Everyday American English Idioms

Why study idioms?

One of the keys to speaking like a native is the ability to use and understand casual expressions, or idioms. American English is full of idioms. You won’t learn these expressions in a standard textbook. But you will hear them all the time in everyday conversations. You’ll also meet them in books, newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and on the Internet. Idioms add color to the language. Master idioms and your speech will be less awkward, less foreign. You’ll also understand more of what you read and hear.

Here are some idioms you're likely to meet in everyday life in America. They're taken from the book, Speak English Like an American. Find out more about this book & audio CD, which teaches over 300 of today's most common idioms and expressions, by clicking here. At the end of this idioms list, you'll find our recommended websites for more American English idioms study!

better off - in a more fortunate position

Example 1: We're better off leaving for France on Thursday evening, so we can spend the entire weekend there.

Example 2: If you're interested in studying languages, you'd be better off attending Northwestern University than the University of Chicago.

Note: This expression is often used with conditional tense (would), especially when you're giving advice: "you would be better off doing something" or "you'd be better off doing something."

Big deal! - So what? That doesn't really matter.

Example 1: You won five dollars in the lottery? Big deal!

Example 2: Your father has a job with a big company in New York City? Big deal!

(to) blow things out of proportion - to exaggerate; to make more of something than one should

Example 1: They sent a 12 year-old boy to jail for biting his babysitter? Don't you think they're blowing things out of proportion?

Example 2: Sally called the police when her neighbor's party got too loud. I think that was blowing things out of proportion.

(to) burn someone up- to make someone angry

Example 1: Jenny didn't vote for Nicole. That really burns Nicole up.

Example 2: I can't believe Kristen and Andrew didn't invite us to their wedding. That really burns me up!

(to) call it a night - to stop an activity for the rest of the night

Example 1: We spent a few hours walking around downtown Chicago. It was so cold that we were ready to call it a night by nine o'clock.

Example 2: Let's call it a night and meet back at the office at seven o'clock tomorrow morning to finish preparing our report.

Note: There is also the expression "to call it a day" which means to stop activity for the day.

dime a dozen - so plentiful as to be nothing special; common

Example 1: Reality TV shows are a dime a dozen these days.

Example 2: There are so many Starbucks coffee shops in Manhattan, they're a dime a dozen.

Note: This expression comes from the fact that a "dime" is worth only ten cents (very little value).

(to) do the trick - to achieve the desired results

Example 1: Juan changed the light bulb and said, "That should do the trick!"

Example 2: My house is difficult to find, so I'll put 10 large balloons on my mailbox on the day of the party. That should do the trick.

(to) give someone the cold shoulder - to be cold to someone on purpose; to snub someone

Example 1: When Lisa saw Amber at the mall, she didn't even stop to talk to her. She really gave her the cold shoulder.

Example 2: I can't understand why Joe would give you the cold shoulder. I thought you two were good friends!

(to) get the ball rolling - to get started

Example 1: Let's get the ball rolling on this project. We've only got one week to finish it.

Example 2: If we don't get the ball rolling on our vacation plans soon, we'll end up going nowhere.

(to) go back to the drawing board - to start a task over because the last try failed; to start again from the beginning

Example 1: Frank's new business failed, so he had to go back to the drawing board.

Example 2: The president didn't agree with our new ideas for the company, so we had to go back to the drawing board.

happy camper [slang] - a happy person; a satisfied participant

Example 1: When Linda's passport was stolen in Florence, she was not a happy camper.

Example 2: Steve is taking five difficult courses this semester. He's not a happy camper!

Note: This expression is usually used in the negative (not a happy camper).

(to) have a heart of gold - to be very kind and giving

Example 1: Alexander has a heart of gold and always thinks of others before himself.

Example 2: You adopted five children from a Romanian orphanage? You've got a heart of gold!

(to be) head over heels in love - very much in love

Example 1: During the first years of their marriage, Brad and Jennifer were head over heels in love with each other.

