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Practical Idioms to Improve your English

Imagine that you’re in an English pub. A nearby man says that he’s “really twisting your arm” to a friend. Another man is talking about how his new car “cost an arm and a leg”. A woman next to you says that she’s going to “hit the sack”. Are these people crazy? What’s going on?

No, those people aren’t crazy. They’re simply using something called idioms. Whilst confusing to those who don’t know them, idioms are an important part of the English language. Being able to use idioms appropriately in conversation is what turns a good English speaker into a great one. So, if you want to learn about idioms, read on.

What are idioms?

Before we start looking at some commonly used idioms, let’s talk about what exactly an idiom is. An idiom is an expression which has a different meaning than the literal meaning of its words. Let’s take a look at an example.

Blown away.

Literal meaning: To push back (with wind etc.).

Idiom meaning: To be impressed by something.

Example sentence: I was blown away by her performance.

The literal meaning of ‘blown away’ here would mean that you were pushed back somehow by her performance, which doesn’t make any sense. However, using the idiom meaning, the sentence means that you were impressed by her performance, which makes a lot more sense contextually.

When learning idioms, the most important thing that you need to do is to learn them in context. That means to understand not only how they’re used, but also when and where. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to not only understand them, but also be able to use them just like a native speaker.

Some idioms are used by themselves, whilst others are used as part of a sentence. In the previous example, ‘blown away’ was used in a sentence, and always is. But many other idioms are often used by themselves. It’s important to remember how to use your idiom if you want to use it effectively in conversation.

Why should I use idioms?

The main reason to use idioms is to make your English sound more interesting. Whilst you could say a particular sentence in a simpler way, by using idioms you are sure to grab your listeners attention. Not only that, but idioms can help convey a certain feeling or message within your English. Let’s look at an example:

Easy does it.

Idiom meaning: Slow down, Be careful.

Example sentence: Easy does it. That box is fragile after all.

In this example, by choosing to say ‘easy does it’, the speaker’s English carries a light, friendly tone. However, if they chose to say ‘be careful’ instead, the sentence would sound more like a warning or order. By choosing to use the idiom instead, the sentence meaning doesn’t change, but the emotion and feeling behind it do.

Idioms can inspire all kinds of feelings and emotions, and it can take a while before you truly understand the best way to use them. However, the end result is that your English will sound more natural, your understanding will improve, and you will have greater control over what you’re trying to say.

Let’s learn some idioms!

Get the hang of

Idiom meaning: To learn how to do something; To become comfortable with doing something.

Example sentence: I think I’ve started to get the hang of this job recently.

Have a good command of

Idiom meaning: To be knowledgeable about or talented in a certain topic/skill

Example sentence: I have a good command of English.

This idiom is commonly used with languages and emotions.

Come to (someone’s) senses

Idiom meaning: To start thinking normally

Example sentence: He finally came to his senses and married his partner.

Come to mind

Idiom meaning: To think of or remember something

Example sentence: When I think of home, my Mum’s cooking comes to mind.

This idiom also appears as ‘bring to mind’ and ‘pop into your head’. ‘Pop into your head’ is a little more casual.

Catch a glimpse of

Idiom meaning: To see something or someone for a moment

Example sentence: I caught a glimpse of him in the crowd for a moment.

This idiom also appears as ‘Catch sight of’.

Under the weather

Idiom meaning: To feel ill

Example sentence: Harry is feeling under the weather today, so he won’t be coming to school.

Break a leg

Idiom meaning: Good luck

Example sentence: Break a leg out there Sonia!

This idiom is mostly used before someone goes on stage to perform to an audience. It’s most commonly said to actors and musicians.

Once in a blue moon

Idiom meaning: Very rarely

Example sentence: Dave only comes out drinking with us once in a blue moon now that he’s married.

See eye to eye

Idiom meaning: To agree with someone; To share an opinion with someone

Example sentence: Me and my Dad don’t see eye to eye when it comes to politics.

This idiom is quite often used in negative sentences to mean that you don’t agree with someone.

Piece of cake

Idiom meaning: Very easy

Example sentence: That science test was a piece of cake.

Lose (someone’s) touch

Idiom meaning: To lose one’s skill or ability at doing something

Example sentence: I tried playing tennis again recently, but I’ve lost my touch.

Stab (someone) in the back

Idiom meaning: To betray someone

Example sentence: He might act like your friend now, but he will stab you in the back one day.

Hit the sack

Idiom meaning: To go to bed; To go to sleep

Example sentence: I’m getting pretty tired now, so I think I’ll hit the sack.

This idiom also appears as ‘Hit the hay’ quite often.

Got the hang of it?

So, do you understand what idioms are now? They’re a difficult part of English which can take many years to master, so don’t be discouraged if you struggle to remember them at first. Keep studying them and you’ll have a good command of them before long! It’ll be a piece of cake!