28 English idioms that everyone should know

28 English idioms that everyone should know

“​​Learning English is like a walk in the park, they said, but little did I know it would be a whole different ball game! From the get-go, I felt like a fish out of water, struggling to keep up with the fast-paced lessons. But with a little blood, sweat, and tears, I soon found my feet. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing; I hit a few bumps in the road along the way. But every cloud has a silver lining, and I persevered. Now, I’m proud to say I’ve turned over a new leaf and can confidently say that I’m on cloud nine with my English skills!”

Isn’t that the kind of speech that would make Shakespeare blush?

Maybe… But wouldn’t it sound so much better if you held back with the English idioms just a bit? 

“They said learning English would be easy, but it turned out to be much harder than expected! Right from the start, I felt like a fish out of water, struggling to keep up with the fast-paced lessons. It took a lot of effort and determination, but eventually, I started to understand. Of course, I hit a few bumps in the road along the way, but I didn’t give up. Now, I’m happy to say that I’ve improved a lot and feel very confident in my English skills!”

English idioms can add flavor to your conversation and help you express yourself more effectively. However, relying too heavily on obscure idioms or using them excessively can have the opposite effect, making you seem strange to those around you.

In this article, we look at the 28 most common English idioms and share tips on how to use them like a native.

What is an idiom in English?

Have you ever heard someone say, “It’s raining cats and dogs”? Or maybe, “I’m feeling under the weather”

We’re not talking about animals falling from the sky or feeling like we’re hiding below clouds! These are examples of something called idioms.

So, what are idioms in English? 

Simply put, an idiom is like a secret code in English. It’s a group of words that, when put together, mean something different from what you’d expect if you just looked at the words individually. 

Why do idioms exist in English? 

In a way, idioms are shortcuts in day-to-day conversations. They help us express ideas in a fun, colorful way without having to explain everything in detail. 

The real origins of this language phenomenon aren’t fully known because they come from a time when people didn’t have a habit of recording every little decision they made. But there’s a simple and believable reason why we use idioms in today’s English.

Back then, just like today, people wanted to stand out

They wanted to impress, show off a bit, and maybe even be remembered for their cool phrases. Think of it like ancient influencers but with words instead of photos.

With just around 25,000 idioms in English today, it’s clear that not all of them became famous. But the ones that did? Well, they’ve been hanging around for ages, shaping the way we talk today.

Idioms list in English: Most common English idioms

Hold on, did we just say there are 25,000 idioms to learn?!

Yep, we’re not to sugarcoat it. The list of English idioms is pretty long.

But don’t sweat it! Native speakers don’t use every single idiom under the sun all the time. To get the hang of English, you just need to grasp the meanings of the most common ones.

English language idioms about feelings

Go to pieces 

The idiom “go to pieces” means to lose control emotionally or mentally, to become extremely upset or distressed.

This idiom likely originates from the concept of something breaking into small pieces or fragments, symbolizing a person’s emotional or mental state falling apart.

A blue ceramic plate broken into small pieces

A plate broken into pieces; Source

Idiom used in a sentence: After hearing the bad news, Sarah went to pieces and couldn’t stop crying.

On cloud nine

The idiom “on cloud nine” is used to describe feeling extremely happy or euphoric. It’s often associated with being high up in the sky, where one feels on top of the world.

Idiom used in a sentence: Winning the championship put him on cloud nine for weeks.

Have butterflies in one’s stomach

You can use the phrase “have butterflies in my stomach” when you feel nervous or anxious, especially before a significant event or situation.

This English saying comes from something that happens in your body. When you feel nervous or excited, you might get a fluttery feeling in your stomach, like butterflies flying around.

Idiom used in a sentence: Before giving her presentation, Jane had butterflies in her stomach.

At the same time, “to give someone butterflies [in their stomach]” is a phrase used to signify the warm and fuzzy feeling you experience when falling in love. Is it a funny coincidence, or is falling in love with someone — despite being amazing — an utterly unnerving event? 

Under the weather

If you want to justify someone’s weird behavior, you can say they’re “under the weather,” feeling slightly unwell or sick.

This idiom likely stems from the association between weather changes and feeling unwell. You know that headache you get whenever the weather changes drastically overnight? 

Idiom used in a sentence: I won’t be able to make it to the party tonight — I’m feeling a bit under the weather.

Go off the deep end

Whenever someone’s behaving risky, irrationally, or simply recklessly, as if they’ve got nothing to lose, they’re going off the deep end.

A man jumping off a cliff into the water

A literal representation of going off the deep end; Source

To understand this saying, imagine jumping off a cliff into deep blue waters. You’re taking a risk without knowing what’s below, just diving in without considering the consequences.

Idiom used in a sentence: After losing his job, he went off the deep end and started spending money recklessly.

Feel blue

Cold and almost distant, blue is the saddest color of them all. So, to “feel blue” means to feel sad and melancholy. 

