What are Idioms? (Ultimate Guide)

An idiom is a saying or catchphrase that is conventionally understood by fluent language speakers.

There are three features[1] that define a perfect idiom:

  • Two words or More: We usually consider an idiom to be a phrase that’s at least two words long.
  • Non-Literalism: The meanings of perfect idioms cannot be logically determined through literal interpretation.
  • Conventionality: The meanings of idioms are determined by cultural convention. You need to be exposed to a culture over time to learn many of them.

Idioms are usually hard for English learners to understand until their meanings are explained to you. That’s because they are phrases that often don’t clearly make sense. They only make sense to us because society has collectively agreed upon their non-literal meaning! 

Infographic: Nine Famous Idioms

famous idioms include: a fish out of water, under the weather, out in the cold, make ends meet, piece of cake, out of the woods, miss the boat, and kick the bucket

[lwptoc depth=”1″ numeration=”decimalnested” numerationSuffix=”dot” labelHide=”hide” hideItems=”0″ skipHeadingLevel=”h1″ skipHeadingText=”Infographic: Nine Famous Idioms”]

Why Use Idioms?

1. To Learn English

For English language learners, idioms can help you understand how we use our language.

You need to understand idioms so when you hear them in conversation you can still follow along with the conversation.

Unfortunately for English learners, we have many thousands of idioms. This makes our language beautiful, fun, and expressive. But it also makes it very hard to learn English.

In fact, English is widely understood to be one of the hardest languages to learn.

2. To Communicate Effectively

For native English speakers, we use idioms as a means of effective communication.

Idioms are a kind of shorthand way to express something more complex.

Sometimes it’s incredibly difficult to express our feelings and thoughts. New idioms become part of our common lexicon when people realize there is a fun, expressive, but non-literal way to communicate our feelings.

3. For Self-Expression

Of course, idioms are a tool for self-expression.

Every new generation faces new challenges that need new ways to express their generation’s collective thoughts and feelings.

For example, a great deal of new idioms emerged at the turn of the millennium when the internet spread through the world. With this new way to communicate becoming ubiquitous, a flourish of new internet-themed idioms emerged as shorthand ways to explain our experiences of “surfing the web”.

