103 English Idioms You Should Know to Sound Fluent
Have you ever heard an English phrase that didn’t make sense even though you understood all the words? It was probably an idiom: a phrase that doesn’t translate literally.
Idioms are super common, so you need to understand them to understand English.
Read on to learn 103 English idioms you can use in conversation to sound more fluent!
- English Idioms with Common Verbs
- English Idioms with Common Prepositions
- English Idioms About Money
- English Idioms with Body Parts
- English Idioms About Food
- English Idioms About Weather
- English Idioms About Nature
- How to Practice English Idioms
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English Idioms with Common Verbs
1. Hit the books
Literally, hit the books means to physically hit your reading books, but this phrase is actually used to say that you’re going to study.
Sorry, but I can’t watch the game with you tonight. I have to hit the books.
2. Hit the sack
The literal meaning of this would be physically hitting or beating a sack (a large bag), but idiomatically, it means you’re going to bed. You can also say hit the hay.
It’s time for me to hit the sack. I’m so tired.
3. Twist someone’s arm
To twist someone’s arm would be rather painful if you took it literally, but it really means they’ve been convinced to do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise.
I wasn’t going to go to the party, but my friends twisted my arm and got me to go.
4. Stab someone in the back
While it still hurts, the idiomatic meaning of this phrase is not nearly as painful as literally being stabbed. What this actually means is to hurt someone who trusted you by betraying them.
I can’t believe she would cheat and stab me in the back like this! I really trusted her.
5. Lose your touch
No, this doesn’t mean you’ve lost your physical sense of touch. To lose your touch actually means to lose a skill you once had.
She used to be the best hairstylist in town, but she’s really losing her touch.
6. Sit tight
This does not mean you sit down and hold your body as tightly as you can. If a person tells you to sit tight, what they really want you to do is wait patiently.
Sit tight while I go see if Mr. Henkel is ready to see you.
7. Pitch in
This phrase may once have had a literal meaning to do with farm work (think pitchfork), but it isn’t used that way now. Figuratively speaking, it means to contribute (give) or to join in.
Let’s all pitch in a few dollars so we can buy Sally a really good present for her birthday.
8. Go cold turkey
To go cold turkey means to suddenly stop a (usually dangerous) behavior, such as drinking alcohol. A person who suddenly quits something addictive can suffer from pale skin and goosebumps, making them look like a cold, uncooked turkey.
I quit smoking cold turkey and never felt the need to go back.
9. Face the music
If someone tells you to face the music, they want you to deal with the reality of a situation and accept all the consequences.
You need to face the music. You failed because you didn’t study, so you need to take the class again next semester.
10. Ring a bell
When someone says something that you may have heard before, but don’t remember entirely, you can use this phrase to let them know it’s familiar but you may need a reminder.
That name rings a bell, but I can’t quite remember where I know her from.
11. Blow off steam
If you’re experiencing some strong feelings and need to calm down, you can blow off steam by doing something to get rid of the stress.
If my mom gets mad, she’ll usually go on a run to blow off some steam.
12. Cut to the chase
When somebody tells you to cut to the chase, it means that you’ve been talking too long and you need to get to the point. Be careful how you use this idiom; it could be rude or disrespectful if used with someone like a boss or teacher.
Hi, guys. We don’t have much time here, so I’m going to cut to the chase.
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English Idioms with Common Prepositions
Prepositions are words that indicate where one thing is in relation to another. These include the words up, on and over, as you’ll see in the idioms below.
13. Up in the air
If someone tells you that things are up in the air, it means that a situation is uncertain or unsure. It’s as though a ball has been tossed upward, and no one knows exactly where it will land.
Our plans for this weekend are up in the air until Jen tells us when she gets off of work.
14. On the ball
If you’re on the ball, it means that you’re very quick to understand things or react quickly (and correctly) to a situation.
Wow, you’ve already finished your assignments? They aren’t due until next week. You’re really on the ball.