Example 2: Sara is head over heels in love with Mark. Unfortunately, he doesn't even know her name!

(to) hit the nail on the head - to be right

Example 1: Dawn hit the nail on the head when she said that Tiffany is jealous of Amber.

Example 2: Steve hit the nail on the head with his idea of moving his company's manufacturing facility to China.

(to) learn the ropes - to learn the basics

Example 1: Mark learned the ropes of the restaurant business by working as a cook at Outback Steakhouse.

Example 2: David worked at a big law firm for 10 years where he learned the ropes. Now he runs his own law firm.

(to) lose one's touch - to no longer be able to do something well

Example 1: I used to make delicious pies, but this one tastes terrible. I think I've lost my touch.

Example 2: Dr. Stewart used to be a very good doctor, but recently several of his patients have died. He seems to have lost his touch!

made of money - very rich

Example 1: My neighbor is re-modeling his house to look like Versailles. He doesn't have good taste, but he certainly is made of money.

Example 2: Max should be willing to loan you $10,000 to start your new business. He's made of money.

(to) make a bundle - to make a lot of money

Example 1: Bob's friend Charles made a bundle in the stock market and retired at age 45.

Example 2: Sara made a bundle selling her old fur coats on eBay, a website where you can buy and sell used things.

needless to say - obviously

Example 1: You've got a test tomorrow morning. Needless to say, you can't stay out late tonight.

Example 2: Needless to say, you shouldn't have waited until Christmas Eve to do your shopping. The stores are going to be very crowded!

piece of cake - very easy

Example 1: Nicole finished her physics test in just 25 minutes. It was a piece of cake.

Example 2: The driving test is a piece of cake. Don't worry about it.

(to) pitch in - to help

Example 1: Nicole offered to pitch in and clean up her neighborhood beach. She picked up five plastic cups and an old towel.

Example 2: If you need my help, just ask. I'd be happy to pitch in.

(to) pull an all-nighter - to stay up all night to do work

Example 1: Ted pulled an all-nighter to study for his chemistry test and ended up falling asleep in class the next day.

Example 2: I've got a 20-page paper due tomorrow morning, and I haven't even started writing it yet. I guess I'll be pulling an all-nighter!

rule of thumb - a useful principle

Example 1: When cooking fish, a good rule of thumb is 10 minutes in the oven for each inch of thickness.

Example 2: "Ted, as a rule of thumb, you should always plan to study for your chemistry tests for at least two hours."

(as) sharp as a tack - very intelligent

Example 1: Jay scored 100% on his science test. He's as sharp as a tack.

Example 2: Anna got a scholarship to Yale. She's as sharp as a tack.

(to) sit tight - to wait patiently

Example 1: Nicole won't hear back from the colleges she applied to until April. For now, she'll just have to sit tight.

Example 2: Sit tight, the doctor will be with you in a few minutes.

(to) stab someone in the back - to betray someone

Example 1: Jill and Heather were friends, until Heather stabbed Jill in the back by stealing her boyfriend.

Example 2: You're firing me after all I've done for this company? You're really stabbing me in the back!

(to) tell someone off - to scold; to tell someone in strong words what one really thinks

Example 1: When Ted showed up for chemistry class a half an hour late, his teacher really told him off.

Example 2: Patty is going to tell off the plumber because the pipes he said he fixed are still leaking.

When pigs fly! [slang] - never

Example 1: Will Ted teach Nicole how to play the guitar? When pigs fly!

Example 2: Sure, I'll give you my new laptop. When pigs fly!

(to) twist someone's arm - to persuade someone; to convince someone

Example 1: Ted didn't want to get another tattoo on his back, but Amber twisted his arm.

Example 2: Okay, you've twisted my arm. You can borrow my new car and drive it across the country.

(to be) up in the air - not yet determined; uncertain

Example 1: It might rain later, so our plans for the picnic are up in the air.

Example 2: Our trip to Russia is up in the air. We aren't sure we'll get our visas in time.

ESL Mania recommends these sites for studying more idioms:


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