150 Examples of English Idioms

1. A blessing in disguiseSomething misfortunate has ended up having a positive result.“Losing my last job was a blessing in disguise because I got a better one a week later.”
2. A chip off the old blockSomeone is a lot like their father or mother.“John’s a kind man like his father. He is a chip off the old block.”
3. A dime a dozenSomething that is common and not worth much.“Bananas are a dime a dozen right now because they are in season.”
4. A foot in the doorTo develop social connections that can help you later on.“The internship is a foot in the door. Maybe they will give me a full-time job at the end of it.”
5. A run for your moneyYou have competition who are as good as you at something.“The football team we’re playing next week will give us a run for our money. They are very good and fit.”
6. A smart cookieSomeone who is very intelligent.“That girl who won the spelling bee is a smart cookie.”
7. A snowball’s chance in hellImpossible“He’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of passing his exam tomorrow.”
8. A storm in a teacupUsed when people are very upset about something that is not very important.“The fuss about whether to choose yellow or green for our new logo is a storm in a teacup.”
9. Always darkest before the dawnThings always seem worst just before they improve.“This is terrible news, but it’s always darkest before the dawn. I’m sure there will be happy times ahead.”
10. Bad appleSomeone who is not a good person surrounded by good people.“The police officer who commited a crime was a bad apple.”
11. Barking up the wrong treeSomeone is mistakenly doing something that is not going to be successful.“The prosecutor is barking up the wrong tree. The suspect is not guilty.”
12. Beat around the bushTaking too long to get to a point.“Stop beating around the bush and explain what you want from me.”
13. Beating a dead horseContinuing to do something that is not going to produce results.“He is beating a dead horse by trying to keep his restaurant open. It will never be profitable.”
14. Bigger fish to fryTo have more important things to worry about.“I know you need my help but I have bigger fish to fry right now. I’m currently helping a family down the street in more need.”
15. Birds of a feather flock togetherPeople with the same interests and beliefs hang around together.“Don’t hang out with those criminals or you’ll be seen as one yourself. Birds of a feather flock together.”
16. Bite off more than you can chewDoing something that is too much work for you to handle alone.“I took three jobs to pay my bills but I think I bit off more than I can chew. I’m just so exhausted.”
17. Bite the bulletTo do something you’re not looking forward to.“I bit the bullet and cleaned the house. It was no fun but I’m glad it’s done.”
18. Blow off steamTo relax by doing something you find fun.“The boys are down at the pub blowing off some steam.”
19. Born with a silver soon in your mouthTo be born into privilege.“His parents gave him a car for his birthday! That guy was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”
20. Break a legTo do well.“I hope you break a leg tonight.”
21. Break the iceTo make peope comfortable around each other.“I’m going to break the ice with a joke at the party tonight.”
22. Bucket loadsA lot of something.“He’s got bucket loads of confidence.”
23. Burn bridgesTo destroy any chance of things going back to the way they were.“He burned bridges when he was rude to his boss in his resignation letter.”
24. Burn the candle at both endsTo stay up very late.“I burnt the candle at both ends trying to get my university assignment complete last night.”
25. Burn the midnight oilAlso to stay up late.“I burnt the midnight oil last night getting this project complete.”
26. Bury your head in the sandTo ignore something you find too hard to confront.“He didn’t want to study for the exam so he just buried his head in the sand. Now, he has failed his course.”
27. Call it a dayTo end something.“I think we can call it a day on this meeting.”
28. Cold feetTo withdraw from a wedding right before the event.“The bride got cold feet and didn’t turn up to her own wedding!”
29. Comparing apples and orangesTo compare two things that are not comparable.“Deciding whether football or baseball is a better sport is like comparing apples and oranges. There is no objective way to compare them.”
30. Costs an arm and a legSomething that is very expensive.“Houses on this street must cost an arm and a leg.”
31. Cut and dryObvious and settled opinion.“This criminal case is cut and dry. He is clearly guilty.”
32. Cut some slackTo stop judging someone as harshly as you were.“He did poorly in his exams but I decided to cut him some slack because he had a really hard week.”
33. Cut to the chaseTo say the most important point.“I’m just going to cut to the chase and let you know what you need to know.”
34. Cutting cornersTo do things the easy way by skipping steps in a process, leading to a poor quality conclusion.“This product is poor quality because the manufacturers cut corners to save money.”
35. Doesn’t cut the mustardTo not be good enough.“The work you did on this project doesn’t cut the mustard.”
36. Don’t count your chickens before they hatchDon’t be too confident about something until after it happens.“We think we will win this game but we don’t want to count our chickens before they hatch.”
