Every language contains quirky phrases called idioms that may not make sense to non-native speakers. Whether they aim to give advice or are simply a way of expressing an idea, these phrases are essential to understanding what’s going on in many situations. This post will highlight some of the most useful English-language idioms to know and give examples of how to actually use them in a social context. You’ll soon be an idiom-speaking professional.
Best of both worlds
The most positive outcome that comes from two different situations
How to use: If Jim visits a bar with sports on TV and live music, he is receiving the best of both worlds with sports and music at the same time. Janet works downtown in a big city but lives in a quiet suburb outside the city, therefore having the best of both worlds (the busy job environment and the peaceful living conditions where she lives). Julia told her friend that she had the best of both worlds in that she can eat tasty, unhealthy food but still maintain a perfect physique.
Beat around the bush
To avoid talking about something that is embarrassing, contentious, or uncomfortable
How to use: Sam asked Sarah to stop beating around the bush and finally tell him if she was in love with him or not. The corporate executive beat around the bush by only talking about positive financial news and avoided telling his fellow board members about the company’s pending bankruptcy. When Sally asked her husband about his affair, he beat around the bush by avoiding the question and professing his love for her instead.
Blessing in disguise
An outcome that is seemingly negative but eventually becomes positive
How to use: The storm was in fact a blessing in disguise; despite the damage it created, the storm forced the government to confront local infrastructure issues and fix them. Rachel realized that getting fired from her previous job was a blessing in disguise because she ended up with a better job anyway.
To cost an arm and a leg
Very expensive; something that ‘costs’ as much as losing an arm and a leg
How to use: The birthday gift I purchased for my brother cost me an arm and a leg. Fred wanted to buy his wife a nice Christmas present, so he found a diamond necklace that cost him an arm and a leg. That new Ferrari will cost anybody who wants it an arm and a leg.
I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it
To delay facing a situation until enough time has passed by focusing on the present instead
How to use: I am very upset that my friend insulted me –– since he is on vacation, however, I’ll cross that bridge when he comes home. I think my shower is in danger of leaking, but since I have many other broken items in my apartment, I think I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.
There’s no use crying over spilled milk
To forget about a past incident; there’s no reason to worry about something that already happened or something that one cannot control
How to use: Garth’s mother told him that, even though he failed his exam, there was no use crying over spilled milk and he should forget about it and study for the next one. Despite forgetting to take her medication, Gabby realized there was no use crying over spilled milk –– instead, she focused on remembering the next night to take her medication.
To cut corners
To take the shortest or easiest approach in an activity, often reducing its quality
How to use: The executive shouted at his assistant for cutting corners during her secretarial work. Victoria decided to cut a corner and microwave a hamburger for the customer instead of grilling it like she was supposed to. Valerie thought it would be a good idea to cut corners during her workday by copying and pasting from Wikipedia.
Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket
Avoid limiting all of your options; don’t risk everything on one idea
How to use: My dad warned me not to put all my eggs in one basket by only applying to one university. Benjamin foolishly decided to put all his eggs in one basket by investing millions in an unproven technology that eventually lost value and collapsed.
(Every cloud has a) silver lining
Even the worst events or situations have some positive aspect
How to use: Even though Daniel lost his job and his house, the birth of his daughter was a silver lining that made up for it. While the football team finished in last place, the fact that they were scheduled to pick first in next year’s draft was a silver lining to an otherwise bad season.
*Note – The full phrase is “every cloud has a silver lining,” but most uses of this idiom only include the final part, “silver lining.”
It’s a far cry from
To be very different from
How to use: What the tourist website said about the exhibits in the famous museum is a far cry from what is actually featured in the exhibits. Harry figured out that his ideas about love were a far cry from reality. Henry argued in court that the evidence provided by the prosecution was a far cry from painting an accurate picture of his client.
Feel under the weather
To be sick or to feel bad in some way
How to use: Louis called his boss and told him he couldn’t come to work that day because he was feeling a bit under the weather. My two puppies were not wagging their tails as much, and I wondered if they were feeling under the weather following their operation.
To give the benefit of the doubt
To believe something good about a person unless it’s proven otherwise
How to use: Even though Nick told me he suspected Nancy was stealing cookies from the cookie jar, I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt because I didn’t think she was capable of stealing. Many people argued for giving the new president the benefit of the doubt during his first hundred days in office.
