Common English Idioms

An idiom is a phrase whose meaning is different from the dictionary definitions of the words that comprise it. Idioms pose a special challenge for non-native English speakers precisely because you can’t determine their figurative meanings from their literal meanings. English contains thousands of idioms, making it neither possible nor practical to cover all of them. However, we here at the English Island in Atlanta have provided a list of some of the most common English idioms to help get you started.

Add insult to injury: Make a situation worse.
Example: “To add insult to injury, he brought the wrong report with him when he finally arrived at the meeting.”

A piece of cake: Something that is easy.
Example: “That project was a piece of cake.”

Bite off more than you can chew: Take on more than you can handle.
Example: “Randall bit off more than he could chew when he decided to take English classes immediately after work.”

Cost an arm and a leg: Refers to something that is very expensive.
Example: “The repairs to my car are going to cost an arm and a leg.”

Cut corners: Do something badly or cheaply.
Example: “We found out that the builders cut corners on our patio when the concrete began to crack almost immediately.”

Feeling under the weather: Not feeling well.
Example: “All this pollen in the air has me feeling under the weather.”

Hit the books: To study.
Example: “You had better hit the books if you want to be ready for that exam at the English Island.”

Hit the nail on the head: To do something precisely right.
Example: “The annual report really hit the nail on the head. It summed up the company’s strengths and weaknesses perfectly.”

Let the cat out of the bag: Make something that was supposed to be kept secret known.
Example: “We were trying to plan a surprise party for Mary, but John let the cat out of the bag and told her all about it.”

Once in a blue moon: An event that happens infrequently.
Example: “Once in a blue moon Marie’s manager actually remembers to place the monthly conference call on the work calendar.”

See eye to eye: Agree with someone.
Example: “Julie and her mother are never going to see eye to eye when it comes to politics.”

Speak of the devil: The person who you are talking about actually shows up at that moment.
Example: “I’ll tell you about what we did last weekend when Zach gets here.” [Zach walks into the room.] “Hey, speak of the devil…”

When pigs fly: Something that is extremely unlikely to happen.
Example: “MARTA will add a rail line that runs through Cobb County when pigs fly.”

You can’t judge a book by its cover: Don’t base your opinion of someone or something just on outside appearances.
Example: “Proving the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover, the seemingly-vapid head cheerleader scored a perfect 2400 on the SAT.”