Idiom used in a sentence: Since his pet passed away, he’s been feeling blue.

Down in the dumps

Another English idiom used to describe a low mood, an almost depression-like state, is “down in the dumps.”

This one is easy to understand: whenever you want to emphasize that things aren’t going well for you and your state is comparable to a literal dump, use this idiom. 

Idiom used in a sentence: Ever since he learnt that his feelings towards Mary weren’t mutual, he’s been feeling down in the dumps. 

Bite the bullet

A man biting a bullet

A man biting a bullet; Source

In the context of the English language, “bite the bullet” means to endure a painful or difficult situation with courage and resilience and to face a difficult situation head-on.

This phrase dates back to the practice of giving a wounded soldier a bullet to bite on as a form of primitive anesthesia before surgery.

Idiom used in a sentence: Despite the challenge ahead, she knew she had to bite the bullet and confront it.

English language idioms about body parts

Keep your fingers crossed

What gesture do you make when you really hope for something to happen (or not happen, for all it matters)? You cross your fingers, of course!

A gif of a woman crossing her fingers

A woman crossing her fingers; Source

So, the etymology of this English idiom shouldn’t be too confusing. To keep your fingers crossed means to hope for a positive outcome or good luck. 

Idiom used in a sentence: I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll get the job.

Break a leg

If you’ve ever heard someone say “break a leg,” they’re actually wishing you good luck, especially before a performance. 

It’s often said that this English expression has its origins in the Elizabethan era. Back then, instead of clapping, theater goers would bang the legs of their chairs to show their appreciation during performances. If the play was a hit and the audience loved it, this enthusiastic “ovation” sometimes resulted in a few broken chair legs.

Idiom used in a sentence: Anna told me to break a leg before my exam last night. 

Lend an ear

A great human trait, being able to lend an ear, means to listen to someone attentively or sympathetically.

An ear on a string in Harry Potter

Lend an ear; Source

Idiom used in a sentence: Whenever I have a problem, I know I can count on my friend to lend an ear.

Keep an eye on

To keep an eye on means to watch or monitor something closely. 


Idiom used in a sentence: Can you keep an eye on my bag while I go to the restroom?

Get something off your chest

The physical feeling of a heavy chest is often associated with heart problems, but doctors say it can also be linked to anxiety and depression. So, to get something off your chest means to get rid of the cause of that anxiety — to confess or reveal something that has been bothering you, like a secret.  


Idiom used in a sentence: I need to get something off my chest—I’ve been feeling guilty about what happened.

Give someone a hand

To lend someone a hand, or commonly, a helping hand, is to offer assistance in solving a problem or completing a task.

Idiom used in a sentence: Can you give me a hand with carrying these boxes?

Cost an arm and a leg

If something is very expensive, it’s known to “cost an arm and a leg.”

This idiom is probably older than others on the list, dating back to a time when human sacrifices to gods were not only accepted but even valued. It likely comes from the idea of sacrificing a limb, highlighting the significant cost or sacrifice involved.

Idiom used in a sentence: I’d love to buy that new car, but it costs an arm and a leg.

English language idioms about food

Piece of cake

Who doesn’t adore cake? Even when you’re stuffed, there’s always space for a cheeky slice of cake. And you bet it’s a breeze to enjoy!

A piece of cake on a plate

A piece of cake; Source

So, when we say something is a “piece of cake,” we mean it’s simple and enjoyable to do or accomplish.

Idiom used in a sentence: Don’t worry, fixing this problem will be a piece of cake.

Spill the beans

Have you ever shared a secret or confidential information with someone? Then you’re a certified bean spiller! 

The exact origin of this phrase is unclear, but one theory proposes an interesting connection to an ancient Greek voting system. In this system, white beans signified a positive vote, while black beans indicated a negative one. So, “spilling the beans” would reveal the voting outcome prematurely.

Idiom used in a sentence: I didn’t mean to spill the beans about the surprise party.

By the way, beans aren’t the only thing that signifies revealing a secret when spilled. Another synonymous idiom is “spill the tea.”

Have bigger fish to fry

When you have other priorities, for instance, more important or pressing matters to attend to, you can reject invitations, saying that you “have bigger fish to fry.”

Fried fish on a plate

Bigger fish to fry; Source

This idiom comes from the idea of a fisherman choosing to catch larger fish over smaller ones, indicating that they have more significant goals or tasks.

Idiom used in a sentence: Sorry, I can’t join you for dinner tonight — I have bigger fish to fry.

Bring home the bacon

Bringing home the bacon refers to earning a living, and providing financial support for oneself or one’s family.

No one really knows what bacon has to do with money, but linguists had a lot of fun speculating about the origins of this English idiom. 

One version claims that at county fairs, people chased after greased pigs. If they caught one, they won a prize — bacon. Another story says that in Great Dunmow, a church gave a side of bacon to any man who hadn’t argued with his wife for a year and a day.