15. Get over something
Imagine something happens that upsets you, but as time goes on, you stop feeling as strongly about it. This means that you’ve gotten over it: you no longer worry about it and it no longer affects you in a negative way.
It took a while, but I finally got over breaking up with Chandler.
16. Over the hill
If you’re getting older (especially over 50) and can’t be as physically or socially active as you used to be, you might say you’re over the hill. Be careful with this idiom, though, since it’s rude to say it about someone else.
I had to slow down after my knee surgery, but I don’t think I’m over the hill just yet.
17. Through thick and thin
When you’re loyal to someone, you support them no matter what happens, good or bad. This is an idiom you can use to say so.
Roger and Sally made it to their 50th anniversary because they stood by each other through thick and thin.
18. Off the chain
If you watch “America’s Got Talent,” you may have heard host Mel B exclaim that an act was “off the chain!” That means it was especially exciting or impressive—usually in a good way, though the expression can also mean “out of control.”
The Spice Girls concert was off the chain!
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English Idioms About Money
19. Look like a million bucks
Bucks here is a slang term for “dollars.” If someone tells you that you look like a million bucks, it means you look absolutely fabulous!
Wow, Mary, you look like a million bucks. I love your dress!
20. Born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth
This refers to someone who comes from a wealthy and successful family.
John was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, so he doesn’t know what it’s like to work hard.
21. To go from rags to riches
“Rags” here refers to old, tattered clothes. This means you’ve gone from being poor to having a lot of money.
Jim Carrey went from rags to riches. He was once living in a van, but eventually became one of the highest-paid comedians in the world.
22. Pay an arm and a leg for something
Use this one when you have to pay a lot of money for something. You can also say that something “costs an arm and a leg.”
Nowadays, you have to pay an arm and a leg just for a tank of gas.
23. To have sticky fingers
If you have sticky fingers, you probably steal a lot. This whimsical idiom suggests that other people’s valuables stick to you when you touch them.
The manager fired the cashier because he had sticky fingers. He stole more than $200 in a month.
24. To give someone a run for their money
If you are competing with someone and you feel like you really had to work hard to outdo them, you can say they gave you a run for your money:
Joe really gave me a run for my money in the chess tournament. He almost beat me!
25. To pony up
This means you need to pay for something or settle a debt.
Pony up and give me the $5 you owe me.
26. To ante up
Ante up comes from the game of poker, where players bet their money before the cards are dealt. Over time, the idiom has come to refer to any type of payment someone owes—not just in poker.
You’d better ante up and give me that $10 I loaned you last week.
27. To up the ante
A similar idiom to ante up is up the ante, which means “raise the stakes.” When people up the ante, they bet more money than the person before them. This is used similarly in everyday conversation, when someone raises a bet or agrees to do more.
I wanted to place a $10 bet on the soccer match, but Daniel upped the ante and raised the bet to $50.
28. Break even
This is the term you use when you’ve spent a certain amount of money, then earned roughly the same amount to balance it out.
The trip to the beach cost me $100, but I almost broke even after winning $90 in a contest.
29. Break the bank
This refers to something that is overly expensive—something that requires more money than you have.
Taking a week-long vacation would break the bank. There’s no way I could afford to do it.
30. To be close-fisted
To be close-fisted (or closefisted) is to be reluctant to spend any money, almost like you’re physically gripping it in your fist. Other words for this could be stingy or cheap.
Carl is so close-fisted, he won’t even buy snacks for the Christmas party.
31. To go Dutch
This is used when everyone pays for their own meal at a restaurant. (Note that this may be perceived as offensive to or by Dutch people.)
Usually we go Dutch when we eat out, but this time I paid for her food since it was her birthday.
32. Shell out money
This means you hand out money to pay for something. It uses “shell” in the sense of shelling peas from a pod.
I wish I hadn’t gotten that new car now that I’m shelling out $1,000 a month in payments.