37. Don’t cry over spilt milkDon’t be upset over little things.“Oh, your grades in that exam were not very bad. Don’t cry over spilt milk.”
38. Don’t put all your eggs in one basketDon’t risk everything on one situation.“I know it looks like this is a good stock to buy on the share market, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Maybe buy some other stocks, too.”
39. Don’t rain on my paradeDon’t stop me from enjoying myself.“I want to enjoy this party so please come and enjoy yourself, too. I don’t want you to rain on my parade by being grumpy all night.”
40. Don’t yuck my yumDon’t make negative comments about things I like.“I know you don’t like this song, but don’t yuck my yum. I think it’s great.”
41. Down to earthHumble.“I know he is famous but when I met him he was so down to earth.”
42. Down to the wireWhen an outcome is not clear until the very end.“That football game was down to the wire.”
43. Ears are burningFeeling like someone is talking about you behind your back.“My ears are burning. I walked in and they all went silent.”
44. Eat like a horseTo eat a lot of food.“I was so hungry last night that I ate like a horse.”
45. Every cloud has a silver liningIn every bad situation there is something positive.“Losing my job was terrible but it also gave me more time to spend with my family. So, every cloud has a silver lining.”
46. Face the musicAccept the negative consequences of your actions.“I cheated in the exam and now I have to face the music.”
47. Find your feetTo get comfortable and confident at something.“The first two weeks in my new job were hard but now I have found my feet.”
48. First stepsThe first things you do in any situation.“The first step is to find investors for our new business.”
49. Food for thoughtTo receive new information that is worth thinking about.“That new book about the benefits of the four day work week was food for thought.”
50. From Rags to RichesTo go from poor to wealthy.“The entrepreneur’s success is a real rags to riches story.”
51. Get over itTo accept a negative situation and stop thinking about it. Alternatively: to get healthy again.“You keep talking about how you lost the last game. You really need to get over it and focus on next week’s game instead.”
52. Get the ball rollingTo start something.“Let’s get the ball rolling by having a meeting to discuss our first steps.”
53. Get wind of somethingTo hear about something.“I got wind that they are going to sell our company to our competitors!”
54. Get your act togetherTo get organized and motivated.“You need to stop sleeping all day, get your act together, and apply for a job.”
55. Give someone the cold shoulderTo ignore someone you don’t like.“I went to the party on Friday and I notived Joel gave me the cold shoulder the whole night.”
56. Go cold turkeyTo quit something immediately.“I quit smoking cold turkey.”
57. Go with the flowTo do what everyone else is doing.“I don’t mind what we eat tonight so I’m just going to go with the flow.”
58. Got out of handWhen something is no longer under control.“The party got out of control because too many people were there.”
59. Hang in thereTo keep doing something that is difficult.“Hang in there because it will get easier soon.”
60. Hit the nail on the headTo get something perfectly correct.“You really hit the nail on the head with that answer in the exam.”
61. Hit the sackTo go to bed.“It’s 10pm so I’m going to hit the sack.”
62. Hold out an olive branchTo seek peace.“I don’t get along with him but I decided to hold out an olive branch because we have to work together.”
63. It isn’t over until the fat lady singsDon’t give up until the end.“The game isn’t over until the fat lady sings. We’re behind, but we can catch up.”
64. It takes two to tangoWe are both to blame for something.“Don’t just blame me. It takes two to tango.”
65. Itchy feetWanting to travel.“I haven’t taken a trip for over a year. I’m starting to get itchy feet.”
66. It’s my bread and butterSomething that is your core skill that makes you your money.“My ability to lay tiles is my bread and butter skill.”
67. It’s not rocket scienceSomething is easy.“They were surprised I could pass the level on the game but I didn’t think it was rocket science.”
68. Keep your chin upTo stay upbeat or happy despite upset.“I know you lost but keep your chin up because you might win the next game.”
69. Kick the habitTo quit something that was a habit.“I used to smoke but I’ve kicked the habit now.”
70. Kicked the bucketTo die.“My uncle kicked the bucket so his funeral is next week.”
71. Learn to crawl before you walkTo start with something easy before doing the harder parts.“You failed because you tried a task that was too hard for your skill level. You need to learn to crawl before you walk.”
72. Leave no stone unturnedTo do something thoroughly.“The audit of our taxes left no stone unturned.”
73. Left out in the coldTo have information withheld from you.“I’ve been left out in the cold. I have no idea what is happening right now.”
74. Let sleeping dogs lieTo leave something alone if it isn’t causing any harm.“They stopped arguing so I’m not going to bring that topic up again. It’s best to let sleeping dogs die.”
75. Let someone off the hookTo allow someone to escape punishment“I let him off the hook because he was genuinely sorry.”
