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20 English idioms that everyone should know

Idioms. Native English speakers love using them in conversation, and you’ll often find them popping up in books, TV shows and movies too. To perfect your English, you really need to become confident in using idioms and knowing the difference between breaking a leg and pulling someone’s leg.

Here are 20 English idioms that everyone should know:

1. Under the weather

What does it mean? To feel ill

How do you use it? In England we love to talk about the weather and will do so often, but don’t be fooled by this common phrase. If someone says they’re feeling under the weather, your response should be ‘I hope you feel better!’, not ‘Would you like to borrow my umbrella?’.

2. The ball is in your court

What does it mean? It’s up to you

How do you use it? It’s your move now, but this idiom refers to life rather than a sport. If you’ve got the ‘ball,’ the decision is yours and someone is waiting for your decision.

3. Spill the beans

What does it mean? To give away a secret

How do you use it? If you told someone about their own surprise party, you’d have ‘spilled the beans’ or even ‘let the cat out of the bag’. The secret is out.

4. Break a leg

What does it mean? To wish someone luck

How do you use it? This idiom is not at all threatening. Often accompanied by a thumbs up, ‘Break a leg! ’is an encouraging cheer of good luck. It originates from when successful theater performers would to bow so many times after a show that they would break a leg.

5. Pull someone’s leg

What does it mean? To play a practical joke

How do you use it? This is the perfect phrase to learn if you’re a fan of practical jokes. ‘Pull their leg’ is similar to ‘wind someone up’. Use it in context: ‘Relax, I’m just pulling your leg!’ or ‘Wait, are you pulling my leg?’.

6. Sat on the fence

What does it mean? To be undecided

How do you use it? If you’re sat on the fence, you’ve not decided which side of an argument you agree with. ‘I’m on the fence about hot yoga classes,’ translates as ‘I’m not sure whether I enjoy yoga in a sauna yet.’

7. Through thick and thin

What does it mean? To be loyal no matter what

How do you use it? Often used to describe families or BFFs, ‘through thick and thin’ means that you’re by each other’s side no matter what happens, through the bad times, as well as the good.

8. Once in a blue moon

What does it mean? Rarely

How do you use it? This charming phrase is used to describe something that doesn’t happen often. Example: ‘I remember to call my parents from my study abroad trip once in a blue moon.’

9. It’s the best thing since sliced bread

What does it mean? It’s really, really good

How do you use it? Sliced bread must have revolutionised life in England because it’s since been used as the ultimate benchmark for things that are great. We love it almost as much as tea.

10. Take it with a pinch of salt

What does it mean? Don’t take it too seriously

How do you use it? ‘I heard that elephants can fly now, but Sam often makes up stories so I take everything he says with a pinch of salt.’

11. Come rain or shine

What does it mean? No matter what

How do you use it? You guarantee to do something, regardless of the weather or any other situation that might arise. ‘I’ll be at your football game, come rain or shine’.

12. Go down in flames

What does it mean? To fail spectacularly

How do you use it? This phrase is fairly obvious. ‘That exam went down in flames, I should have learned my English idioms.’

13. You can say that again

What does it mean? That’s true

How do you use it? Generally exclaimed in agreement. When a friend says ‘Ryan Reynolds is gorgeous!’, you can reply ‘You can say that again!’

14. See eye to eye

What does it mean? To agree completely

How do you use it? We’re not suggesting a staring contest – to see eye to eye with someone is to agree with the point they’re making.

15. Jump on the bandwagon

What does it mean? Following a trend

How do you use it? When a person joins in with something popular or does something just because it’s cool. See this brunch-based example: ‘She doesn’t even like avocado on toast. She’s just jumping on the bandwagon.’

16. As right as rain

What does it mean? Perfect

How do you use it? Another weather-based idiom, but this one is slightly trickier. We moan about the rain, but ‘right as rain’ is actually a positive comment. ‘I’m as right as rain!’ may be exclaimed with glee when asked if everything is okay, and it is.

17. Beat around the bush

What does it mean? Avoid saying something

How do you use it? Beating around the bush is when you speak nonsense, avoiding a question because you don’t want to express your opinion or answer truthfully.

18. Hit the sack

What does it mean? Go to bed

How do you use it? This idiom is super easy to learn to use. ‘I’m exhausted, it’s time for me to hit the sack!’

19. Miss the boat

What does it mean? It’s too late

How do you use it? Use this when you let an opportunity or deadline pass by. ‘I forgot to apply for that study abroad program, now I’ve missed the boat.’

20. By the skin of your teeth

What does it mean? Just barely

How do you use it? ‘Phew, I passed that exam by the skin of my teeth!’ Hopefully you’ll ace your exams, but if you only just pass you can whip out this idiom.

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