Idiomatic Expressions! List of common idiomatic expressions and sayings in English with meaning, ESL pictures and examples. Learn these English idioms to help your English sound naturally like a native speaker.
List of Common Idioms and Phrases
- (A) Few X Short of a Y
- (Get the) Short End of the Stick
- (In) Full Swing
- (The) Door Swings Both Ways
- (The) Lights Are On, But Nobody’s Home
- (The) Whole Kit and Caboodle
- (The) X Factor
- (To Be) Hoist By Your Own Petard
- (To Be) Shit out of Luck (SOL)
- (To) Grasp (Grab) at Straws
- (To) Pull Strings
- (To) Shit It In
- A Life Of Its Own
- Above Board
- Ace Up One’s Sleeve
- Add Insult to Injury
- Airy Fairy
- All And Sundry
- All Set
- All The Same
- All Very Well
- American Dream (The)
- And All That
- And So Forth
- And The Like
- And Then Some
- Answer Back
- Back At You
- Back in the Day
- Beggar Thy Neighbour
- Best of Both Worlds
- Borrow Trouble
- Carry the Can
- Come By Something Honestly
- Come Clean
- Come to Grips With
- Draw a Line Under (Something)
- Draw the Line
- Drop a Line
- Dry Run
- Face the Music
- Fall Prey to
- Flash in the Pan
- Follow In Someone’s Footsteps (Tracks)
- For Xyz Reasons
- Fourth Estate
- Get Along (with Someone)
- Get the Run around
- Get With the Program
- Go Along (With)
- Go Down in Flames
- Hatchet Job
- Haul Over the Coals
- Heart and Soul
- Home Truths
- Hot Mess
- In One Fell Swoop
- Just for the Record
- Keep (Something) at Bay
- Let the Genie Out of the Bottle
- Live Large
- Make One’s Mark
- Make Waves
- Nailing Jelly/Jello/Pudding To A Wall/Tree
- No Names, No Pack Drill
- Off the Beaten Path
- On a Roll
- Out of Line
- Out of Luck
- Out of Nowhere
- Out of Order
- Out of the Blue
- Out of the Picture
- Point of No Return
- Put the Genie Back in the Bottle
- Queer the Pitch
- Rake (Someone) Over the Coals
- School Of Hard Knocks
- Set the World on Fire
- Show Me an X And I’ll Show You a Y
- Six of One, a Half Dozen of the Other
- Small Beer
- Spick and Span
- Stand (Someone) In Good Stead
- Take (Someone) to the Cleaners (1)
- Take (Someone) to the Cleaners (2)
- Take A Powder
- Take the Shine Off (Something)
- Take the Starch out of (Someone)
- Take Your Life in Your Hands
- Tee Many Martoonies
- Test the Waters
- The Jig Is Up
- Thin On The Ground
- This Has (Person X) Written All Over It
- Throw a Wet Blanket on (Something)
- To the Letter
- Tread Water
- Under Wraps
- University of Life
- Up for Grabs
- Wouldn’t be Caught Dead
- You Know the Drill
- Zig When One Should Be Zagging
Idiomatic Expressions and Sayings with Meaning and Examples
(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.”
(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.”
Idiomatic Expressions (A)
List of common English idioms that start with A.
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.
Idiomatic Expressions (B)
List of common English idioms that start with B.
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?
Idiomatic Expressions (C)
List of common English idioms that start with C.
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.
Idiomatic Expressions (D)
List of common English idioms that start with D.
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.
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.
Idiomatic Expressions (F)
List of common English idioms that start with F.
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.
Idiomatic Expressions (G)
List of common English idioms that start with G.
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.
Idiomatic Expressions (H)
List of common English idioms that start with H.
- Meaning: A strong attack on someone’s reputation; intentionally destructive criticism; calumny
- Example: There’s a newspaper here that always supports the government and can be counted on to do a hatchet job on any potential opponents.
Haul Over the Coals
- Meaning: To scold someone severely
- Example: My teacher really hauled over the coals today about talking in class.
Note: Rake (someone) over the coals” is the usual American version.
Heart and Soul
- Meaning: With all one’s energy or affection
- Example: Bob never worked hard before, but he threw himself into his new job heart and soul.
Note: “Body and soul” is also used.
- Meaning: Honest, often painful criticism
- Example: My teacher expressed some home truths to me – I argued with her at first, but I had to admit she was right.
- Meaning: Something or someone in a state of extreme disorder
- Example: In my 20s I was a hot mess, but after I turned 30 I tried to live a more orderly life.
Idiomatic Expressions (I, J, K)
List of common English idioms that start with I, J, K.