33. Midas touch
This idiom comes from the story of King Midas, who turned everything he touched into gold. It’s used to say that someone is very successful in their business ventures and has an easy time making money.
Jane really has the Midas touch. Every business she starts becomes very successful.
34. Receive a kickback
If you receive a kickback, it means you are receiving money illegally, like a bribe.
The police chief was arrested after it was revealed that he was receiving kickbacks to ignore certain crimes.
35. Living hand to mouth
This means you’re barely earning enough to survive: any money that comes into your hand is immediately spent on food to put in your mouth.
The family has been living hand to mouth ever since their father lost his job.
36. To be loaded
If someone is loaded, it means they have a lot of money.
Billy paid his Harvard Law School tuition with cash. His family is loaded.
37. Make ends meet
This refers to making enough money to cover the necessities, like buying food and paying the bills.
I don’t make much from my job as a cashier, but I’m able to make ends meet.
38. As genuine as a three-dollar bill
This is an American idiom that is used to say something is fake. The U.S. never made three-dollar bills, so there’s no such thing as a genuine three-dollar bill.
Those supposed designer bags they sell on the street are as genuine as a three-dollar bill.
39. In the red
In a traditional ledger book, debits (losses) are noted in red ink. To be in the red is to lose more money than you make.
I’m in the red this month after paying that speeding ticket.
40. In the black
The opposite of being in the red is being in the black, which means that you’ve made more money than you spent.
After working a couple of small jobs over the weekend, I earned an extra $500 and am back in the black.
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English Idioms with Body Parts
41. Eyeball it
Sometimes you don’t need an exact measurement: a rough estimate is good enough. When you estimate an amount of something based on how it looks, you can say you’re eyeballing it.
I’ve made this recipe often, so I didn’t bother to measure out a cup of rice; I just eyeballed it.
42. Rule of thumb
If you hear someone say as a rule of thumb, they mean that it’s a general, unwritten rule learned from experience, as opposed to exact guidelines.
As a rule of thumb, you should always pay for your date’s dinner.
43. Keep your chin up
If you’re having a hard time, a supportive friend might tell you to keep your chin up. This means they are encouraging you to stay positive and not let difficult circumstances get you down.
I know it’s hard having a sick family member, but keep your chin up.
44. Find your feet
If you find yourself in a new situation, like living in a new country and having to get used to a new college, you could say you need to find your feet. It means that you’re still adjusting and getting used to the new environment.
I only moved to France two months ago, so I’m still finding my feet.
45. Play it by ear
If someone says they’re playing it by ear, it means they’re responding to circumstances as they develop without having a plan, like a musician jamming without a musical score.
Don’t ask me where I see myself in five years. I’m playing life by ear.
46. Knuckle down
To knuckle down is to work hard or seriously at a task. If you tend to procrastinate, then you know when it’s time to do this.
My essay is due tomorrow morning! I have to knuckle down and get it done tonight.
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English Idioms About Food
47. Spice things up
To spice things up means to make them more interesting or exciting.
Instead of just buying Sam a birthday gift, let’s spice things up by taking him out for dinner.
48. A piece of cake
A piece of cake refers to a task or job that’s easy to do, like eating a delicious piece of cake! If you don’t prefer cake, you can also say it’s easy as pie.
I expected the English test to be difficult, but it was a piece of cake.
49. Cool as a cucumber
Cucumbers have a refreshing taste and leave you with a cool, calm feeling. If you’re cool as a cucumber, you’re someone who’s very calm and relaxed.
My friend is nervous about taking his driving test, but I’m cool as a cucumber.
50. A couch potato
A couch potato refers to someone who spends a lot of time sitting on the couch, watching TV.
After my uncle retired from his job, he became a couch potato.
51. Bring home the bacon
To bring home the bacon means to make an income or earn a living to support your family.
