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Learn English: 10 Common Idioms in the English Language

Chill Clinton is an experienced table games player who has played live blackjack at venues across the United States.

Learn these common idioms to improve your understanding of the English language and conversation skills.

Learn these common idioms to improve your understanding of the English language and conversation skills.

What is an Idiom?

Idioms appear in most, if not all languages, so regardless of your experience with the English language, you are sure to be familiar with the concept of an idiom.

An idiom is a phrase that represents a figurative concept. They tend to be understood within groups, like those who speak the same language, or could be localized even further to particular countries, regions, and even cities.

So although an idiom might be a phrase that sounds strange, its words should not be taken literally. This can pose some challenges to English language learners, because the meaning behind idioms must be learned.

Let's look at ten common idioms in the English language, and what they mean!

1. Beat Around the Bush

If you are trying to avoid a particular subject or task, someone might accuse you of "beating around the bush".

Example: "Quit beating around the bush, and get your homework done. The project is due tomorrow!"

2. Break a Leg

If someone wants to wish you good luck, particularly in the context of you performing or presenting for an audience, a friend might ironically tell you to "break a leg". This comes from a superstition (or fear of something that is unlikely to be real) that wishing someone "good luck" before an important moment will actually cause them bad luck.

Example: "Are you going to your job interview soon? Break a leg!"

3. Hit the Hay

If you are tired and ready to go to sleep, you might say that you are going to "hit the hay".

Example: "It's way past my bedtime. I think I'm going to hit the hay."

4. Left Out in the Cold

If you feel ignored by someone, especially if this person has given you attention or included you in the past, you might say that you feel "left out in the cold".

Example: "I feel left out in the cold by the other students in the study group. They used to invite me to the library with them, but lately, they haven't."

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5. Keep an Ear to the Ground

When you "keep an ear to the ground", you are staying aware of relevant events or information that might be upcoming or otherwise not immediately available. It is derived from a practice, among some indigenous cultures, of placing an ear to the ground to try and hear the footfall of animal herds too far away to see.

Example: "I don't know when the next party is going to be, but I'll keep an ear to the ground so I make sure not to miss it."

6. Fish Out of Water

If someone is a "fish out of water", they are in a situation that is uncomfortable or foreign to them.

Example: When I started at a new school, I didn't know anybody and had difficulty finding my classes. I was a fish out of water.

7. The Cat is Out of the Bag

If the "cat is out of the bag", it means that an important secret has been revealed.

Example: My parents found my report card in the trash. I guess the cat is out of the bag- they know I failed Biology.

8. Tip of the Iceberg

If a piece of information is just the "tip of the iceberg", it's just a small detail or fact that is a part of a larger body of information that has not yet been discovered. This idiom comes from the fact that only a small portion of an iceberg sticks out of the surface of the water with most of the iceberg remaining underwater.

Example: The detectives arrested two bank robbers, but that's just the tip of the iceberg because the detectives suspected that the robbers were working for a huge criminal organization.

9. A Cakewalk

If something is "a cakewalk", that means it is really easy. This idiom comes from a game that is sometimes played at fundraisers or carnivals where participants buy a ticket, and a number is drawn from a hat, with that number corresponding to a prize. This game takes no skill and every participant is guaranteed to win.

Example: I studied a lot for my final English test, so it was a cakewalk.

10. Go the Extra Mile

When someone "goes the extra mile", that means they are putting a ton of effort into something.

Example: When I took my car to get washed, they really went the extra mile by polishing my hubcaps and tightening the screws on my license plate.

Practice Makes Perfect!

Now that you know ten common idioms in the English language, try using them with some native English speakers. If you use them correctly, the native speaker will definitely be impressed by your language skills, and if you use them incorrectly, the native speaker may be willing to help you understand them better!

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