Learn common English Idioms with meaning and examples (A-G).
List of 50+ Common English Idioms.
You can jump to any section of this lesson:
- 1 (A) Few X Short of a Y
- 2 (Get the) Short End of the Stick
- 3 (In) Full Swing
- 4 (The) Door Swings Both Ways
- 5 (The) Lights Are On, But Nobody’s Home
- 6 (The) Whole Kit and Caboodle
- 7 (The) X Factor
- 8 (To Be) Hoist By Your Own Petard
- 9 (To Be) Shit out of Luck (SOL)
- 10 (To) Grasp (Grab) at Straws
- 11 (To) Pull Strings
- 12 (To) Shit It In
- 13 A Life Of Its Own
- 14 Above Board
- 15 Ace Up One’s Sleeve
- 16 Add Insult to Injury
- 17 Airy Fairy
- 18 All And Sundry
- 19 All Set
- 20 All The Same
- 21 All Very Well
- 22 American Dream (The)
- 23 And All That
- 24 And So Forth
- 25 And The Like
- 26 And Then Some
- 27 Answer Back
- 28 Back At You
- 29 Back in the Day
- 30 Beggar Thy Neighbour
- 31 Best of Both Worlds
- 32 Borrow Trouble
- 33 Carry the Can
- 34 Catch-22
- 35 Come By Something Honestly
- 36 Come Clean
- 37 Come to Grips With
- 38 Draw a Line Under (Something)
- 39 Draw the Line
- 40 Drop a Line
- 41 Dry Run
- 42 Face the Music
- 43 Fall Prey to
- 44 Flash in the Pan
- 45 Follow In Someone’s Footsteps (Tracks)
- 46 For Xyz Reasons
- 47 Fourth Estate
- 48 Get Along (with Someone)
- 49 Get the Run around
- 50 Get With the Program
- 51 Go Along (With)
- 52 Go Down in Flames
(A) Few X Short of a Y
- Meaning: Crazy, mentally impaired.
- Example: Ned seems to make sense when you talk to him at first, but the more you listen, the more it seems he’s a few cards short of a deck.
Note: Examples: a few cards short of a deck, a few fries short of a Happy Meal.
(Get the) Short End of the Stick
- Meaning: (Emerge with) a disadvantage in a deal or negotiation; (get a) bad deal
- Example: My older brother left me with the short end of the stick – he said I could use his car if I lent him money, but it’s not running!
(In) Full Swing
- Meaning: Completely in operation as planned
- Example: Production was slow to ramp up, but now things are in full swing.
(The) Door Swings Both Ways
- Meaning: The same principle can apply mutually in a relationship
- Example: In the realm of food, the door often swings both ways. For example, American food has borrowed many influences from Japan, but Japanese food has also been influenced by America.
(The) Lights Are On, But Nobody’s Home
- Meaning: This person appears normal but is deficient in mental functioning, stupid
- Example: Carl couldn’t even answer basic questions about the budget. With him, sometimes I think the lights are on, but nobody’s home.
(The) Whole Kit and Caboodle
- Meaning: The entire collection of something; all of something
- Example: I’ll pay $300 for the whole kit and caboodle – we don’t need to waste time arguing over the value of each individual coin.
(The) X Factor
- Meaning: An aspect of a situation with an unknown impact; an indefinable appeal
- Example: The votes of women will be an X factor in this election. No one knows which way they’ll go.
(To Be) Hoist By Your Own Petard
- Meaning: To be hurt by one’s own aggressive plans
- Example: The dean implemented a foreign-language requirement for faculty, but then he couldn’t pass it himself. He was hoist by his own petard!
Note: This idiom comes from Shakespeare.
(To Be) Shit out of Luck (SOL)
- Meaning: To be completely out of luck; to experience very bad fortune
- Example: I went to a restaurant in Buffalo, and they were out of Buffalo chicken wings. I guess I was just shit out of luck!
Note: This is obscene and has a slightly humorous flavor.
