In this article, we have compiled a list of 119 common English idioms with their meanings and examples of how they can be used in everyday conversation.
What are idioms?
Before we start, what are idioms? Idioms are phrases or expressions that convey a figurative meaning that differs from the literal meaning of the words used. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines an idiom as “a group of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words.” For example, “a piece of cake” means something that is very easy. This is completely different to its literal meaning.
Such idiomatic expressions are often deeply ingrained in the English language and can be challenging for non-native speakers to understand. However, they are an essential part of English communication, and learning them can help you understand and speak English more fluently.
So, whether you are an English learner looking to improve your language skills or a native speaker looking to expand your vocabulary, this list of idioms can help you understand and use these expressions with confidence.
119 idioms with meanings and examples
From idioms related to personal situations and everyday life to those related to business and sport, this list covers a wide range of expressions that you are likely to encounter in spoken and written English.
So, let’s dive in and explore the fascinating world of English idioms with these examples:
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
Meaning: Something you already have is more valuable than something you might get in the future.
Example: John already has a job offer, but he is considering waiting for a better one. I think he should take the offer because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
A blessing in disguise
Meaning: Something that seems bad or unlucky at first but turns out to be good.
Example: Losing my job was a blessing in disguise because it gave me the opportunity to start my own business.
A dime a dozen
Meaning: Something that is very common and easy to find.
Example: People who claim to be professional photographers are a dime a dozen these days.
A piece of cake
Meaning: Something that is very easy.
Example: This math problem is a piece of cake. I can solve it in no time.
A penny for your thoughts
Meaning: A way of asking someone what they are thinking.
Example: You look deep in thought. A penny for your thoughts?
A picture is worth a thousand words
Meaning: A picture can convey more information than words.
Example: The infographic was so helpful, I immediately understood the concept. It really proved that a picture is worth a thousand words.
A snowball effect
Meaning: A situation where something starts small and then grows larger and larger, similar to how a snowball rolling down a hill gathers more snow and becomes larger.
Example: The new marketing campaign created a snowball effect, with more and more people becoming interested in our product and spreading the word to others.
Actions speak louder than words
Meaning: What people do is more important than what they say.
Example: He promised to help me move, but he never showed up. Actions speak louder than words.
Add insult to injury
Meaning: To make a bad situation even worse.
Example: Not only did they cancel my flight, but they also lost my luggage. That really added insult to injury.
Meaning: Paying close attention and listening carefully.
Example: I’m all ears. Please tell me your story.
Meaning: Being clumsy or awkward with your hands.
Example: I’m all thumbs when it comes to knitting. I can’t even make a scarf.
An arm and a leg
Meaning: Something that is very expensive.
Example: That sports car costs an arm and a leg.
As cool as a cucumber
Meaning: Being calm and relaxed, even in a stressful situation.
Example: Even though she was giving a speech to a large crowd, she was as cool as a cucumber.
At the drop of a hat
Meaning: Doing something immediately without any hesitation.
Example: If you need my help, I’ll be there at the drop of a hat.
Back to the drawing board
Meaning: Starting over from the beginning.
Example: The design didn’t work out, so we had to go back to the drawing board.
Back to square one
Meaning: Returning to the beginning, starting over.
Example: After weeks of negotiations, the two sides still couldn’t agree on a deal, so they went back to square one.
Barking up the wrong tree
Meaning: Making a mistake, going in the wrong direction.
Example: If you think I can help you with your math homework, you’re barking up the wrong tree. I’m terrible at math.
Beat around the bush
Meaning: Avoiding the main topic, not getting to the point.
Example: Stop beating around the bush and tell me what you really want.
Bend over backwards
Meaning: Going out of one’s way to help someone or accommodate their needs.
Example: The hotel staff bent over backwards to make sure we had everything we needed.
Better late than never
Meaning: It’s better to do something late than not at all.
Example: I know I’m late, but I still want to wish you a happy birthday. Better late than never, right?
Bite the bullet
Meaning: Doing something difficult or unpleasant because it’s necessary.