Ever since her father was injured, she’s been working two jobs to bring home the bacon.
52. In hot water
When someone is in hot water, they’re in a bad situation or serious trouble.
Kevin is in hot water after committing tax fraud.
53. Compare apples and oranges
Apples are very different from oranges in both appearance and taste. This idiom is used to suggest that such different things are best considered for their own merits.
I’m not sure which I enjoy more—pottery or dancing. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.
54. Not one’s cup of tea
If something is not your cup of tea, it’s an activity you have no interest in, don’t do very well or don’t enjoy.
Camping is really not my cup of tea, so I’m going to visit my friend in New York instead.
55. Eat like a bird
How much does a bird eat? Not very much, right? To eat like a bird is to eat very little.
Don’t trouble yourself cooking such a big meal. I eat like a bird.
56. Eat like a horse
Now, a horse is much bigger than a bird. You’d be right to guess that to eat like a horse is to eat a lot.
My mother has to cook a lot of food when my brother comes to visit. He eats like a horse.
57. Butter someone up
To butter someone up is to flatter someone in order to win their favor.
I’m going to butter up my mom so she lets me hang out with my friends later.
58. Food for thought
Food for thought refers to something that’s worth thinking carefully about.
Your proposal gave us a lot of food for thought. We’ll get back to you with a decision in a few days.
59. A smart cookie
Here’s an easy one. A smart cookie is an intelligent person.
It shouldn’t be hard too hard for a smart cookie like you to learn Spanish.
60. Packed like sardines
Packed like sardines describes a place or situation that’s very crowded, such as a concert hall or sports event.
Were you at the football game last night? We were packed like sardines in the stadium.
61. Spill the beans
To spill the beans is to accidentally or prematurely give out information that’s supposed to be kept secret.
Owen spilled the beans to Joyce about her surprise party, so she knows what’s happening.
62. A bad apple
If you have a basket of apples and one of them is rotten, the rot can spread quickly to the rest. Idiomatically, a bad apple is a person who creates problems or is a bad influence on the other people in a group.
John’s the bad apple: he gets his friends to do dangerous and illegal things.
63. Bread and butter
Bread and butter are some of the most basic food items that one can live on. The idiom bread and butter refers to a job that makes the money you need to live and afford basic necessities like food, housing, etc.
Fishing is the bread and butter of the friendly people I met on the island last summer.
64. Buy a lemon
To buy a lemon means to buy something (usually a motor vehicle) that doesn’t work well and is therefore worthless.
The car looked so new and shiny. I had no way of knowing I was buying a lemon.
65. A hard nut to crack
Is it easy to crack open a nut? Well, a hard nut to crack refers to a person who’s difficult to get to know or get information out of. (Also appears as a tough nut to crack.)
I want to know what secret she’s hiding, but she’s a hard nut to crack.
66. Have a sweet tooth
Do you like eating cakes, candy and other sweet-tasting food? If you do, then you can say you have a sweet tooth.
I definitely have a sweet tooth: I need dessert every night.
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English Idioms About Weather
67. Under the weather
If you’re feeling under the weather, you’re not your usual self and could be feeling a little sick.
I was feeling under the weather, so I called my work and told them I wasn’t coming in.
68. A storm is brewing
This idiom is used in anticipation of trouble. Usually it means there’s been some kind of sign that this trouble is coming.
She decided to go ahead with their wedding, even though all they’ve been doing lately is arguing. I can sense a storm is brewing.
69. Calm before the storm
The air may be still before a storm actually hits. To say there is a calm before the storm is basically saying that things may be peaceful now, but it won’t last.
They had a bit of a honeymoon phase, but that was just the calm before the storm.
70. Weather a storm
It’s not exactly enjoyable to sit through a storm, so it makes sense that this idiom refers to enduring something that is difficult.
They really had to weather the storm while they waited for more people to be hired to help.