In One Fell Swoop
- Meaning: All at once, in a single action
- Example: I finished all my homework in one fell swoop.
Just for the Record
- Meaning: I would like to make it clear that …
- Example: Just for the record, I never said Samantha was doing a bad job.
Keep (Something) at Bay
- Meaning: Maintain a distance from something or someone
- Example: We used my car horn to keep the bear at bay until the forest rangers arrived.
Idiomatic Expressions (L, M, N)
List of common English idioms that start with L, M, N.
Let the Genie Out of the Bottle
- Meaning: Reveal something hitherto suppressed
- Example: Once the reporter let the genie out of the bottle and revealed official corruption, many more examples came to light.
- Meaning: Have a luxurious lifestyle
- Example: After I sold my company, I was living large – penthouse apartment, big car, eating out every night.
Note: This is of African American origin.
Make One’s Mark
- Meaning: Attain influence or recognition
- Example: I’ve been working in this field for ten years, but I don’t really feel I’ve made my mark.
- Meaning: Cause controversy, disturb a calm group dynamic
- Example: You just started working here. I’m sure you think there should be changes, but for now don’t make waves.
Nailing Jelly/Jello/Pudding To A Wall/Tree
- Meaning: An impossible task
- Example: Getting Mark to commit to marrying me is like nailing Jello to a tree.
Note: This is not common.
No Names, No Pack Drill
- Meaning: If no one can be identified, no one will be punished.
- Example: Certain people around here-”no names, no pack drill-”are not contributing enough to the project.
Idiomatic Expressions (O)
List of common English idioms that start with O.
Off the Beaten Path
- Meaning: Remote; not a usual destination; not easily reached
- Example: This restaurant is off the beaten path, but I think you’ll find it’s worth the trouble in getting there.
On a Roll
- Meaning: Succeeding consistently
- Example: Ellen is on a roll – she’s gotten an A on her last three exams.
Out of Line
- Meaning: Improper, behaving improperly
- Example: Your comment in the meeting was out of line. I want you to apologize to Theresa.
Out of Luck
- Meaning: Unlucky in a single instance; temporarily unfortunate
- Example: You’re out of luck. Debbie just left. She’ll be back at 1.
Out of Nowhere
- Meaning: Unexpectedly
- Example: Two horses were neck and neck for most of the race, but a third horse came out of nowhere to win.
Out of Order
- Meaning: Not working properly
- Example: The restroom is out of order. You’ll have to go to the next floor up.
Out of the Blue
- Meaning: Unexpectedly
- Example: Out of the blue, John called and said he was going to visit me. I haven’t seen him for 15 years.
Out of the Picture
- Meaning: No longer under consideration; eliminated from a contest
- Example: Caitlin says Jack is out of the picture. She’s trying to choose between William and Jason as her date for the dance.
Idiomatic Expressions (P)
List of common English idioms that start with P.
- Meaning: A page-turner is an exciting book that’s easy to read, a book that’s difficult to put down.
- Example: When I go to the beach, I don’t want a book that I have to focus closely on-”I prefer a real page-turner.”Stephen King’s novels are page-turners. They may be a thousand pages long, but you can finish them very quickly.”
Point of No Return
- Meaning: A place from which it is impossible to go back to the starting point
- Example: We’ve reached the point of no return on this hike – if we keep walking, we won’t be able to make it back to town before dark.
Put the Genie Back in the Bottle
- Meaning: Try to suppress something that has already been revealed or done
- Example: Once you give kids additional freedoms, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle and make them obey rules.
Note: This is usually used in the negative-”it’s hard to put a genie back in a bottle.
Idiomatic Expressions (Q, R)
List of common English idioms that start with Q, R.
Queer the Pitch
- Meaning: Interfere with someone’s plans; make something more difficult
- Example: Although he supports the prime minister’s party, he’s trying to queer the pitch for that party’s candidates.
Rake (Someone) Over the Coals
- Meaning: To scold someone severely
- Example: My teacher really raked me over the coals today about talking in class.
Note: Rake (someone) over the coals” is the usual American version.
Idiomatic Expressions (S)
List of common English idioms that start with S.
School Of Hard Knocks
- Meaning: Difficult real-life experiences from which one has learned
- Example: I never went to college. I worked starting when I was 17, and I got my education in the school of hard knocks.
Set the World on Fire
- Meaning: Do something amazing; have a brilliant stretch in one’s career
- Example: I don’t think Teresa will set the world on fire with her writing, but her books are selling consistently.
Show Me an X And I’ll Show You a Y
- Meaning: There is a consequence to X that you may not have thought of.
- Example: Show me a man with a tattoo, and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.’- Jack London.
