When pigs fly.
Cat got your tongue?
Blue in the face.
What are these nonsensical (crazy) phrases?
Welcome to the wonderful world of idioms!
Idioms are phrases and expressions that are very helpful with your English speaking and comprehension. In fact, more than helpful, they are essential.
Sometimes they are funny, sometimes they might even seem a bit strange. Either way, idioms are key to sounding like a native speaker and forming a deeper understanding of the English language.
But what are they all about? And how do you learn these common expressions?
With this handy guide, you will be able to breeze through (a popular idiom meaning to do a task with ease) your English idioms in no time.
Time to begin. After all, there is no time like the present!
An Introduction to English Idioms
What is an idiom?
An idiom is a type of expression. The phrase itself has no literal meaning word for word because idioms use figurative language. This means that the definition of an idiom comes from the whole phrase and the cultural understanding that English speakers have of it.
You might still be scratching your head when it comes to understanding idioms.
To scratch one’s head is an example of a common idiom. It means that you are confused about something. So you see, idioms are expressions that replace descriptions or statements.
The majority of English speakers know that to scratch one’s head means to be confused. From this common understanding comes the definition.
Do idioms exist in every language?
Yes, idioms exist in every language. They are a great way to have fun with your language learning but also learn more about the history of a language. Many idioms are actually quite old, and it can be very interesting to look into the history of some famous ones.
Think about some of the most popular idioms in your native or additional languages. Now think about how you might describe them to someone learning your mother tongue. You might even know some of the histories behind them. I bet there are plenty of funny ones!
What are some English idioms?
Here are a couple of examples of common English idioms.
All’s well that ends well.
You might be able to guess the meaning of this one! It means that if something finishes in a positive way, no matter how difficult and challenging it was, it was worth it in the end. This is true for the process of learning idioms!
To beat around the bush
This is an excellent example of a very figurative idiom. Perhaps a little bit more difficult to understand, this idiom means to be indirect with your speech or to not talk about the importance of a particular topic. It is when you avoid talking about the main idea.
You will often hear it used as a command:
Do not beat around the bush; tell me the truth!
These are just two of many, many English idioms that learners should be aware of. This leads us nicely to our next point…
How many English idioms are there?
This is an excellent question and a very difficult one to answer. Idioms are being created and disappearing all of the time. In addition to this, they vary between the different English-speaking countries.
It is also important to consider how you define idioms. For most people, idioms are a part of daily speech. In fact, people use idioms all of the time without even realizing it. Therefore, people will often confuse idioms with general sayings or expressions. However, a true idiom uses figurative language, as we discussed earlier.
In terms of a concrete number, academic research notes that there are around 25,000 idioms in English. However, some estimates place this number lower, at around 14,000.
Are idioms metaphors?
This is a common question, and the simple answer is no, idioms are not metaphors. That being said, there can be some overlap and common confusion.
The differences between idioms and metaphors
As we have previously discussed, an idiom describes something completely different from its meaning. It is an expression understood by native speakers of a particular language that describes something specific. It has a meaning given by the people who use it and is a part of the language.
In contrast, a metaphor is a comparison made for effect and can usually be understood from the individual words. A metaphor is perhaps more closely related to literature and is often called a “literary device.” This is because it helps authors and poets when they write descriptively. Metaphors are commonly used to make connections between two concepts.
Some examples of idioms vs. metaphors
Watch out for that man because he is an old fox.
In this case, we are comparing a man to a fox. The fox in English is considered to be a sly and cunning creature. In this way, the fox is a metaphor for the man’s behavior. The man is, therefore, deceitful, or sneaky. The metaphor is used to emphasize the key point that the man is cunning.
It’s raining cats and dogs.
This is one of the most famous idioms in English. If you did not know this idiom before, then you might be unable to understand its meaning. It means that it is raining very heavily and is commonly understood by all English speakers to mean this.
If I wanted to use a metaphor instead, I could say something like:
“There was a heavy blanket of rain in the sky that day.”
I have invented this metaphor on the spot (right now) and am using it to highlight the heaviness of the rain. I am referring to the rain as a blanket. This creates an image and helps to highlight my point. You do not need prior knowledge of this sentence to understand the meaning.
Metaphors can often be quite poetic. They are not to be considered literal, and in speech, people might begin a comment with the phrase “metaphorically speaking” before stating or using a metaphor.
Note that a metaphor can be invented on the spot and be immediately understood. Idioms, however, are already a part of the language and you must memorize them.
Why Should You Learn English Idioms?
Let’s take a look at five key reasons why you should be learning English idioms!
- Understand native speakers. Learning English idioms will assist you in your English comprehension and ability to understand native speakers. English speakers naturally use idioms in everyday speech without even realizing it. Once you understand some of the most commonly used idioms, you will be able to have flowing conversations with native speakers with ease.
- Speak more naturally. In the same way, having a solid understanding of idioms will improve your own speech and give a native feel to your conversational abilities.
- Ace exams and interviews. Learning English idioms will give you an advantage if you are taking an English exam or having a job interview. Using idioms makes you sound more natural and displays a deeper understanding of the English language.
- Use fun and energetic speech. Idioms are also a great way to keep your speech interesting, fun and energetic. They are a fantastic way to break free from descriptive repetition and add some flare (excitement) to your speech.
- Learn new vocabulary words. Because idioms are unique expressions, they are also a great way to learn new English vocabulary and are full of cool words!
How to Practice English Idioms
Using English idioms, like all English words and phrases, will take time and dedication. That is why it is important to use several different study methods to ensure that you develop this skill. Let’s take a look at some of the best ways to practice idioms in English.