Example: I hate public speaking, but I’ll have to bite the bullet and give the presentation.
Break a leg
Meaning: Good luck!
Example: Break a leg on your big audition tomorrow!
Burn the midnight oil
Meaning: Working late into the night.
Example: I have a deadline tomorrow, so I’ll be burning the midnight oil tonight.
By the skin of your teeth
Meaning: Just barely.
Example: I passed the test by the skin of my teeth. I got the minimum passing score.
Can of worms
Meaning: A complicated or unpleasant situation that, when opened up, creates additional problems.
Example: I don’t want to discuss that topic. It’s a can of worms that we don’t need to open.
Caught between a rock and a hard place
Meaning: Facing a difficult choice with no good options.
Example: I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. If I quit my job, I’ll lose my income, but if I stay, I’ll have to work with a boss who makes my life miserable.
Chip on your shoulder
Meaning: Holding a grudge or feeling angry or resentful about something.
Example: He always has a chip on his shoulder because he thinks he doesn’t get the respect he deserves.
Close but no cigar
Meaning: To come very close to achieving something but not quite make it.
Example: He was close but no cigar in the race, he finished in second place.
Cross that bridge when you come to it
Meaning: Dealing with a problem when it happens, not worrying about it before.
Example: I’m not going to worry about the presentation until I have to give it. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
Cry over spilled milk
Meaning: Worrying about something that can’t be changed.
Example: Don’t cry over spilled milk. We can’t do anything about the bad weather, so let’s enjoy our vacation anyway.
Meaning: Doing something quickly and without attention to detail, often to save time or money.
Example: If you keep cutting corners, you’ll end up with a shoddy product that no one wants to buy.
Meaning: Taking the opposite point of view to stimulate a discussion.
Example: I’ll play devil’s advocate and argue against your proposal to make sure we’ve considered all the possible consequences.
Meaning: To begin or start something with enthusiasm or without hesitation.
Example: I know you’re nervous about starting your new job, but you just need to dive in and do your best.
Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
Meaning: Don’t assume something will happen before it actually does.
Example: I know you’re excited about the job offer, but don’t count your chickens before they hatch. You still have to pass the background check.
This is one of many popular chicken expressions in the English language.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
Meaning: Don’t risk everything on one opportunity or investment.
Example: I know you’re confident about this one stock, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Diversify your portfolio.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
Meaning: Don’t discard something good while trying to get rid of something bad.
Example: I know you don’t like your job, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You have great coworkers and a good salary.
Drop in the bucket
Meaning: A small or insignificant amount.
Example: The $5 donation is appreciated, but it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what we need to raise.
Eat like a horse
Meaning: To eat a lot or have a very big appetite.
Example: James eats like a horse, he can finish an entire pizza by himself.
Every cloud has a silver lining
Meaning: There is something positive in every negative situation.
Example: Even though I lost my job, every cloud has a silver lining. I have more time to spend with my family.
Face the music
Meaning: Accepting the consequences of one’s actions.
Example: You made a mistake, and now you have to face the music. Admit your fault and apologize.
Fish out of water
Meaning: Feeling uncomfortable or out of place in a new situation.
Example: I feel like a fish out of water in this fancy restaurant. I’m used to casual dining.
Get a taste of your own medicine
Meaning: Experience the same negative treatment you have given to others.
Example: He always criticizes other people, but when I criticized him, he got a taste of his own medicine.
Get the ball rolling
Meaning: Start something, initiate action.
Example: Let’s get the ball rolling and plan the fundraising event.
Get your act together
Meaning: To organize yourself or your thoughts, to start behaving in a more responsible and effective way.
Example: You need to get your act together if you want to pass the exam. Start studying regularly and focus on your weak areas.
Give someone the benefit of the doubt
Meaning: Assume the best about someone’s intentions, even if they seem suspicious.
Example: I don’t think he stole my phone. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and look for it before accusing him.
Go the extra mile
Meaning: Do more than is expected or required.