71. When it rains, it pours
Bad luck tends to come in batches. This idiom illustrates the phenomenon with the idea that any rain will become a downpour.
First he was laid off, then his wife got into a car accident. When it rains, it pours.
72. Chasing rainbows
Have you ever tried to chase a rainbow? If you have, you know catching it is an impossible task. This is why someone pursuing a very difficult goal is said to be chasing rainbows.
He’s not very artistic, but he insists on being a professional painter. He’s always chasing rainbows.
73. Rain or shine
If you are dedicated to getting something done no matter what, you are willing to do it rain or shine. This is one of the rare idioms that’s also often used literally, for outdoor events that will take place whether it rains or not.
We’re having our soccer tournament tomorrow, rain or shine.
74. Under the sun
This idiom refers to everything on Earth and is usually used as part of a superlative.
Gili Trawangan must be one of the most beautiful islands under the sun.
75. Every cloud has a silver lining
A silver lining is the little bit of good that can be found in every situation, like sunlight peeking from behind a cloud.
Sure, you took the wrong trail, but you got to see a beautiful waterfall.Every cloud has a silver lining!
76. A rising tide lifts all boats
Boats of all sizes float at the same level: if the water rises, all the boats rise with it. Usually this idiom refers to how a stable economy often benefits everyone.
When the economy showed the first signs of recovering, everyone started investing and spending more. A rising tide lifts all boats.
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English Idioms About Nature
77. Get into deep water
This idiom is pretty close to the literal meaning: being in deep water means you’re in a tricky situation that is hard to escape.
He got into deep water when he borrowed a lot of money from a loan shark.
78. Pour oil on troubled waters
If you pour oil into the sea, it has a calming effect on the waves. You shouldn’t do that in reality, but you can use this idiom to say that you’re trying to soothe the tension following an argument.
She hated seeing her two best friends arguing, so she got them together and poured oil on troubled waters.
79. Make waves
Much like dropping a stone into a pond to make ripples, to make waves is to cause trouble or change things in a dramatic way.
She likes to make waves with her creative marketing campaigns. They get a lot of attention from customers.
80. Go with the flow
To go with the flow is to allow things to happen and accept them as they are, like a leaf floating along on the surface of a river.
Just go with the flow and see what happens!
81. Lost at sea
Just as you’d be overwhelmed if you were stranded in the ocean, to be lost at sea is to feel unsure about what to do or that you don’t have any purpose or plan.
I feel lost at sea. I just don’t think this is the career path for me.
82. Sail close to the wind
This means to act just within the limits of what’s legally or socially acceptable. You may try to push boundaries and could sometimes cross the line.
A lot of people don’t like him because he sails too close to the wind.
83. Make a mountain out of a molehill
A molehill is very small, so if you act like it’s the size of a mountain, you are exaggerating the severity of the situation.
She shouted at him for being five minutes late. She really made a mountain out of a molehill.
84. Gain ground
If you’re gaining ground, you’re making good progress. This can mean physically crossing ground quickly, as in a race, or it can be figurative.
We’ve really gained a lot of ground in our group project, and I think we’ll finish on time.
85. Walking on air
Use this is you feel very excited or happy. “Over the moon,” “on cloud nine,” “in seventh heaven” and “in good spirits” are a few more expressions you can use to talk about happiness.
She’s been walking on air since she found out that she’s pregnant.
86. Once in a blue moon
A blue moon comes every two to three years, so saying that something happens once in a blue moon is saying that it happens very rarely.
She only comes to visit once in a blue moon.
87. Many moons ago
This is one of those English expressions that’s a little bit formal or dated. You’ll most likely hear it in stories, or when someone is trying to create a dramatic effect. It means that something happened a long time ago.
Many moons ago, we used to be two very close friends. Now we’ve gone separate ways and lost contact.
88. Castle in the sky
This one sounds a bit like something from a fairytale, which makes sense since it is a daydream or hope that’s not likely to come true. Building castles in the sky refers to fantasizing about an unrealistic future.