- Talk with native speakers. Without a doubt, one of the best ways to practice idioms is to hear them used in real conversations by native speakers. Whether it is with a teacher, conversation exchange partner or friend, you will be able to learn idioms when they are used in a natural context. You will also be able to use idioms in your own speech and will receive feedback from your native speaking partner. This will make sure that you are using idioms correctly.
- Get context with FluentU. As we know, idioms have no literal meaning when broken down word for word. This means that context and input is everything! By using authentic videos, like those from the FluentU library, you are able to hear idioms used by native speakers.
This adds a level of authenticity, which is very important when learning idioms. FluentU is a great resource for learning idioms.
- Listen to popular music. Listening to music is a fun method for learning English. But, did you know that many lyrics use idioms? Using songs to practice is a great way to expose yourself to a number of different idioms with the added bonus of having fun! You can also create activities, such as quizzing yourself on the lyrics. Check out some of the most popular songs that contain idioms, such as “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga, to learn some great new expressions!
- Search for similar idioms in your own language. Sometimes, a great way to clearly define an idiom is to find one that is similar in your native language. For example, a common idiom in English is to kill two birds with one stone, meaning “to achieve two objectives with a single action.” The Spanish equivalent of this, when translated into English, is to kill two birds with one shot. Notice that there is only a one-word difference between the two idioms. While it does not always work, when you can, drawing these similarities can help with understanding!
- Group idioms into topics. Another fantastic method for learning idioms is to group them into specific topics. We will do this for you below, as it helps to draw associations between the various idiom topics, like age, sports, food, etc.
- Associate idioms with images. If you are a visual learner, it might be a good idea to link imagery to idioms whenever possible. You can do this by drawing pictures or using colors and images to help with your learning. For example, to miss the boat is a typical English expression meaning “it is too late to partake in something.” You could associate this idiom with the image of you standing on the shore as a boat sails off into the distance!
What Types of Idioms Are There?
There are many different types of English idioms that are frequently used. This can be frustrating for English learners because it can seem like a huge task to learn them all. Luckily, we are able to group the idioms into lists. This means that we can focus on particular lists in detail and learn them in greater depth. Let’s take a look at some of the most common idiom types below.
It is recommended that these lists serve as a starting point from which you can continually add more idioms as you hear and learn them. All of the idiom lists we link to in these next sections will help you learn the idioms that native English speakers use the most.
If you wish to add any additional lists to your learning program or break them down further, then do it! This is just a way for you to begin your learning journey with English idioms.
Common idioms are useful English idioms that are used in everyday life. Because they are common idioms, they will generally be used in typical, everyday situations. For example, if you are speaking about somebody in a group and they suddenly appear, you could say, “Speak of the devil!” This idiom is used to state that the person who entered the space was previously being talked about. Take a look at this list of common English idioms to get you started.
Animal idioms are a fun and relatively simple category of idioms to learn. This is because animal idioms are often associated with the traits or characteristics that we associate with a single animal. For example, you could say someone is a busy bee if they are very active and occupied with a number of tasks.
Alternatively, some animal idioms simply need to be learned for their specific definitions, such as straight from the horse’s mouth, which means “directly from the main source of information.”
Similarly, English color idioms make use of links that English speakers have with particular colors. For example, the color red might be associated with passion, and sometimes anger or even love. Because of this, by learning the English color idioms, you will also come to understand the language on a deeper level. It is a golden opportunity, meaning that it is an excellent chance to learn and kill two birds with one stone!
Due to the competitive nature of sports, you may find that many sports idioms reflect ideas of winning and losing. For example, if you are ready to quit or give up, then you might say that you throw in the towel, which is an old boxing expression. When boxing managers and coaches would throw in the towel, they would signify that their fighter could no longer continue.
Learning sports idioms is also a great way to expose yourself to sports vocabulary. This is because sports are a big part of culture. Time to keep moving forward with our idiom lists, as we are on the home stretch (reaching the end of our task)!
Idioms about love
Love is in the air (love is everywhere)! Or, so they say. It is no surprise that many idioms are about love. They generally use lots of clichés, and you will find that many of these love idioms also use body parts, such as the eye or the heart. For example, if someone catches your eye, you might find them romantically appealing. Or, if you wear your heart on your sleeve, you are very open about your emotions and do not hide them.
Similar to our color and animal idioms, weather idioms also rely on links that English speakers have with particular seasons or changes in the weather. You will find that the sun is associated with happiness and openness, whereas a storm may be more associated with darkness and emotion. For example, a storm in a teacup describes a situation where a small problem has been made into a much larger one.
Health idioms generally refer to the physical condition or health of an individual. For example, you may say someone is as fit as a fiddle, meaning that they are very healthy and in shape.
However, health idioms can also reflect negative physical aspects and can even be used to talk about death. For example, if you wanted to state that somebody was close to death, you might say they are at death’s door. As you can see, it is quite a dark and morbid idiom. Health idioms are excellent to learn, as they cover a wide number of uses.
Age idioms can generally be split into two smaller categories: idioms that refer to somebody who is old or aging and idioms that refer to somebody who is young and inexperienced. Sometimes, these idioms can seem quite rude and it is, therefore, very important to understand them well. You could say that someone is long in the tooth, meaning that they are too old to perform a particular job or task. Or, you could say that somebody is knee-high to a grasshopper, meaning that they are very young.
Well, that is the end of the story for this post on English idioms. But, there really is no endpoint when learning English idioms. You can explore them as deeply as you wish. As we say in English, the world is your oyster (all the opportunities are yours to take)!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.