Six of One, a Half Dozen of the Other
- Meaning: The two choices have no significant differences.
- Example: It doesn’t matter to me whether we go food shopping first or get the car’s oil change – it’s six of one, a half dozen of the other.
Note: Ourside the USA, “a six and two threes” is also used.
- Meaning: Unimportant, insignificant
- Example: Our sales have risen, but they’re still small beer compared with those of our main competitor.
- Meaning: A malfunction; a chaotic situation
- Example: After all the snafus, I’m surprised the product launch is happening even close to the scheduled date.
Spick and Span
- Meaning: Clean and neat
- Example: Your room is messy. I’m leaving now, and when I come home I want to see it spick and span.
Stand (Someone) In Good Stead
- Meaning: Be useful in the future
- Example: You may not think you need this tool, but it will stand you in good stead in the future.
Note: This is used in the future tense, as in the example.
- Meaning: Certain to occur
- Example: This horse is a sure-fire winner. If you bet on him, you can’t lose!
Idiomatic Expressions (T)
List of common English idioms that start with T.
Take (Someone) to the Cleaners (1)
- Meaning: Swindle
- Example: Be careful when visiting foreign cities – you won’t be aware of the con artists’ tricks, and they’ll take you to the cleaners.
Take (Someone) to the Cleaners (2)
- Meaning: Defeat badly
- Example: It was predicted to be a close game, but we took the other team to the cleaners.
Take A Powder
- Meaning: To leave, especially in order to avoid a difficult situation
- Example: Just when we were getting to the hard work, Juan took a powder, and we haven’t seen him all day.
Take the Shine Off (Something)
- Meaning: To do something that diminishes a positive event
- Example: We won the championship, but the riots after the match took the shine off the team’s accomplishment.
Take the Starch out of (Someone)
- Meaning: Make someone less confident or less arrogant
- Example: The boss criticized Walter’s presentation. It really took the starch out of him.
Take Your Life in Your Hands
- Meaning: Undergo extreme risk
- Example: They don’t maintain that road in winter. If you drive up there, you’re taking your life in your hands.
Tee Many Martoonies
- Meaning: Too many martinis, scrambled to suggest drunkenness
- Example: I said some things I shouldn’t have last night. I probably had tee many martoonies.
Note: This is quite rare.
Test the Waters
- Meaning: Try something out in a preliminary way
- Example: We haven’t decided about expanding into Europe, but we’re testing the waters with a few stores there.
The Jig Is Up
- Meaning: A secret illicit activity has been exposed; your trickery is finished
- Example: The jig is up for the stock scammers – the FBI busted the ring last night.
Thin On The Ground
- Meaning: Rare, seldom encountered
- Example: Good restaurants are thin on the ground in this town.
This Has (Person X) Written All Over It
- Meaning: [Person X] would really like or be well suited to this.
- Example: A big German document just came in e-mail. This job has Frank written all over it – he speaks fluent German.
Throw a Wet Blanket on (Something)
- Meaning: Discourage plans for something
- Example: Barbara threw a wet blanket on our plans for a party, reminding us that no alcohol is allowed in the building.
To the Letter
- Meaning: Exactly (said of instructions or procedures)
- Example: I followed the instructions in the manual to the letter, but I still couldn’t replace my timing belt.
- Meaning: Maintain a current situation without improvement or decline
- Example: I’ve been working hard for a year, but I’m just treading water. I need a job that pays more.
Note: This idiom has a slightly negative flavor, as in the example.
Idiomatic Expressions (U, W, Y, Z)
List of common English idioms that start with U, W, Y, Z.
- Meaning: Temporarily hidden, secret
- Example: I want the new model kept under wraps until the product launch on Tuesday.
University of Life
- Meaning: Difficult real-life experience, as opposed to formal education
- Example: I never had the advantage of an Oxford degree-”all my experience comes from the university of life.
Note: School of hard knocks in North America is similar.
Up for Grabs
- Meaning: Available for anyone
- Example: Positions in our new Hanoi office are up for grabs for anyone who speaks Vietnamese. See me if you’re interested.
Wouldn’t be Caught Dead
- Meaning: Would absolutely not allow myself to do this
- Example: I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a coat that color.
You Know the Drill
- Meaning: You are already familiar with the procedure.
- Example: When you leave, shut off all the lights and lock the room with the safe. You know the drill.
Zig When One Should Be Zagging
- Meaning: To make an error; to choose an incorrect course
- Example: My problem during my 20s was that too often I would zig when I should be zagging.
English Idioms Images
Useful Idiomatic Expressions in English – Other ways to say | Image 1
Useful Idiomatic Expressions in English – Other ways to say | Image 2