Seeing the world used to be a castle in the sky for most people, but globalization is helping people travel more easily.
89. Down to earth
To be down to earth is to be modest, practical, unassuming and unpretentious.
He’s my favorite professor; he’s so down to earth.
90. Salt of the earth
If you are the salt of the earth, you are a good and honest person.
My father is the salt of the earth. He works hard and always helps people who are in need.
91. The tip of the iceberg
The majority of an iceberg is below the surface of the water. If someone says something is the tip of the iceberg, it means that there’s a lot more going on than what’s immediately obvious.
Exceptionally long drought periods are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the global impact of climate change.
92. Break the ice
If you’re in a group of strangers, things can be a bit awkward, so you might need to ease the tension. This is when you’ll try to break the ice, or say something to loosen everybody up and attempt to make friends.
He made a weather joke to break the ice.
93. Bury your head in the sand
This one means that you’re trying to avoid a particular situation by pretending that it doesn’t exist. It refers to a popular myth that ostriches would stick their heads in the sand to “hide” when frightened.
Stop burying your head in the sand. You haven’t been happy with him for years, so why are you staying together?
94. Let the dust settle
This means you are allowing a situation to become calm after something exciting or unusual has happened.
You just received big news. Let the dust settle before you make any decisions.
95. Clear as mud
Mud is not a transparent substance, so this means that something is actually not clear at all.
He’s a great scientist, but I find his explanations in class are as clear as mud.
96. As cold as stone
Stones can be very cold. If you say that someone is just as cold, you’re saying that they are unemotional or not empathetic. Cold as ice has the same meaning.
She never smiles. She seems as cold as stone.
97. Between a rock and a hard place
This means that you are faced with a choice between two equally unsatisfactory options.
I can understand why she couldn’t make up her mind about what to do. She’s really between a rock and a hard place.
98. Nip something in the bud
This is to stop a bad situation from becoming worse by taking action at an early stage of its development.
Managers should know how to nip performance issues in the bud, or they’ll only get worse.
99. To hold out an olive branch
If you’re holding out an olive branch, you’re extending a hand of friendship and offering peace to a rival.
After years of rivalry with her cousin, she decided to hold out an olive branch and invite her to lunch.
100. Beat around the bush
This means you spend a long time getting to the main point of what you’re actually trying to say.
I don’t have much time, so stop beating around the bush and tell me what actually happened.
101. Out of the woods
This means the worst part of a difficult situation is over, and the end goal is in sight.
The surgery went very well, so he’s officially out of the woods. He just needs to recover now.
102. Can’t see the forest for the trees
This means someone is unable to see the whole situation clearly because they’re looking too closely at small details.
He’s worried about the flowers, but the rest of the wedding has been beautiful. He just can’t see the forest for the trees.
103. Barking up the wrong tree
This means that efforts have been put into something that won’t produce the desired outcome. Picture a dog barking to scare a squirrel out of a tree…but the squirrel is hiding in a different tree.
If you think she’s going to lend you money, you’re barking up the wrong tree. She never lends anyone anything.
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How to Practice English Idioms
To learn idioms efficiently, it’s important to be exposed to native-spoken English as much as possible, whether it’s in person or virtually. Take any chance you can to try out a new idiom in conversation.
The next time you watch an English movie or TV show, write down any strange and funny expressions you hear so you can look them up later.
You can also search the language learning program FluentU for an idiom or a phrase, and you’ll see any videos that contain it.
FluentU’s video library contains English language content made by and for English speakers. This means you can learn how to actually use idioms from authentic videos like news clips, movie trailers, commercials and more.
The hover-over subtitles will also let you discover even more idioms and phrases naturally. You can add new words and sayings to your custom flashcard decks and study them later with FluentU’s personalized exercises.
The more comfortable you get using English idioms, the closer you get to reaching full English fluency!
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