Example: If you want to impress your boss, go the extra mile and finish the project ahead of schedule.
Hear it on the grapevine
Meaning: Hear information through rumors or gossip.
Example: I heard on the grapevine that the company is laying off employees next month.
Hit a home run
Meaning: To achieve a great success or make a significant accomplishment.
Example: Sarah hit a home run with her presentation at the conference, and now she’s being promoted to lead the new project.
Hit the nail on the head
Meaning: Be exactly right, hit the target.
Example: She hit the nail on the head when she said that the company needs to focus on its core values in order to grow.
Hit the road
Meaning: To begin a journey, especially by car or other road vehicles.
Example: It’s getting late, and we need to hit the road if we want to make it to the concert on time.
Hit the sack
Meaning: To go to bed or to go to sleep.
Example: “It’s been a long day, I think I’m going to hit the sack early tonight.”
In hot water
Meaning: In trouble or facing negative consequences.
Example: He’s in hot water with his boss because he missed a deadline.
In the blink of an eye
Meaning: Happening very quickly or suddenly.
Example: The accident happened in the blink of an eye. It was over before we even realized what had happened.
In the same boat
Meaning: In the same difficult or challenging situation as someone else.
Example: We’re all struggling to make ends meet. We’re in the same boat.
Jump the gun
Meaning: Start something too early or without proper preparation.
Example: Don’t jump the gun and start the project before we have all the necessary resources.
keep an ear to the ground
Meaning: To stay informed about something, especially if it’s a developing situation or a potential opportunity. It suggests that one should be attentive to any signs or hints of what’s happening around them.
Example: John is keeping an ear to the ground about the upcoming job openings in his company so that he can apply as soon as the positions become available.
Keep your chin up
Meaning: Stay positive and hopeful even in difficult circumstances.
Example: I know things are tough right now, but keep your chin up. Things will get better.
Keep your fingers crossed
Meaning: To hope for a positive outcome or good luck.
Example: Keep your fingers crossed for me, I have a job interview tomorrow.
Kill two birds with one stone
Meaning: Accomplish two tasks at the same time.
Example: I’m going to the grocery store and the post office. I’ll kill two birds with one stone and do them both in one trip.
Let the cat out of the bag
Meaning: Reveal a secret or confidential information.
Example: He let the cat out of the bag and told everyone about the surprise party.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Meaning: A sign of hope or relief after a difficult situation.
Example: Even though I’m struggling with this project, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The deadline is approaching and soon it will be finished.
Make a long story short
Meaning: Summarize a story or situation.
Example: To make a long story short, I missed my flight and had to stay in a hotel overnight.
Make ends meet
Meaning: To have enough money to cover basic expenses.
Example: She works two jobs to make ends meet and support her family.
Miss the boat
Meaning: Miss an opportunity or chance.
Example: I didn’t apply for the scholarship on time. I missed the boat.
Neck of the woods
Meaning: Referring to a specific area or region.
Example: I grew up in the same neck of the woods as that famous actor.
Not my cup of tea
Meaning: Something that is not one’s preference or interest.
Example: I know he loves action movies, but they’re not my cup of tea.
Nose to the grindstone
Meaning: Working hard and diligently.
Example: She put her nose to the grindstone and worked late every night to finish the project on time.
Off to a flyer
Meaning: To have a successful start.
Example: Our new product launch is off to a flyer with more than 10,000 units sold in the first week itself.
On the ball
Meaning: Alert, attentive, and responsive.
Example: She’s always on the ball and never misses a deadline.
On the fence
Meaning: Being undecided about something, or not committing to a particular option or decision.
Example: “I’m on the fence about whether to go to graduate school or start working right away.”
Once in a blue moon
Meaning: Happening very rarely.
Example: I only see my old college friends once in a blue moon.
Out of the blue
Meaning: Happening suddenly and unexpectedly.
Example: I hadn’t heard from him in years, and then he called me out of the blue.
Play it by ear
Meaning: Make decisions as you go along, without a plan.
