english idioms

95 English Idioms You Should Know to Sound Fluent

Do you ever hear an English phrase that you understand, but doesn’t make any sense? It’s probably an idiom, a phrase that doesn’t translate literally!

Idioms are super common, so you need to understand them to understand English!

This post will show you 95 English idioms you should know to sound more fluent!

Contents

English Idioms with Common Verbs

english idioms

1. Hit the books

Literally, hit the books means to physically hit your reading books, but this phrase is actually used to say 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 really if someone twists your arm, it just means they’ve convinced you to do something you wouldn’t have 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 ends up meaning is hurting someone who trusted us 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;t mean you’ve lost your physical sense of touch, to lose your touch actually means that you lose an ability 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 tight 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 actually makes no sense if you try to take it literally. Figuratively speaking, it means to contribute (give) to something or someone 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 quit or stop a (usually dangerous) behavior such as smoking or drinking alcohol.

This idiom originates from the fact that 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 you want to get rid of them, you will 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 cut out all those extra details 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, as we don’t have much time here, so I’m going to cut to the chase.

English Idioms with Common Prepositions

english idioms

Prepositions are words that indicate where one thing is in relation to another. These include the words upon and over as you’ll see in the idioms below.

13. Up in the air

When we think about something being up in the air, we have the idea that something’s floating or flying in the sky, but really if someone tells you that things are up in the air it means that these things are uncertain or unsure. 

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 certain 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 you have a hard time with, but as time goes on, you stop feeling as strong about it as you did before.

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.

English Idioms About Money

english idioms

16. Look like a million dollars/bucks

If someone tells you that you look like a million bucks, you should take it as a huge compliment, it means you look absolutely fabulous!

Wow, Mary, you look like a million bucks,  I love your dress!

17. 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.

18. To go from rags to riches

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.

19. 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.

20. To have sticky fingers

If you have sticky fingers, you probably steal a lot. 

The manager fired the cashier because he had sticky fingers. He stole more than $200 in a month.

21. To give a run for one’s 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!

22. 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.

23. 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.

A similar idiom 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.

24. Break even

This is the term you use when you’ve spent a certain amount of money, but you hit the point where you’ve neither gained or lost money.

The trip to the beach cost me $100, but I almost broke even after winning $90 in a contest.

25. Break the bank

This refers to something that is very expensive that would take all of your money.

Taking a week-long vacation would break the bank. There’s no way I could afford to do it.

26. To be close-fisted

To be close-fisted is to not wanting to spend any money (almost like you’re physically gripping your money).

Other words for this could be stingy or cheap

Carl is so closefisted, he won’t even buy snacks for the Christmas party.

27. To go Dutch

This is used when everyone pays for their own meal at a restaurant.

Usually we go Dutch when we eat out, but this time I paid for her food since it was her birthday. 

28. Shell out money

This means you set aside money to pay for something.

I wish I didn’t buy that new car, now that I’m shelling out $1,000 a month in payments.

29. 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.

30. In the red/In the black

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. 

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.

31. 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.

32. Living hand to mouth

This means you live without a lot of money.

The family has been living hand to mouth ever since their father lost his job.

33. 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.

34. 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.

35. As genuine as a three-dollar bill

This is an American idiom that is used to say that something is fake.

The U.S. never made three-dollar bills, which means that 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.

English Idioms with Body Parts

english idioms

36. Rule of thumb

If you hear someone say as a rule of thumb, they mean that it’s a general unwritten rule for whatever they’re talking about.

For example, there’s no written rule that you must add oil to boiling water when cooking pasta, but it’s a rule of thumb practiced by most people.

As a rule of thumb you should always pay for your date’s dinner.

37. 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 don’t let difficult circumstances get you down.

I know it’s hard having a sick family member, but keep your chin up.

38. 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 I’m still finding my 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.

English Idioms About Food

english idioms

39. 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.

40. A piece of cake

piece of cake refers to a task or job that’s easy to complete or accomplish.

I expected the English test to be difficult but it was a piece of cake.

41. Cool as a cucumber

Cucumbers have a refreshing taste and leave you with a cool, calm feeling.

So 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.

42. couch potato

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.

43. 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.

44. 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.

45. Compare apples and oranges

Apples are very different from oranges both in looks and taste. It’s hard to compare two things that are so unlike each other.

So, to compare apples and oranges is to compare two very different things.

I’m not sure which I enjoy more—pottery or dancing. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.

46. 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 enjoy or don’t do well in.

Camping is really not my cup of tea so I’m going to visit my friend in New York instead.

47. Eat like a bird

How much does a bird eat? Not very much, right? So to eat like a bird is to eat very little.

Don’t trouble yourself cooking such a big meal. I eat like a bird.

48. Eat like a horse

Now, a horse is much bigger than a bird. So how much do you think a horse eats?

A lot! To eat like a horse is to eat a large amount of food.

My mother has to cook a lot of food when my brother comes to visit. He eats like a horse.

49. Butter [someone] up

To butter someone up is to please or flatter someone in order to win his or her favor. 

I’m going to butter up my mom so she lets me hang out with my friends later.

50. 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.

51. 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.

52. 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? The stadium was packed like sardines.

53. 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.

54. A bad apple

If you have a basket of apples and one of them is rotten, it often makes the whole batch taste bad.

Keep this in mind and you will remember that a bad apple is someone 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.

55. Bread and butter

Bread and butter are some of the most basic food items that one can live off of.

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.

56. 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.

