Improving English fluency through idiomatic expression


Every language across the world contains idiomatic expressions which are easily understood by native speakers, but difficult for foreign language speakers to master. This is because they contain hidden meanings which when directly translated, makes no sense.


The word idiom is derived from Middle French (idiome) and Late Latin (idioma).


An idiom, by definition, is a group of words the sense of which is established by native speakers of the language. The meaning of the phrase cannot be deduced from the individual words. In other words, idioms are descriptive phrases that really don’t make a lot of sense if you think about their content.


Why is it important to understand/use idioms?


Clever and appropriate use of idioms is an essential skill for the foreign English speaker who wants to understand and converse with confidence in English. Many foreign English students find idioms quite difficult to use and understand, but it is well worth the effort spent on learning idioms as they give you fluency and make your conversations less formal.


There are many benefits to using idioms as detailed below: 

  • Used in your written work, they will add creativity.
  • They can add a sense of humour to your stories.
  • They enrich your language, making your conversation easier to listen to, less formal and funnier.
  • Since they are used by native speakers, the appropriate use of idioms will make you sound more fluent. Idioms also make your written work more impressive.


The problem with idioms is that they can be hard to use. This is because:

  • dropping or changing a word renders the idiom meaningless
  • you can’t translate an idiom because, by their very definition, they become meaningless when translated
  • you have to know how to use the idiom appropriately. Suggesting, for instance, that someone has kicked the bucket when attending his funeral would raise eyebrows.

Note for teachers - Tips for teaching idioms

Helping your students to familiarise themselves with idioms will help them to sound more natural when speaking the language. Below some tips for easy introduction of idiomatic expressions

  • Don’t introduce too many idioms at once. You’ll overwhelm your students.
    Make sure that your students understand the word meanings before you introduce the idiom.
  • Introduce idioms using themes; for example, idioms using body parts, animals, nature etc. This makes them easier to memorise.
  • Use idioms in your lessons as part of your discussions so that they become more familiar.
  • Use images and stories as these make the lessons more memorable.
  • Practice using idioms often.

Exercises for teaching idioms


Idioms add interest to discussions because they include clever imagery and language. Students and teachers can have a lot of fun when discussing idioms. It is essential that students learn not just the meaning of the idioms but also how to use them appropriately.


  • Teach idioms in conversation rather than have students write them down. Idioms are, after all, colloquialisms and should, therefore, form a part of normal conversation.
  • Idioms are best taught with pictures, since many of them lend themselves to humorous depictions that will make the students laugh. A decent laugh is good for the memory.
  • Idioms also make for great group discussions. Have small groups talk about what the idioms could possibly mean.
  • Create a challenge using idioms. Choose a theme and have the students write appropriate idioms on a paper or the white board at the front of the class.

How to learn English idioms

Learning English idioms from a list is not easy. Many of the lists contain outdated idioms that are no longer in common use. Although, as you will see, many of the best idioms have stood the test of time. Because idioms can’t be literally translated, you have to learn to understand them in context.

If properly arranged, learning idioms is a walk in the park (an easy or even pleasant experience).


When we divide idiomatic expressions into groups that have similarities, the idioms become much easier to learn. This is sometimes called chunking and it’s used to help our memories. We’ve also added some information on the origins of the idioms to help you to make the connections that will trigger synapses and get your brain firing. 


In summary:

  • Keep a list of idioms
  • Make sure that you understand how and when to use them, not just the meaning
  • Many idioms have interesting origins, researching these may help you to put them into context and will almost certainly help you to remember them. 


Idioms – adding pep to your conversation


The English language is peppered with interesting idioms. We’ve based our choices on interest and usefulness. We hope that you enjoy the phrases that we have selected.


Barking up the wrong tree
You guessed it. This expression has nothing to do with dogs. It means to come to the wrong conclusion or follow an incorrect assumption.


He was sure that the girl had stolen his wallet but he was barking up the wrong tree. He’d dropped the wallet in the park that morning.


Cat got your tongue?
This idiom is so delightfully expressive, conjuring up pictures of a cat fleeing with a disembodied tongue. It is a light-hearted expression usually posed to someone who is inexplicably quiet or fails to answer a question. 


Has the cat got your tongue? You haven’t answered my question. 


Every cloud has a silver lining

This is a commonly used expression that explains that there are hopeful aspects even in the most adverse circumstances. It is used to make others look out for the happier aspects of an unhappy situation.


The term every cloud has a silver lining is illustrated by the fact that even as Covid-19 locked down the world’s biggest economies, nature took a break. Many cities were smog free for the first time in decades. 


Give someone a piece of your mind
Not possible it would seem, but what this means is that you are about to shout at, berate or rebuke someone. You would normally say this after considerable irritation.

Despite continued requests to keep the noise down, my neighbour is still partying through the night. Tomorrow I am going across to give him a piece of my mind. 


Tip of the iceberg
This is rather a graphic expression which describes a problem which is a lot bigger than is at first apparent. Think the Titanic.


The treasurer told the committee that there were several outstanding debts, but when the accounts were audited it was apparent that this was just the tip of the iceberg. The company was facing liquidation.


Beat around the bush
Another very old expression, this idiom goes back to the 15th century when the rich went hunting and hired men to hit the bushes with sticks to flush out the birds. They didn’t hit the bushes directly for fear of knocking down unwanted articles such as beehives. Today the expression means to skirt around the subject rather than getting to the point.


The policeman was having difficulty getting to the facts of the crime as the perpetrators kept beating around the bush rather than answering the questions. 


Let the cat out of the bag
This expression refers not to an animal but to the cat o’nine tails which was used to punish the transgressions of sailors. The whip was kept in a red bag. So, anyone who divulged punishable information could let the cat out of the bag. To this day the idiom means to disclose previously unknown information.


The family had planned a party for Susan. It was to have been a secret, but her brother let the cat out of the bag and spoiled the surprise.


Receive a kickback
Far from a painful injury, a kickback is an unethical gift which is offered to a person in a decision- making capacity in return for a favour. Kickbacks are often used to illegally convince officials to award tenders or contracts. 


The procurement officer was dismissed after she received a kickback from a supplier in return for preferential treatment. 


To go Dutch
This is a useful expression if you plan to go out with friends, going Dutch means that everyone who goes along for the fun, no matter what the activity will cover their own costs. 

The group decided that they would go out for dinner and then to the theatre. They all agree that they would go Dutch since none of them were particularly wealthy. 


Spill the beans
This idiom may have originated in ancient Greece where citizens voted by dropping a white or black bean into a jar. The expression means to reveal a previously held secret. 


The girl proved that she was incapable of keeping a secret when, once again, she spilled the beans.



Idioms add interest and fluency to conversations so they are a great asset to the student who means to speak English like a pro. Make sure that you understand both the meaning and the context before you use idioms in your discussions.  

Idioms are fun to learn. They add humour to your writing and discussions and once you become accustomed to using idioms you’ll find them increasingly easy to use. 


Check out this tutorial with useful idioms for the IELTS Speaking exam.


As the founder of IELTS Podcast, Ben started his journey as an English educator in 2006. Ben and his team of teachers provide students with expert advice, twice a week to cover the writing, reading, listening and speaking sections of the IELTS exam.

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