Example: I don’t know what time the concert starts, so I’ll just play it by ear and show up when I can.
Pull someone’s leg
Meaning: Tease or joke with someone, often by making them believe something that is not true.
Example: He said he won the lottery, but I think he’s pulling my leg.
Push the boat out
Meaning: To celebrate in a big or lavish way, usually by spending a lot of money.
Example: My sister’s wedding is coming up, and we decided to push the boat out and host the reception at a fancy hotel.
Put all your cards on the table
Meaning: Be completely open and honest about something.
Example: If we’re going to work together, we need to put all our cards on the table and discuss our expectations.
Put your foot in your mouth
Meaning: Say something embarrassing or inappropriate.
Example: I put my foot in my mouth when I accidentally insulted her cooking.
Read between the lines
Meaning: Understand the hidden or implied meaning of something.
Example: I think there’s more going on than what she’s saying. I need to read between the lines.
Rip off the band-aid
Meaning: Do something quickly and without hesitation, even if it’s painful or difficult.
Example: Let’s rip off the band-aid and have the difficult conversation we’ve been avoiding.
Rule of thumb
Meaning: A general guideline or rule based on experience.
Example: As a rule of thumb, I always arrive 15 minutes early to appointments.
Shoot the breeze
Meaning: Have a casual conversation with someone.
Example: Let’s shoot the breeze over coffee and catch up.
Meaning: Wait patiently and remain in one place.
Example: Sit tight while I go get the car. I’ll be back in a few minutes.
Spill the beans
Meaning: Reveal a secret or confidential information.
Example: He spilled the beans and told everyone about the surprise party.
Steal someone’s thunder
Meaning: Take credit for someone else’s ideas or accomplishments.
Example: He was about to announce his new invention, but his competitor stole his thunder by announcing a similar product first.
Stick to your guns
Meaning: Maintain your position or opinion, even in the face of opposition.
Example: He stuck to his guns and refused to compromise on his principles.
Take a flier
Meaning: To take a risk or gamble on something. It can also mean to make a quick decision without much thought or consideration.
Example: After losing his job, Dave decided to take a flyer and start his own business, even though he didn’t have much experience in the industry.
Note: In 2017, the AP Stylebook modified its recommended spelling from “flier” to “flyer” for all instances of the word “flyer”, except the expression “to take a flier.” You can read more about if you should use flyer or flier here.
Take a rain check
Meaning: Postpone a meeting or event to a later time.
Example: I’m too busy to go to the concert tonight. Can I take a rain check and go another time?
Take it with a pinch of salt
Meaning: To be skeptical or doubtful about something. Example: I heard that John won the lottery, but I’m taking it with a pinch of salt. He’s known for telling tall tales.
Take the bull by the horns
Meaning: Confront a difficult situation directly and with confidence.
Example: We need to take the bull by the horns and address the issue before it gets worse.
The ball is in your court
Meaning: It’s your turn to take action or make a decision.
Example: I’ve given you all the information you need. Now the ball is in your court.
The devil is in the details
Meaning: The most important or problematic aspects of something are often hidden or hard to see.
Example: The project seems straightforward, but the devil is in the details. We need to be careful with the specifics.
The early bird catches the worm
Meaning: Being proactive and starting early can lead to success.
Example: I always start studying for exams early. The early bird gets the worm, after all.
The elephant in the room
Meaning: An issue or problem that everyone is aware of but no one wants to discuss.
Example: The company’s financial troubles are the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge.
The whole nine yards
Meaning: The complete or full extent of something.
Example: I want to learn everything there is to know about photography. I want to go the whole nine yards.
Think outside the box
Meaning: To approach a problem or task in a new and innovative way, using creative and unconventional thinking.
Example: In order to stay ahead of the competition, we need to start thinking outside the box and come up with new and creative marketing strategies for our business.
Time is money
Meaning: Time is a valuable resource and should be used wisely to achieve maximum productivity and efficiency.