57. A hard nut to crack

Is it easy to crack open a nut? Not always.

Well, a hard nut to crack refers to a person who’s difficult to get to know or get information out of.

I want to know what secret she’s hiding, but she’s a hard nut to crack.

58. 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. 

English Idioms About Nature

english idioms

59. 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. 

60. A storm is brewing

This idiom is used in anticipation of some kind of trouble. Usually this 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.

61. Calm before the storm

While you may sense there is a storm brewing, you may experience a quiet period before said storm actually hits.

To say there is a calm before the storm is basically saying that things may be peaceful now, but soon they will blow up:

They had a bit of a honeymoon phase, but that was just the calm before the storm.

62. Weather a storm

It’s not exactly enjoyable to sit through a storm, so it makes sense that this idiom refers to making it through something that is difficult:

They really had to weather the storm while they waited for more people to be hired to help. 

63. When it rains, it pours

Bad luck tends to come in batches, so this idiom points this phenomenon out by saying it can’t just rain softly, it almost always will come pouring down:

First he was laid off, then his wife got into a car accident. When it rains, it pours.

64. Chasing rainbows

Have you ever tried to chase a rainbow? If you have, I’d bet that it was 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.

65. Rain or shine

If you are really dedicated to getting something done, the weather likely will not deter you. 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’ll take place whether it rains or not.

We’re having our soccer tournament, rain or shine.

66. 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.

67. Once in a blue moon

A blue moon will come 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.

68. Every cloud has a silver lining

A silver lining is the little bit of good that can be found in every situation. 

Even though you lost your job, now you have more time to work on your house. Every cloud has a silver lining!

69. A rising tide lifts all boats

This refers to the way that even a boat that has completely sunk can be brought back to the surface by the tide.

Usually this idiom refers to how a stable economy often means benefits for all. 

When the economy showed the first signs of recovering, everyone started investing and spending more. A rising tide lifts all boats.

70. Get into deep water

If you find yourself in literal deep water, it can be hard to make it back to land.

This idiom is pretty close to the literal meaning as being in deep water means you’re in a tricky situation that is hard to get out of. 

He got into deep water when he borrowed a lot of money from a loan shark.

71. Pour oil on troubled waters

If you pour oil into the sea, it has a calming effect on the waves.

This idiom means that you’re trying to mend the tensions following an argument to become friendly again. 

She hated seeing her two best friends arguing, so she got them together and poured oil on troubled waters.

72. Make waves

Much like how waves are quick to move calm waters, 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.

73. Go with the flow

To go with the flow is to just allow things to happen and accept them how they are.

Usually it mean you don’t have a preference for anything and you won’t be opposed to any outcome.

Just go with the flow and see what happens!

74. Lost at sea

Just as you’d be overwhelmed and confused if you were stranded in the ocean, to be lost at sea is to feel unsure about what to do in any situation. 

It also might refer to feeling like 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.

75. Sail close to the wind

This means you act just within the limits of what’s legal or socially acceptable. You may try to push boundaries and sometimes could cross the line.

A lot of people don’t like him because he sails too close to the wind.

76. Make a mountain out of a molehill

A molehill is very small, so if you make a mountain out of it, you are exaggerating the severity of a situation.

She shouted at him for being five minutes late, she really made a mountain out of a molehill.

77. Gain ground

If you’re gaining ground, you’re making progress.

We’ve really gained a lot of ground in our group project and I think we’ll finish on time.

78. 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.

79. 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.

80. 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.

Seeing the world used to be a castle in the sky for most people, but globalization is helping more people travel easier.

81. 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.

82. 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.

83. The tip of the iceberg

Icebergs are huge, the parts we can physically see are just a small part of the whole thing as the majority of an iceberg is below the surface of the water.

So if someone says something is the tip of the icebergit 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.

84. Break the ice

If you’re in a group of strangers, things can be a bit awkward, so you might need to ease the tensions.

This is when you’ll try to break the ice, or say something to loosen everybody up and try to make friends.

He made a weather joke to break the ice.

85. 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.

Stop burying your head in the sand. You haven’t been happy with him for years, why are you staying together?

86. 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 and don’t make any decisions yet.

87. Clear as mud

Mud is not exactly the most 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.

88. As cold as stone

Stones can be very cold and if you say that someone is just as cold, you’re saying that they are unemotional.

She never smiles, she seems as cold as stone.

89. Between a rock and a hard place

This means that you are faced with a choice between two 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.

90. 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.

91. Barking up the wrong tree

This means that efforts have been put into something that won’t produce the desired income.

If you think she’s going to lend you money, you’re barking up the wrong tree. She never lends anyone anything.

92. Out of the woods

This means a situation is still difficult but it has improved or gotten easier. 

The surgery went very well and he just needs to recover now, so he’s officially out of the woods.

93. 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.

94. 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.

95. 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.

How to Practice English Idioms

Try to hear how these idioms are used by native English speakers to learn them efficiently.

Expose yourself to English speakers as much as possible, whether it’s in person or virtually.

The next time you watch an English movie or TV show, write down any strange and funny English expressions that 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.

This means you can learn how to actually use idioms from authentic videos like news clips, movie trailers, commercials and more. 

english idioms

The hover-over subtitles will also let you watch any video you want and discover even more idioms and phrases naturally.

Add new sayings to your flashcard decks and study them later with FluentU’s personalized exercises.

 

The more comfortable you get using English idioms and phrases, the closer you get to reaching full English fluency!

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