Recognize Common Idioms
to 'Get' (Understand) English Better

The most common idioms in English are worth learning because they are used so frequently, in business settings as well as casual conversation. Idioms are groups of words that express a thought that’s different from the meanings of their individual words. Some are like short proverbs, expressing the values and experience of generations in a few words.

Phrasal Verbs

Some of the most common idioms of all are phrasal verbs— verbs followed by a preposition (technically a particle). English speakers use them much more often than the one-word verbs that express the same thought. (We say ‘keep on’ more frequently than ‘continue,’ ‘I got over’ a cold-- or a love affair-- rather than ‘I recovered.’ We almost never ‘enter’ cars; we ‘get in.’)

Some phrasal verbs mean what they say: ‘to look up’ can be to fix your eyes on the sky. More often, the meaning of the expression is not the meaning of the individual words. ‘To look up’ usually means to search for a word in a dictionary or other text. See Phrasal Verb Use for a full explanation, including the difference between separable and inseparable phrasal verbs-- important if you want to use phrasal verbs with pronouns.

Probably more than half the English idioms listed on this website are phrasal verbs, both because they are so common and because they're not always obvious.          

Some Other Common Idioms

students all looking at the same page
students all looking at the same page

In addition to phrasal verbs, there are many other English idioms, often based on familiar activities or observations of our bodies and human or animal behavior. Some of these, especially those based on proverbs, are fairly obvious, others are not.

The pages on EnglishHints mainly discuss very common, useful idioms that might not be obvious. You can easily look up colorful, less common idioms (like "raining cats and dogs"-- which means raining hard) online. Just put the phrase or expression you want in a search box.

Examples of common idioms that might not be easy to guess:

  • On the same page’ means that people are looking at things from the same point of view. They agree about what to do. (It refers to a group reading something. They need to be looking at the same page to read together. Example: “O.K. I think we need to concentrate on production now. Are you all on the same page with me?”
  • To get ahead means to reach one’s goals, especially in competition with others (as in passing or getting ahead of someone in a race.)
  • To get a hold of someone (= get in touch with them) is to make contact and talk with someone (especially by phone).
  • To get (or keep, or stay) in touch with someone is to establish or maintain communication with them.
  • To get it means to understand something. “I get it! You don’t need to keep explaining what happened!”
  • To get on someone’s nerves is to annoy or bother someone. (“When my kids fight over every little thing, it really gets on my nerves.”)
  • To get side-tracked is to be distracted and to change direction, leaving the plan for a project. The expression comes from the time when railroads were very important in the U.S. When two trains were using the same track, one would have to be moved off the main track onto a short area of ‘siding’ to allow the other to go by. The side track does not lead anywhere; the train must return to the main track to reach its destination.

More Common English Idioms, Alphabetically

You can find a more complete explanation of idioms and their use in English in What is an Idiom?

For more definitions of common, not-so-obvious, English idioms like these, see List of Idioms, A-F,List of  Idiom Definitions G-LIdiom Meanings List, M-S,.and Idioms List T-Z.

Practice Using Idioms

Once you have studied some of these idioms, read some conversations using many of them in Idiom Examples and try some practice exercises on the Idioms Worksheet to check your under.standing.

There are two Memory (also called Concentration, or Pelmanism) games practicing idioms at Memory Game 1 )for Phrasal Verbs A-L) and Memory Game 2 (M-Z), as well as a more complete explanation of the rules at Concentration Games for Idioms.

If you would like to test your ability to guess idioms in common use which were introduced by Shakespeare, see Idioms from Shakespeare: a Matching Game.

Home > Common Idioms.

Top Of Page

Protected by Copyscape Online Copyright Search

Sign-up for our free newsletter, English Detective for interesting reading, vocabulary practice, puzzles, and more in your inbox every month. 

For information (and a free bonus), see Building Vocabulary 

Enter Your E-mail Address
Enter Your First Name (optional)

Don't worry — your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you English Detective.

New! Comments

What do you think about what you just read? Leave me a comment in the box below.

Didn't find what you needed? Try explaining what you want in a few words in the search box below. (For example, cognates, past tense practice, or 'get along with.') Look under the ads (with a light-colored background) to see the related pages on EnglishHints.