76. Let the cat out of the bagTo share a secret.“I let the cat out of the bag about the fact I’m moving to a new city. Now everyone knows!”
77. Let you goTo fire someone from a job.“I’m going to have to let you go because your work doesn’t cut the mustard.”
78. Make a mountain out of a molehillTo make a big fuss about something not very important.“My daughter made a mountain out of a molehill about the fact her best friend couldn’t come to the party.”
79. Make hay while the sun shinesEnjoy the good times.“It’s a beautiful day so we had better go out and enjoy it. Let’s make hay while the sun shines.”
80. Making ends meetEarning just enough money to pay your bills.“I’m making ends meet with this job but I’ve got no savings.”
81. Missed the boatTo miss out on something.“I went to the store but they were sold out of the new laptop. I guess I missed that boat.”
82. Not a big dealSomething isn’t very important.“I forgot to buy milk but it’s not a big deal because I can just skip my glass of milk today.”
83. Not my cup of teaSaid when you don’t like something that is a matter of subjective taste.“The movie wasn’t my cup of tea but my girlfriend really liked it.”
84. Not the full pictureYou don’t have all the information you need to make an accurate judgement.“I don’t have the full picture so I can’t tell you whether I agree with you or not.”
85. Not the sharpest tool in the shedTo be unintelligent.“When I saw his exam results I realized he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.”
86. On cloud nineTo be very happy.“I got amazing results in my exam so I am on cloud nine.”
87. On the ballTo be alert.“I’m on the ball today. I’ve already found five of the clues to the puzzle.”
88. Once in a blue moonOccasionally.“I only eat chicken once in a blue moon.”
89. Out of the woodsTo have gotten past difficult times.“We were low on money for a while but now we are out of the woods.”
90. Over the moonTo be very happy.“I am over the moon about the news we’re having a baby boy.”
91. Pain in the neckSomething or someone who is annoying.“The mosquito flying around my head all night was a pain in my neck.”
92. Pass the batonTo hand over a responsibility to someone else.“After 20 years, I’m leaving the company and passing the baton over to the next generation.”
93. Piece of cakeTo be very easy.“That exam was a piece of cake.”
94. Pitch inTo contribute.“Everyone pitched in to get the job done before 5pm.”
95. Play devil’s advocateTo take an opposing point of view in order to encourage critical thinking.“I’m just playing devil’s advocate right now. I don’t really believe what I’m saying.”
96. Play your cards rightDo things the right way in order to succeed.“If you play your cards right you’ll make a lot of money.”
97. Plenty of other fish in the seaA phrase said to someone who has recently been through a romantic break-up to tell them there are other nice people out there who they can meet.“I know he was a nice guy but there are plenty of other fish in the sea. I’m sure you will find someone else.”
98. Pony upTo pay a debt.“I lost the bet so now I have to pony up.”
99. Pulling your legMaking a joke.“I was pulling your leg. It wasn’t serious!”
100. Put it on iceTo pause something.“Let’s put this on ice and come back to it next week.”
101. Put your money where your mouth isWager money on things you say you believe.“If you really believe it, put your money where your mouth is. I’ll bet you $50.”
102. Rain, hail or shineSomething will be done no matter what.“I will compete in the race come rain, hail or shine.”
103. Raining cats and dogsHeavy rain.“It’s raining cats and dogs out there!”
104. Right as rainTo be perfectly healthy.“You may be sick right now but you’ll be right as rain soon.”
105. Right hand manA best friend, deputy, or confidante. Someone you trist.“The manager of my business is my right hand man. I can trust him to look after the business in my absence.”
106. Rule of thumbA general rule that might not be perfectly accurate all the time.“As a rule of thumb, you should have a shower once a day.”
107. Run like the windTo run as fast as you can.“Run like the wind to get this to the post office in time.”
108. Salt of the earthTo be a good, kind and humble person.“He isn’t very intelligent but he is the salt of the earth. You can trust him with a secret.”
109. Saving for a rainy daySaving something for when you need it most.“There is icecream in the fridge but we’re going to save it for a rainy day.”
110. Set in stoneUnchangeable.“The rules are set in stone. You can’t just change them half way through the game!”
111. Sick of itTo be exhausted by something. Not necessarily to be actually sick.“I’m sick of having to tell you to take out the trash over and over again.”
112. Sit tightWait.“Sit tight while I get more information and then I will help you.”
113. Sitting on the fenceTo be indecisive about several options.“I’m sitting on the fence about whether I will get pizza or Indian for dinner tonight.”
114. Skating on thin iceTo be close to getting in trouble.“John has been misbehaving this week so he is skating on thin ice. If he breaks one more rule I’m sending him home.”
115. Snowed underTo have a lot of work to do.“I’m snowed under with homework right now so I can’t socialize this weekend.”
116. Spice things upTo add excitement to a situation.“This music should spice things up.”
117. Spill the beansShare information that was previously secret.“Spill the beans about what happened at the party on the weekend.”