Hit the sack
To go to sleep or go to bed
How to use: I told my mother that I was ready to hit the sack after a very long day at work. Pamela needed to hit the sack following her exhausting 13 hour flight from Los Angeles to Shanghai
It takes two to tango
There is always more than one person involved in an argument or hostile situations; there are two sides to every story
How to use: George told his wife that even though he had started the argument, it takes two people to tango in any situation. Gregor told his friend Gwen that their problem could only be fixed if they both realized it takes two to tango.
Jump on the bandwagon
To follow other people and what they’re doing; to succumb to peer pressure
How to use: Andrew saw that all of his friends were going to the concert next weekend, so he decided to jump on the bandwagon and buy a ticket too. Ashley did not initially want to drink at the bar but, since all of her friends were drinking, she eventually jumped on the bandwagon and ordered a beer.
The final incident before a big change occurs; often used in a more negative context
How to use: Tom’s mother took his suspension from school as the last straw for his obnoxious behavior, so she took away his video games indefinitely. I considered my dog’s annoying habit of pooping on the floor the last straw before I began to train him. The teacher regarded her students’ inability to understand basic algebra as the last straw before reconfiguring her lesson plan.
*Note – “final straw” can also be used
On the ball
To understand a concept well; to perform successfully
How to use: The restaurant manager praised the new waiter for being on the ball during his initial training phase. Michelle told her professor that all of her partners for her group project were on the ball and very helpful in answering her questions.
A piece of cake
Something that is very easy
How to use: The intelligent student considered the test to be a piece of cake, so she wasn’t surprised when she received the best grade in the class. The construction supervisor thought that the building project would be a piece of cake, so he was horrified when he realized how much it effort it would require. My sister thought baking a cake would be a piece of cake, but she quickly realized that she forgot the flour and cake mix.
To see eye to eye
To have an understanding with another person or agree with another person
How to use: The two coworkers did not see eye to eye, and their conflict was obvious to everybody who worked in the office with them. It is important to be able to see eye to eye in certain situations, even with your enemies. The professor and his student saw eye to eye on all aspects of the assignment grade.
On the fence
To be unsure of something or to be indecisive
How to use: Caroline was on the fence about accepting the new job; on one hand, it would be a good move for her long-run career prospects, but on the other, she would have to move to a new city that she didn’t like. I am on the fence about accepting this dinner invitation because I don’t really like the other invited guests. The journalist was on the fence about interviewing the politician because he was unsure of whether to trust his information.
To take with a grain of salt
To be skeptical of what somebody says or writes
How to use: Sophie’s parents took her hesitant explanation for the broken vase with a grain of salt, because they knew she had probably broken it herself. All voting citizens should take their politicians’ words with a grain of salt; you never know who is telling the truth or not.
Whole nine yards
Complete or comprehensive; all the way
How to use: Jonathan told his boss that he went the whole nine yards in completing his project, which made his boss very happy. Joshua knew that if he failed to eat the tortillas, beans, and rice –– the whole nine yards –– he would offend his hosts at the dinner party.
Up in the air
Unsure of the outcome; unsettled or unresolved
How to use: The question of whether or not Kim would accept the position was left up in the air until she decided to tell her boss her decision at the last moment. Ken’s father told the family that relocating to Atlanta would be left up in the air while his company figured out the logistics of the move.
To stab in the back
To betray or commit treason; to breach loyalty
How to use: I realized my friend had stabbed me in the back when my sister told me he was doing everything he could to steal my girlfriend. Omar stabbed his government in the back by conveying top secret information to the highest bidder on the black market.
Rule of thumb
A general rule or piece of advice that should be taken seriously
How to use: A good rule of thumb to follow in school is to always complete your homework on time. The politician kept power by closely following an age-old rule of thumb – keep your friends close but your enemies closer.
Cut to the chase
To omit extraneous details and stick to the basics of a story; to give a simple answer
How to use: Because my dad always tells every detail of a story, I told him to cut to the chase and finish talking so I could finish my homework. During his presentation, Ryan cut to the chase because he was running out of time.
Get over it
To forget a negative event; to move on
How to use: All of Nicole’s friends told her to forget her devastating break up and get over it by finding somebody else. Nathan was angry at his teacher for ignoring his questions, but he quickly got over it and began thinking about something else. The manager told her subordinate she would get over losing her position rather quickly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Irvin is a 3rd year undergraduate studying at UC Davis. He enjoys reading, writing, and golfing.