For native speakers of a language, idioms are a piece of cake. They are just another common feature of the language. But often, when people are learning a second language, they can’t make head or tail of these strange phrases.
Did you spot the two idioms in that opening paragraph? Idioms can be confusing for writers, especially if you’re writing in your non-native language. We’ll take a look at everything you need to know about idioms, including several examples of common English phrases.
Idioms are one of those elements of language that everyone knows, but no one can tell you exactly what it means. Even Merriam-Webster’s definition left me scratching my head. Thankfully, Grammar Girl has a clear and concise definition we can use:
“Idioms are phrases that don’t mean literally what they say but have meaning to native speakers.”
The website Lemongrad elaborates:
“An idiom is a phrase or expression that has a meaning that in most cases cannot be deduced directly from the individual words in that phrase or expression.”
The words used in an idiom usually appear to have nothing to do with the situation. Idioms are a type of figurative language. They often have historical roots with more literal meanings. For example, the phrase "cost an arm and a leg" means that something is very expensive, and the historical origin is fascinating. Painters in the 18th century used to charge more to include limbs in their paintings, which is why many famous portraits are of just a person’s bust!
But without the historical context—which is in many cases unknown—idioms can be difficult to decipher. They rarely translate well. Learning and using idioms is one of the final stages of second-language acquisition.
How and When to Use Idioms
Like all types of figurative language, idioms can be a powerful tool when used correctly. Idioms are an easy way to make your writing sound more conversational. If you struggle with making blog posts or emails sound less technical and stiff, throw in an idiom or two. They can also help add emphasis to important points.
For fiction writers, idioms can add personality to characters’ voices. Idioms can vary geographically and generationally, so using appropriate idioms can make your characters more authentic. I’m from the American South, and we use the phrase "fixing to" all the time. It means that we are about to do something ("I’m fixing to go to the store"). Phrases like that can make it clear that a character is Southern. Older people may use idioms like "I’m no spring chicken."
Science fiction and fantasy writers may enjoy creating idioms that make sense in the fictional worlds they create. Make sure the meaning is clear enough to your readers.
It’s best to avoid idioms in technical or formal writing. Idioms leave a lot of room for misunderstandings, and they aren’t precise.
Idioms are different from metaphors and analogies because idioms aren’t about comparison. They are also different from proverbs. Proverbs are messages or truths, and they often offer advice, such as "an apple a day keeps the doctor away." That proverb’s meaning is clear. The meanings of idioms are less literal or easy to deduce.
Euphemisms are a specific type of idiom, and they are used to address issues that are taboo or sensitive in nature. For instance, we often say that someone has "passed away" instead of "died." "Putting a pet to sleep" is a euphemism that means "to euthanize."
Idioms can become clichés when they are overused in certain situations! Use idioms sparingly and efficiently in your writing.
"Pretty penny" means that something is expensive. Clearly, it costs more than a penny, and all pennies look the same, so "pretty" is an unusual descriptor.
Example: That dress costs a pretty penny.
Beating/flogging a dead horse
"Beating a dead horse" means that something is overdone or pointless. It especially means to keep talking about something that has been discussed at length. No one is actually flogging a dead horse!
Example: I’m not raising your curfew; stop beating a dead horse.
Kill two birds with one stone
If you "kill two birds with one stone," you accomplish two tasks at once. It’s a violent phrase for something mundane.
Example: I’ll be in Kansas City for a work conference, so I’ll kill two birds with one stone and visit my parents, too.
On top of the world
When the Carpenters sang they were "on top of the world," they meant they were very happy! It means extreme elation.
Example: She was on top of the world after she got the promotion.
Close enough for government work
If something is not perfect but very close, it’s "close enough for government work." It typically means it’s not worth spending any more time on, and it doesn’t have to relate to the government at all.
Example: The expense report is close enough for government work.
Bite the bullet
"Bite the bullet" means to just get something over with, no matter how unpleasant it is. Historically, surgeons had patients bite a bullet between their teeth to deal with pain without anesthetics.
Example: I just need to bite the bullet and finish all the laundry.
Off the hook
Letting someone "off the hook" means letting them get away with something they did wrong or letting them out of a responsibility.
Example: I’m off the hook for babysitting Friday night, so let’s go out.
Speak of the devil
When someone shows up right after you mention them, you can exclaim, “Speak of the devil!” Even though calling someone a devil might be insulting in other contexts, this idiom is not offensive.
Example: Well, speak of the devil! I was just telling Ron about your party!
Set the record straight
"Set the record straight" means to clarify, especially to debunk untrue information.
Example: Let me set the record straight: my husband and I are not getting a divorce.
Stick to your guns
If someone "sticks to their guns," they are standing firm in their decision or morals, especially in the face of opposition.
Example: Stick to your guns, and don’t accept less than $100,000 a year.
Hit the nail on the head
"Hit the nail on the head" means to get something exactly right. It usually refers to an insight or an answer to a question.
Example: Jane hit the nail on the head when she said that the purpose of the project is not being communicated well to the team.
On thin ice
If someone is "on thin ice," they are in a precarious or sensitive situation. This idiom is often used to talk about someone who is in trouble.
Example: The student is on thin ice; one more detention, and he’ll be suspended.
Take it with a grain of salt
If someone tells you a story or offers advice, they might say to "take it with a grain of salt." This means to view it with skepticism or to not take it literally. The story may be exaggerated or only somewhat helpful.
Example: My mother swears hot toddies cure a cold, but she’s no doctor, so take it with a grain of salt.
Bouncing off the walls
"Bouncing off the walls" means full of excitement and energy and usually refers to children that are hyperactive.
Example: My kids were bouncing off the walls the week before Christmas!
Worth its weight in gold
When someone or something is high in value, we say they are "worth their weight in gold." The value is usually not monetary at all.
Example: People love Christine and customer satisfaction has gone up drastically. She’s really worth her weight in gold.
Wear your heart on your sleeve
Someone who is extremely open with their emotions "wears their heart on their sleeve." This can be either a compliment or an insult, depending on who says it and the context.
Example: I love that she wears her heart on her sleeve because I never have to wonder what she’s feeling.
Idioms can be a lot of fun to use! They are also easy to confuse. A malaphor is the unintentional combination of two idioms or aphorisms. For example, someone might accidentally say, “we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.” They confused "burn those bridges" with "cross that bridge when we come to it."
Remember, if you "play your cards right," idioms can really "pack a punch" in your writing!