118. Stab someone in the backTo betray someone.“My friend stabbed me in the back so we’re not friends anymore.”
119. Straight from the horse’s mouthInformation from the original source.“I heard about the news straight form the horse’s mouth.”
120. Suck it upTo have some resilience and perseverence.“You need to suck it up and get on with your life.”
121. Surfing the webSearching for information on the internet.“I’m surfing the web in search of an answer to my question.”
122. Take a rain checkTo decide not to do something but leave the option to do it in the future.“I might take a rain check on the party this weekend, but I might go if you have another one.”
123. Take it with a grain of saltDon’t believe everything that was said.“His story was convincing but I’m going to take it with a grain of salt.”
124. Take the leadTo be in charge of something.“Sam, I would like you to take the lead on this project.”
125. Taking the mickeyMaking a joke.“I wasn’t serious, I was just taking the mickey.”
126. That ship has sailedSomething cannot be done anymore.“I wanted to ask her to the end of year formal but she already has a date so that ship has sailed.”
127. The ball is in your courtA decision or action is your responsibility.“I’ve done what I can on this project. The ball’s in your court now.”
128. The best thing since sliced breadSomething that is new, innovative, and good!“This new smart phone is the best thing since sliced bread.”
129. The cards at stacked against youYou are likely to lose.“I know you are good at this, but the cards are still stacked against you. It is going to be hard to win this one.”
130. The devil is in the detailsThe details are what matter most.“I know you think you can do it without my help but the devil is in the details. It’s harder than it looks.”
131. The early bird gets the wormBeing first at something improves your chances of success.“I turned up early to the interview because the early bird gets the worm.”
132. The elephant in the roomSomething that is not being spoken about, yet everyone is thinking about.“Why is no one discussing the elephant in the room?”
133. The eleventh hourThe last possible moment.“The team won the game in the eleventh hour.”
134. The horse has boltedAn opportunity has passed and you can’t get it back.“It would have been good to have bought that car but it has been sold to someone else. The horse has bolted.”
135. The last strawA final thing that happened that cause a change.“The last straw was when my boss gave me work to do over the weekend. I was tired of it, so I quit.”
136. The train has left the stationAn opportunity has passed and you can’t get it back.“It would have been good to have bought that car but it has been sold to someone else. The train has left the station.”
137. Through thick and thinTo stay with something in good times and bad times.“I will be your husband through thick and thin.”
138. Throw caution to the windTo do something dangerous without regard for the potential harm.“I’m just going to throw caution to the wind and bet all of my money on this horse race.”
139. Tip of the icebergOnly a small amount of information that doesn’t represent the whole story.“This story about government corruption is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure there is a lot more where this came from.”
140. To buy a LemonTo buy something that is broken or operates poorly, especially a car.“I think I bought a lemon. The car breaks down at least once a month and I keep having to take it to the mechanic.”
141. Twist someone’s armTo convince someone to do something they don’t want to do.“She didn’t want to come to the movie but I twisted her arm.”
142. Under the radarSomething done quietly and without recognition.“I was careful to write my book under the radar so when people found out I was a published author they would be really surprised.”
143. Under the weatherSick.“I’m not coming to work today because I’m under the weather.”
144. Up in the airThe conclusion has not yet been determined.“The winner of this football game is still up in the air.”
145. Wet behind the earsTo be new at something.“The person I was put with on this science project is a bit wet behind the ears so I have to take the lead.”
146. When it rains it poursMultiple things happen at once, usually positively.“I finished school, started a job, and got a new boyfriend this month. When it rains it pours!”
147. Wrap your head around somethingTo reach an understanding of something.“I can’t wrap my head around the assignment our teacher has given us this week.”
148. You can catch more flies with honey than vinegarYou get your way when you are nice to people, not when you are mean to them.“I think you’re not going to get him to do what you want him to do when you yell at him like that. You catch more flies with honey, you know.”
149. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drinkYou can help people only to a certain extent. They have to help themselves, too.“I showed him how to do it but he’s too lazy. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink!”
150. You can’t judge a book by its coverDon’t judge people until you know them.“When I first met him I thought he was strange. But now I realize he is really nice. I guess the moral of the story is that you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