(To) Grasp (Grab) at Straws
- Meaning: To take desperate actions with little hope of success
- Example: When the teacher called on her, Jean was grasping at straws – she had no idea how to answer the question.
Note: This is based on the behavior of people who are drowning-”they may grasp at straws in the water.
(To) Pull Strings
- Meaning: Use influence that’s based on personal connections
- Example: My uncle pulled strings and got me a summer job at a state legislator’s office.
Note: You can also say that someone is “pulling the strings.”
Common English Idioms – Other ways to say | Image 1
(To) Shit It In
- Meaning: Succeed easily; be doing well
- Example: Don’t worry. We had a bad practice, but when game time comes we’ll shit it in.
Note: This is obscene. Another form is “shit it in and carry a pig.”
A Life Of Its Own
- Meaning: An indepdendent existence
- Example: At first my weaving was just a side project, but it’s taken on a life of its own – people have been buying my blankets.
Note: Generally not said of living things, but of ideas or new phenomena.
- Meaning: Openly, without deceit. Honestly, reputably.
- Example: You might want to sneak a misleading clause into the contract, but it’s better if we keep everything above board.
Ace Up One’s Sleeve
- Meaning: A surprise advantage of which others are not aware.
- Example: Susan had an ace up her sleeve when it came to dating Jason – she was friends with Jason’s sister, and she knew a lot about his interests.
Note: Also “an ace in the hole.”
Add Insult to Injury
- Meaning: Humiliate someone in addition to doing damage to him or her
- Example: My boyfriend broke up with me. Then he added insult to injury by lying about when he had started seeing Valerie.
- Meaning: Whimsical, nonsensical, impractical
- Example: The business plan is full of airy fairy ideas that would be impossible to actually implement.
All And Sundry
- Meaning: Everyone (separately) Each one.
- Example: She told all and sundry that she was ready to forget her breakup and begin dating again.
Note: Less common in North America.
- Meaning: Ready, prepared, finished
- Example: We’re all set. Everything’s packed, Now we just have to get to the airport on time.
All The Same
- Meaning: Anyway; nevertheless; nonetheless.
- Example: I know you want to leave. All the same, I’d rather stay and talk to a few more people.
Note: Rather old-fashioned.
All Very Well
- Meaning: True to a certain extent
- Example: That’s all very well, but your argument breaks down when you try to apply it to the real world.
Note: Primarily British.
American Dream (The)
- Meaning: The belief among Americans that hard work leads to material success
- Example: If we work hard, our children will have a better life than we had. That’s the American Dream.
And All That
- Meaning: Et cetera, and so on.
- Example: For a proper golf experience, you need the right clubs, the right shoes, the right golf balls, and all that.
And So Forth
- Meaning: Indicates that a list continues in a similar manner, etc.
- Example: Urban areas have many problems: unemployment, bad schools, crime, and so forth.
And The Like
- Meaning: And other similar items, etc.
- Example: We collect small antique home furnishings: lamps, ashtrays, platters, and the like.
And Then Some
- Meaning: And even more than what has just been mentioned
- Example: We’ll need all the equipment you’ve brought, and then some.
- Meaning: Respond impertinently; to talk back.
- Example: Teenagers like to answer back when you tell them to do something.
Note: Uncommon in American English.
Back At You
- Meaning: Same to you (used to return a greeting or insult)
- Example: Hey, it’s great to see you! – Back at you.
Note: Also written phonetically, “back atcha.” Also “right back at you.”
Back in the Day
- Meaning: Formerly, when I was younger, in earlier times
- Example: Back in the day, we used to bicycle all the way around the island, but I’m not in shape to do that anymore!
Beggar Thy Neighbour
- Meaning: To do something beneficial for oneself without worrying about how it affects others
- Example: The country’s beggar-thy-neighbour currency policy will earn it enemies in the long run.
Note: This expression is often used to describe the actions of governments.