Idiom used in a sentence: As the only person with a job, he works hard to bring home the bacon for his family.

English language idioms about weather

Raining cats and dogs

This is the English idiom you’ve probably heard countless times and know precisely what it means. But what kind of list of English idioms everyone should know would it be without “raining cats and dogs”?

A drawing that illustrates the English idiom

It’s raining cats and dogs!; Source

Signifying heavy rain, this phrase has a peculiar etymology. One idea dates back to old times when animals, like cats and dogs, would often rest on roofs. When heavy rain poured down, it could wash these animals off the roofs, giving the impression that it was literally “raining cats and dogs.” 

Idiom used in a sentence: We can’t go out right now; it’s raining cats and dogs!

Calm before the storm

When everything is just a little too good to be true, people often believe that it’s the period of calm before the storm, meaning that each difficult or turbulent situation is preceded by times of peace and tranquility. 

Idiom used in a sentence: Everything seems too quiet lately — it’s like the calm before the storm.

Chase rainbows

No matter how realistic and attainable the end of the rainbow feels, it’s merely an optic illusion you can’t really catch and touch. So, the saying “to chase rainbows” refers to the pursuit of unrealistic or unattainable goals or dreams.

Idiom used in a sentence: I admire his optimism, but I think he’s just chasing rainbows with that business idea.

Storm in a teacup

A storm in a teacup refers to a small or insignificant problem that is blown out of proportion. While you might stir your drink to the point when it’s spilling out of your cup, there’s only so much liquid to spill. It’s a tiny container, so you shouldn’t worry about flooding your neighbors. 

Idiom used in a sentence: Let’s not turn this into a storm in a teacup; it’s not worth arguing about.

A silver lining

Even in the darkest and heaviest clouds, there’s a glimmer of light peeking through. That’s why we say “a silver lining” to describe finding something positive in even the most negative situations.

Idiom used in a sentence: Despite losing my job, the silver lining is that it’s given me more time to focus on my passion projects.

English language idioms about nature

Beat around the bush

Imagine you borrowed a pair of super expensive shoes from your best friend and absolutely destroyed them at your most recent work party. Damaged beyond repair, they are now only good for the dumpster. And while you’re happy to pay for the loss, it’s not the most exciting piece of news to break to your friend. 

Of course, the best thing would be to tell your friend straightaway, accept your guilt and call it a day. But it’s not always easy. Sometimes, you just want to start the conversation from afar — tell them how much you love them, remind them that their favorite shoe designer has just released a new collection and so on. 

This act of avoiding addressing the topic directly — speaking vaguely or using euphemisms — is called “beating the bush.” 

Idiom used in a sentence: Stop beating around the bush and just tell me what’s on your mind.

Fish out of water

Thousands of years ago, some fish dared to venture out of their water habitat and onto land. According to Charles Darwin, this bold move was a crucial step in our evolutionary journey, eventually leading us to the modern-day workplace, give or take a few million years of evolution.

But the majority of fish aren’t so keen on leaving their natural habitat. So, the idiom “fish out of water” is used to describe a situation in which you feel uncomfortable and out of place. 

Idiom used in a sentence: I felt like a fish out of water at the fancy gala—I didn’t know anyone there.

Take the bull by the horns

The expression “take the bull by the horns” originates from the American West, where ranchers had to manage cattle for entertainment (like matadors in Spain), and also as a part of their everyday working life.

Taken literally, taking the bull by the horns is far from being the easiest task if you ask us. But a necessary one, by all means. 

So, the meaning of this idiom is “to confront a difficult situation directly and assertively.”

Idiom used in a sentence: If you want to succeed in this project, you’ll need to take the bull by the horns and interview the guy. 

A snake in the grass

A snake in the grass is someone who appears harmless or friendly but is actually treacherous or deceitful. It’s difficult to spot a snake hiding in tall grass, which gives the latter one an upper hand in an unexpected strike.

Idiom used in a sentence: Watch out for him—he may seem friendly, but he’s really a snake in the grass.

Tips for using idioms in the English language

After learning idioms, it’s crucial to understand how to use them correctly. Otherwise, there’s a risk that this linguistic tool could backfire on you.

Understand the meaning

Before using an idiom, make sure you fully understand its meaning and context. Idioms can be tricky, so it’s important to grasp their nuances.

Ideally, learn idioms in context. Pay attention to how native speakers use idioms in conversation, and try to mimic their usage.

Use idioms sparingly

While idioms can add color and flair to your language, using too many in one conversation can sound unnatural or overwhelming. Use them sparingly and only when they enhance your communication.

Consider the audience you’re talking to

Be mindful of your audience when using idioms. Some idioms may not translate well for non-native speakers or may be unfamiliar to certain cultural groups.


So, the next time someone tells you to “break a leg” or to “hit the hay,” don’t panic. They’re not suggesting you perform acrobatics or engage in farm work. They’re just being friendly — and maybe a tad bit idiomatically quirky.