21st Century Idioms

21st century idioms include: break the internet, get in the sea, spill the tea, take several seats, and don't at me;

Fun Fact: Scholars estimate that there are over 10,000 idioms in the English language. But we will never really know how many there are because new idioms are being invented every single day. Idioms Invented in the 21st Century include:

1. Break the internetA phrase coined by millennials to refer to something that went viral online.

Social Media Discussion

2. Get in the SeaA derogatory term used when someone says something unintelligent to imply they are a lesser evolved lifeform.

Informal British English

3. Spill the Tea A term coined by millennials to refer to sharing of gossip.

Gen Y

4. Take Several SeatsRefers to people who are working together despite the fact they don’t seem likely to come together.

Gen Z

5. Don’t at meA term used to request people not to argue with them about something. It stems from the concept of using the @ symbol to talk about someone on Twitter.

Social Media Discussion

Shakespearian Idioms

shakespeare's idioms include: it's greek to me, the naked truth, be all and end all, strange bedfellows, catch a cold, and break the ice

Fun Fact: Many Idioms were invented by the great William Shakespeare. Some great Shakespearian idioms include:

IdiomMeaningShakespearian Origin
1. It’s Greek to MeUsed when you are saying you can’t understand someone else’s explanation of something.

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599)

2. The Naked TruthUsed when talking about something that is completely true and unembellished. It is often a truth that is unpleasant to hear. It was popularized in Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598), although it was also used by another playwrite, John Lyly, 20 years earlier.

Love’s Labour’s Lost


3. Be All and End AllUsed to describe something that is the ultimate authority or knowledge that cannot be improved up.

Macbeth (1605)

4. Strange BedfellowsRefers to people who are working together despite the fact they don’t seem likely to come together.

The Tempest (1619)

5. Catch a ColdThe idea of an illness coming from cold weather, and therefore being “catching a cold”, is from Shakespeare, who used the phrase in several plays.

King Lear (1606)

Cymbeline (1611)

6. Break the IceRefers to the idea of doing something in an awkward situation to help people relax and be more comfortable around one another.

The Taming of the Shrew (1592)

The 11 Types of Idioms

There are 11 types of idiom. They are: perfect idioms, transparent idioms, dead idioms, binomial idioms, partial idioms, prepositional idioms, euphemisms, cliches, fixed collocational idioms, mobile idioms, and independent idioms.

The following are types of idioms:




Perfect idioms (aka opaque or pure idioms)

Opaque idioms are idioms whose original meaning is lost to the extent that there is no possible way to analyze the phrase logically to come to an understanding of its meaning.

It’s raining cats and dogs. (It is raining heavily).

Transparent Idioms

Transparent idioms are idioms where the original meaning can still be logically deduced from the phrase. We continue to call a transparent idiom an idiom despite the fact it doesn’t match the definition at the beginning of this article. That’s because it still fits two of the three components of the definition.

Learn to crawl before you walk. (Start with easier things when learning).

Dead idioms

Idioms that are no longer in use, often because they were over-used and the next generation did not like them.

World wide web. (Now, we just say the internet or web).

Binomial idioms

Idioms that involve two parts that work together or in contrast to construct an expression.

It’s night and day. (To express the contrast between two things)

Partial idioms (These are often metaphors)

A partial idiom contains a literal part (something we’re literally discussing) and a non-literal part (a metaphorical part).

There’s a storm brewing in his eyes. (His eyes look angry).

Prepositional idioms

Prepositional idioms contain prepositional verbs plus an adverb or a preposition to create non-literal meaning.

Put up with. (To tolerate something).


Euphemisms are idioms that are used to soften a message that might otherwise be too harsh, blunt or politically incorrect.

I’ll have to let you go. (To dismiss someone from their job).