Best of Both Worlds
- Meaning: Combining two qualities that are usually separate
- Example: With this car, you get the best of both worlds-it’s a high-performance car, but it’s also very durable.
- Meaning: Take needless risks, invite problems
- Example: Probably nothing will happen if we overload the boat, but why borrow trouble?
Carry the Can
- Meaning: To take the blame for something one did not do
- Example: The general manager is being forced to carry the can for the mistakes of the owner, who refused to invest in top-flight talent.
- Meaning: A difficult situation from which there is no escape because options for avoiding it involve contradictions
- Example: It’s a Catch-22 – we can’t get the fare discount without the loyalty card, but to get the loyalty card we’d have to take this flight.
Note: This idiom comes from a novel, Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, and describes a situation in which a soldier is considered insane and unfit for combat if he willingly continues to fly missions. However, asking to be relieved from duty on the basis of insanity shows that he is mentally competent. Consequently, he must continue to serve.
Come By Something Honestly
- Meaning: Acquire something honestly, or inherit it
- Example: I came by that knife honestly – my father gave it to me.
- Meaning: To confess; to admit to wrongdoing
- Example: Son, we all know you stole the liquor from the cabinet. It’s time for you to come clean.
Come to Grips With
- Meaning: To acknowledge a problem as a prelude to dealing with it
- Example: We need to come to grips with the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Draw a Line Under (Something)
- Meaning: To conclude something and move on to something else
- Example: It’s time to draw a line under that relationship. I’m ready to look for someone new.
Draw the Line
- Meaning: To set a limit to what one will accept
- Example: It’s OK if you have a bottle of beer from time to time, but using drugs is where I draw the line.
Common English Idioms – Other ways to say | Image 2
Drop a Line
- Meaning: To write a letter or send an email
- Example: Drop me a line when you’re back in the country, and we’ll get together.
- Meaning: A practice execution of a procedure
- Example: The flight went perfectly in a dry run. I think we’re ready to start accepting charters.
Face the Music
- Meaning: To accept judgment or punishment
- Example: We broke the rules for stock trading. It’s time to face the music – they’re going to catch us sooner or later.
Fall Prey to
- Meaning: Be victimized by; be harmed by; be vulnerable to
- Example: When you’re sick, it’s very easy to fall prey to scammers who sell you worthless medicines.
Flash in the Pan
- Meaning: A one-time occurrence, not a permanent phenomenon
- Example: Some believed that Donald Trump’s popularity was a flash in the pan; others thought he would have a more lasting impact.
Note: This idiom comes from an old expression about exploding gunpowder
Follow In Someone’s Footsteps (Tracks)
- Meaning: Follow the example laid down by someone else; supplant
- Example: I know you’re worried about what will happen after Ruth retires, but I’m sure that with Jack following in her footsteps things will continue normally.
For Xyz Reasons
- Meaning: For multiple reasons, not worth specifying individually
- Example: For xyz reasons I don’t want to go to the party. You go ahead!
Note: This is more common in the UK.
- Meaning: The media and newspapers
- Example: The Fourth Estate can direct public opinion, but they can’t shape it.
Note: This is usually capitalized.
Get Along (with Someone)
- Meaning: To have a satisfactory relationship
- Example: Andrew isn’t a perfect employee, but he gets along with everyone, and that’s important – it helps create a harmonious workplace.
Get the Run around
- Meaning: Be given an unclear or evasive answer to a question
- Example: Every time I try to ask the boss when we might get raises, I get the run around.
Get With the Program
- Meaning: Figure out what everyone else already knows. Often used sarcastically, as a command
- Example: Everyone else has already moved on to stage three. C’mon, get with the program!
Go Along (With)
- Meaning: Agree to something, often provisionally
- Example: I’ll go along with the plan for now, but if the dollar drops I’ll have to reconsider.
Note: Compare this with “get along.”
Go Down in Flames
- Meaning: Fail in a spectacular way
- Example: After the new model had to be recalled due to the diesel emissions scandal, the entire brand went down in flames.