A Useful List of Idioms, A-F

This is a list of idioms (from A-F) in English and their meanings. It includes both phrasal verbs (verbs with a particle-- the special use of a preposition-- that can change their meaning) and other idioms,  alphabetized by their first main word (not a, an, the, or to.)  (See Phrasal Verb Use for an explanation of those very common verbs.)

For idioms starting with the rest of the alphabet, see List of Idiom Definitions, G-L, Idiom Meanings List M-S, and Idioms List T-Z.

List of Idioms: A-B

He's broke! (cartoon of a man with empty pockets)
  • To back out (of) means to withdraw from a commitment or promise. (“Ken said he’d set up the chairs for the conference, but he backed out. Can you help me set them up?”)
  • To back up can mean to move backwards, or to support someone. ("When my boss started complaining about my overtime, his secretary backed me up. She reminded him he had pushed me to get that work done immediately.") It can also mean to make an extra copy of data: "Be sure and back up those files. We can't afford to lose them if the computer goes down." Back-up can even be a noun or adjective: "The baseball coach asked Jeremy to be ready if he needed a back-up pitcher."
  • To be (just) about to means to be almost ready to do something, just at the point of doing it. (“When the bell rang, I was just about to write the answer.”)
  • To be back means that a person will again be home (or wherever he is currently) after leaving for a while. (“I have to pick up my son at school. I’ll be back in half an hour.” See also ‘come back.’)
  • To be broke means to be out of money. (“I’d love to go to dinner with you, but I’m broke. Could we go next Saturday, after I’m paid again?”)
  • To be in the black means to be earning more than expenses; to have enough money to pay the bills. A company that’s ‘in the black’ is making a profit.
  • To be in the red means not to be making enough money to cover expenses.
  • To be on track is to be continuing in the planned direction. A project that is on track is going well-- just the way it should.
  • To be off track is when work or a project is not going according to its plan. Important parts of it are wrong or behind schedule. (Think of a railroad car that has gotten off its tracks. It can’t go anywhere until it’s put back on.)
  • To be out of date (or outdated) means to not be a current or recent style or version of a product. It’s to be old-fashioned.
  • To be out of the woods means to have safely passed through some difficulty or danger. Now the situation should get better.

  • To be up to date means to be current-- aware of (or part of) the most recent trends, products, or fashions.
  • To be up to someone means that person is responsible to do something; it depends on him or her. (“It’s up to the boss to decide whether we take on a project. However, if he says yes and assigns it to you, it’s up to you to carry it out.”)
  • Better late than never is not praise. It means someone or something is later than they should be. However, not arriving at all would have been worse.
  • To blow up can mean to inflate (“I blew up 50 balloons for the party.”) It can also mean to explode (“the bomb blew up in his hand”) or to ‘explode’ with anger. (“Watch out what you say to Sharon. She blew up at Norma for no reason.”) Sometimes "blow your top" is used instead: "He blew his top when his son "borrowed" the car and dented the bumper."
  • The bottom line is what is most important in a decision or business deal-- the one thing that will make the difference between 'yes' and 'no.' (It refers to the sum at the bottom line of a page of accounts-- what is left after all expenses are taken out.) "The bottom line is you can't graduate unless you pass your English and math exam."
  • To break into means to enter by breaking a lock, window, or door. (“Thieves broke into the store and stole $2,000.”)
  • To break up often means to end a relationship.
  • To bring up means to raise an issue or start a conversation about a subject. (“We’re talking about vacations. Don’t bring up your work problems now!”)
  • To bring someone up means to care for and guide a child to adulthood. (“My parents brought me up to respect authority.”)
  • To burn the candle at both ends is to use up resources too fast. It usually refers to a person working or studying so hard that they may damage their health. They might not even be able to finish what they are trying to do.
  • To burn oneself out is similar: to work so hard at a difficult profession (often teaching, nursing, or social work) that a person loses their enthusiasm and is no longer able to do their best work.

Idioms Starting with C

  • To call off an event or meeting means to cancel it. (Friday’s game was called off due to rain.”)
  • To call on means to ask someone to participate in class (“The teacher kept calling on Sue”) It can also mean make a visit to someone’s home.
  • To catch an illness is to become sick. (‘Catch’ refers to receiving a contagious virus or bacteria from someone else.)
  • To catch a vehicle (bus, plane, taxi, train) is to arrive at its stop, terminal, or station in time to get onto it. (If you’re not in time, you have ‘missed’ the bus, plane, train, boat, etc.)
  • To catch on means to begin to understand something. (“Hal finally caught on to Mark’s plan to cheat him.”)
  • To catch up means to reach the same level or place (in a race, or to be able to travel together) as someone else. (“You’ll have to study hard to catch up after missing class for three days.” “Slow down! I can’t catch up when you walk so fast!”)
  • To come back means to return.
  • To come in means to enter.
  • To come over means to come to someone’s home. (“Why don’t you come over on Saturday?”)
  • To come up with means to think of a plan or solution. ("Sally is always coming up with crazy ideas to get rich. She should try working harder instead,")
  • To cover for means to do someone’s work or take their responsibility for a short time. (A secretary might ask a co-worker, “Can you cover the phone for me during my lunch hour?”)
  • To cut back on (or cut down on) means to reduce the amount. (“My doctor said I had to cut back on sugar.)
  • To cut out means to eliminate entirely, or to stop doing something. (“My doctor says I need to cut out smoking if I want to live past 60.” “You’re annoying me! Cut it out!”)

Idioms Starting with D-F

  • To do business with means to have business relations with a person or company. Examples: "I like to do business with Green's Market (or some other company or person), because they always treat their customers well." "My brother-in-law cheated me the last time we did business together. I won't ever do business with him again."
  • To do over means to do a job again.
  • To do without (or get along without) means to live or work without something that would be very useful. (“You forgot your notebook again? You’ll just have to do without it for this class!”)
  • To drop off means to deliver something or someone where needed. (“Please drop the kids off at school before dropping off my suit at the dry cleaners.”)

  • To figure out means to understand a message or solve a problem.
  • To fill out (or fill in the blanks) means to write the requested information on a form.
  • To follow through is to complete what one has started or promised to do.

Continue with Idioms G-L (or M-S or T-Z.)

To see sample conversations using these and other idioms, and to practice with them, go to Idiom Examples and Idioms Worksheet.

To practice matching some of these phrasal verbs with their meanings, go to Concentration Games for Idioms.

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