A cliché is a term that has been so overused over time that it is considered intellectually lazy, not funny, unoriginal, or stereotyping when used.

Take a chill pill. (Relax).

Fixed Collocational Idioms

A collocation occurs when the words sound right together to native English speakers. If you slightly change them, they sound strange to English speakers.

“Kicked the bucket” is collocational, whereas “put his foot into the bucket” doesn’t make sense despite the fact they’re similar.

Mobile Idioms

Mobile idioms are idioms that can be changed within sentences and still make sense. Contrasted to fixed idioms (above).

“The last straw” and “It was the final straw” both sound fine to a native English speaker. This idiom has a degree of mobility that “kicked the bucket” (above) doesn’t.

Independent idioms

These are idioms that can be used independently and not as part of a sentence. They are full sentences all by themselves.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Comparisons to other Figures of Speech

Idioms vs Metaphors

Many idioms are metaphorical. However, the two concepts are different.

A metaphor is a non-literal figure of speech which involves highlighting the similarities of two things by saying they are the same thing.

We know the two things being compared are not the same thing. But the speaker says they are for literary effect.

Idioms can employ metaphor, but an idiom is not defined by its use of metaphorical language.

For example, some idioms are phrases that don’t make clear comparisons between two objects. This means they are not metaphors at all!

You can think of idioms and metaphors as being two concepts with overlapping features, meaning sometimes something can be defined as a metaphor and an idiom:

Dominant Features of Idioms

Overlapping Features

Dominant Features of Metaphors

Conventionality – used in regular speech without needing to pause and interpret the meaning every time.

Non-Literalism – Both metaphors and idioms are not usually interpreted to be literal.


Comparison – makes direct contrast between two people, places, objects, or concepts.

Conflation – says or implies one thing is another thing.

Idioms vs Proverbs

Idioms and proverbs are very similar. Proverbs can actually be types of idioms.

A proverb is a short saying that provides universal truths or sage advice. They usually fit the definition of idioms, if they:

  • Are non-literal, and
  • Are conventionally understood by society.

For example, the phrase “Beggars can’t be choosers” is both idiom and proverb. It is idiomatic (as a ‘transparent idiom’) because it is used in non-literal contexts and is a phrase that is conventionally understood by society.

But, it is also a proverb because it has a moral message within it (That people who are desperate can’t be picky).

How to Teach Idioms

Learning about idioms can be boring or fun – it all depends on the teacher! Here are three tips on how to teach idioms to students.

1. Teach through Songs

Teaching English through songs is a common way to help people to remember key phrases such as idioms. Songs are catchy, are often popular with young people, and can even enhance motivation to learn.

Examples of songs featuring idioms include:

  • Luke Combs – “When it rains it pours”
  • Justin Timberlake – “Cry me a river”
  • Lady Gaga – “Poker Face”
  • Hall and Oats – “You make my dreams come true”
  • Taylor Swift – “Shake it off”
  • New Radicals – “You get what you give”

2. Rote Memorizaton

Unfortunately, idioms are hard to remember because there often isn’t always much logic behind them.

So, you often have to just remember idioms by memorizing them through repetition, or what we call rote learning.

Teachers can use rote memorization through:

  • Flashcards
  • Daily repetition
  • Choosing a weekly idiom and using it every day in class

3. Role Play

Role play is well-known to be a highly effective way to teach English. It allows people to practice using the language in lifelike situations.

Have your students create a screenplay (or provide one yourself) where the students use as many idioms as possible in a 5-minute role play scenario.

Then, have the students perform their idiom-riddled plays in front of their peers. It will help the actors remember their idioms and the students watching to have more exposure to the phrases.


Idioms are all around us and new ones are being created every day. As our language has evolved, old idioms have also fallen out of use (known as ‘dead idioms’).

For English learners, idioms can be hard to get your head around. But, once you have mastered an idiom, it can be very exciting. It opens up new and advanced ways to communicate with native English speakers.

For writers, strong knowledge of idioms can help us to express ourselves more clearly and creatively in order to develop engaging storylines.