I'll give her a piece of my mind the next time I see her!
77. Give Someone A Bell/Buzz
This idiom means to phone someone.
Example: I have to go now, but I’ll give you a bell tomorrow so we can talk more.
78. Give Someone A Run For Their Money
If you do this then you don’t let an opponent or a rival win easily. It can also mean that you’re just as good at something as someone highly talented.
Example: I might be the younger and less experienced candidate, but I’ll give our current president a run for her money.
79. Give Someone A Shout
This idiom simply means to tell someone something.
Example: Well I think I’ve explained everything so why don’t you try and give me a shout if you have any problems.
80. Give Someone Hell
This idiom means to criticise someone harshly or to cause them pain.
Example: I think my new boss has an anger problem – she gave me hell for arriving five minutes late yesterday!
English Idioms With The Verb “Hit”
A surprising number of English idioms contain the verb “hit”. Here are some of the most common ones.
81. Hit The Nail On The Head
If you hit the nail on the head, congratulations – this means you’ve identified the cause of a problem. Or you’re exactly right about something.
Example: You’ve hit the nail on the head – I do need to learn to say “no” to people more often. That way I'll be less stressed.
82. Hit The Sack/The Sheets/The Hay
This idiom means that it’s time for bed!
Example: Wow, it’s already after midnight – time to hit the sack!
83. Hit The Books
If it’s time to hit the books, then it’s time to study.
Example: I’ve got my final exams in a couple of weeks so I’m hitting the books hard at the moment.
84. Hit The Jackpot
This English idiom can refer to winning the top prize in a competition or even winning the lottery. It can also mean to be successful or to find the exact thing you needed.
Example: People buy lottery tickets thinking they’re going to hit the jackpot, but it’s so unlikely to ever happen!
85. Hit The Road
If it’s time to leave a place or start a journey that means it’s time to hit the road.
Example: Wow, it’s late – time to hit the road.
86. Hit The Roof/Ceiling
You use this idiom to talk about someone who is extremely angry.
Example: When my parents found out I had a party while they were away, they hit the roof!
87. Hit The Ground Running
If you hit the ground running then lucky you as this means that you’re enthusiastic and successful at a new activity. This idiom can also mean that you’re ready to start a new activity.
Example: I’m going to look at this information my new boss sent me so that I can hit the ground running on Monday.
88. Hit The Headlines
If you hit the headlines, then you get a lot of attention in the press.
Example: The Karsashians have hit the headlines again with the latest scandal.
89. Hit The Spot
If something hits the spot then it’s perfect, it’s just what you needed.
Example: That coffee was delicious – it really hit the spot!
90. Hit A/The Wall
You hit a wall when exercising or playing sports, meaning that you’re so tired that you feel as if you can’t continue.
Example: It’s a well-known fact that most marathon runners hit the wall around mile 20.
91. Hit Your Stride/Get Into Your Stride
Hitting your stride means getting familiar and comfortable with something new that you’ve started doing.
Example: I know it’s hard and stressful learning all the skills you need for your new role, but don’t be discouraged – you’ll hit your stride soon, I know it.
English Idioms To Do With Endings
We’re coming to the end of this list of amazing English idioms. So to finish off, let’s take a look at some idioms to do with endings.
92. To Come To An End
A common idiom that you may have spotted in the introduction to this section, “to come to an end”, simply means to stop or to end.
Example: A lot of people were sad when the TV show “Game of Thrones” came to an end.
93. All Good Things (Must) Come To An End
This idiom shows an acceptance of the fact that even good things have to end eventually.
Example: I can’t believe tomorrow’s the last day of our holiday – I suppose all good things must come to an end.
94. To Come To A Full Stop
This idiom also means to end or to stop, but usually due to problems.
Example: Her business came to a full stop when her biggest client went bankrupt.
95. All's Well That Ends Well
This idiom is actually the name of a play by William Shakespeare. You use it to talk about a bad situation that ended well, meaning you can forget about the difficult parts.
Example: Our flight was delayed and the airline lost our luggage but we’re here now – all’s well that ends well.
96. No End In Sight
You use this idiom when you don’t know when something will end. Alternatively, if the end is sight, that means that you’re getting close to finishing.
Example: I need a break – I’ve been working for hours with no end in sight.
97. The Beginning Of The End
This idiom refers to the moment where something starts to go bad and then gradually gets worse until it ends.
Example: When he lost his job, it was the beginning of the end of their relationship.
98. It Isn’t Over Until The Fat Lady Sings
This idiom means that even though it looks like it’s the end or that things will conclude a certain way, the situation can still change.
Example: It looks like the current president will win, but votes are still being counted and it isn’t over until the fat lady signs.
99. The X To End All Xs
So technically this idiom isn’t about endings but I thought it would be a great way to finish – you can use this idiom to say that something is the best one of its kind.
Example: That was the list of English idioms to end all lists of English idioms!
English Idioms Are Everywhere
Wow! Well done if you’ve made it to the end of this list of incredible English idioms!
That was a lot, but English, like other languages, is full of idiomatic expressions. This list is a great foundation, but idioms are the type of expression you can spend a lifetime learning, because there are just so many.
What’s the best way to learn English idioms? Well, here at StoryLearning, you learn languages by reading and listening to stories, not by memorising rules or lists.
So apply that technique as you learn English. English can be hard to learn, so you need to make it fun so that you stay motivated to learn the world's lingua franca.
Read and listen to material that interests you. And because idioms are everywhere, the more you read and listen, the more idioms you’ll learn.