Example: I can’t stay and chat for too long, I have a lot of work to do. You know what they say, time is money.
Through thick and thin
Meaning: Being loyal and supportive, even in difficult or challenging times.
Example: We’ve been through thick and thin together, and I know I can always count on you.
Throw in the towel
Meaning: Give up or surrender.
Example: I’ve been trying to fix the computer for hours, but I think it’s time to throw in the towel and call a professional.
Tie the knot
Meaning: Get married.
Example: They’re finally tying the knot after dating for years.
Meaning: Time passes quickly.
Example: It’s hard to believe we’ve been friends for 10 years. Time flies!
To each his own
Meaning: Everyone has their own preferences and opinions.
Example: I don’t like spicy food, but to each his own.
Turn over a new leaf
Meaning: Make a positive change in behavior or attitude.
Example: I’ve decided to turn over a new leaf and start exercising regularly.
Twist someone’s arm
Meaning: Persuade or pressure someone to do something they don’t want to do.
Example: I didn’t want to go to the party, but my friends twisted my arm and convinced me to go.
Under the weather
Meaning: Feeling ill or unwell.
Example: I’m feeling under the weather today. I think I’m coming down with a cold.
Meaning: A difficult task or situation that requires a lot of effort and persistence to overcome.
Example: Getting a new business off the ground is always an uphill battle, but with a good plan and hard work, it can be done.
Up in the air
Meaning: Uncertain or undecided.
Example: Our plans for the weekend are still up in the air. We haven’t decided what to do yet.
Up the creek without a paddle
Meaning: In a difficult or hopeless situation.
Example: If we don’t find a solution soon, we’ll be up the creek without a paddle.
Use your head
Meaning: Think carefully and make a smart decision.
Example: Use your head and think before you act.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do
Meaning: Adapt to the customs and practices of the place you are visiting or living in.
Example: Even though I don’t usually eat spicy food, when I’m in Thailand, I do as the Romans do and enjoy the local cuisine.
Wild goose chase
Meaning: A fruitless or pointless search or pursuit.
Example: I spent hours looking for my lost keys, but it turned out to be a wild goose chase.
Win hands down
Meaning: Easily win or succeed without much effort.
Example: She’s so talented that she wins hands down in every competition she enters.
Wolf in sheep’s clothing
Meaning: Someone who appears harmless or friendly but is actually dangerous or deceptive.
Example: He seemed like a friendly neighbor, but he turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing when we found out he was stealing from us.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink
Meaning: You can provide someone with an opportunity, but you can’t force them to take advantage of it.
Example: I gave him all the information he needed to succeed, but he didn’t take any action. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too
Meaning: You can’t have everything you want at the same time.
Example: You can’t work full-time and travel the world at the same time. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
You can’t judge a book by its cover
Meaning: You shouldn’t judge someone or something based on its appearance.
Example: She may seem quiet and reserved, but you can’t judge a book by its cover. She’s actually very outgoing and friendly.
You snooze, you lose
Meaning: If you miss an opportunity, you may not get another chance.
Example: I wanted to buy tickets for the concert, but I waited too long and now they’re sold out. You snooze, you lose.
Your guess is as good as mine
Meaning: I don’t know the answer to a question.
Example: I have no idea when the project will be finished. Your guess is as good as mine.
Meaning: A strict policy that does not allow for any exceptions or excuses.
Example: Our company has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment in the workplace.
Zip your lip
Meaning: Keep quiet or don’t speak.
Example: When we’re in the meeting with the boss, just zip your lip and let me do the talking.
Idioms: A piece of cake?
That was a piece of cake, right? Idioms are a great way to add color and flavor to your language, whether you’re a native speaker or learning English as a second language. And while their meanings may not be immediately obvious, you’ll quickly pick them up with practice.
So, we hope you enjoyed this list of of 119 common English idioms with their meanings and examples. Do you have your own favorite idiom that isn’t included here? Let us know!
In the meantime, keep your nose to the grindstone, keep your chin up, and keep practicing those idioms.