My Top 40 List of Idioms
This is a list of idioms in English and their meanings, alphabetized by their first main word (not a, an, the, or to.)
Idioms are phrases that mean something more or different than their combined words. We use idioms as a kind of "shorthand" to express to express shared attitudes. (Some ideas or attitudes that may be quite different in another culture!)
Phrasal verbs are often idioms. See Phrasal Verb Use to learn what phrasal verbs are. For more of these useful verbs+, see List of English Phrasal Verbs (& List of Phrasal Verbs 2).
List of Idioms: A-B
- 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- To be out of date (or outdated) means to not be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.
- The bottom line is what is most important in a decision or business deal. It's 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 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. It means to work so hard at a difficult profession (like teaching or social work) that a person loses all their enthusiasm. People who have burned out are no longer able to do their best work.
Idioms Starting with C-D
- 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 do business with means to have business relations with a person or company. Examples: "I like to do business with Green's Market 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."
- Green light means permission to go ahead. "The boss finally gave us a green light. Let's get the project rolling right away!"
- In the way means to be an obstacle or hindrance. (“Don’t get in my way!” means don’t block me or hinder me from reaching my goal.)
- Just in time means that something happened just a little while before it would have been too late. (We also say it was a “close call” or “in the nick of time.”) They all mean things are O.K.-- but any delay would have led to trouble. Examples: “You got here just in time. The boss was getting impatient.” “The gas tank exploded two minutes after the accident. We got out of the car just in time.”
See also 'on time.'
- To keep in touch means to maintain contact with someone.
(See 'to get in touch' in Common Idioms.)
- To keep track of means to keep a record and know what’s happening with something.
- To leave a message means to ask someone to deliver a message from you to someone else.
- To leave well enough alone means “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” If a situation is O.K., don’t try to make things perfect, because changes might make things worse.
- To lose track of means to stop being aware of something. “Wow! It’s almost time for bed and I haven’t even eaten. I was so interested in that story that I lost track of the time.”
- To make ends meet is to have enough money to pay for food and other necessities. (“Larry needs a better job. Right now he hardly earns enough to make ends meet.”
- To make money means to earn money (not to print it, which is illegal!)
- To make trouble means to cause problems for people.
- On the dot refers to being right on the hour, not a few minutes before or after the hour mentioned. (“The meeting will start at 2 PM on the dot.”)
- On the other hand means to look at things another way. The phrase is used in discussions or formal writing to suggest a different point of view. (“People need to save more money. On the other hand, if everyone saved more, consumer spending would go down and more businesses might fail.”)
- On time means at the appropriate time; neither early nor late. (“He’s always on time for work, or even a little early. Being punctual is important to him.”)
- One of these days means sometime soon. It doesn't set a time or make a commitment. (“One of these days we need to have lunch together and catch up on what’s going on.”)
- Over one’s head refers to something that is unfamiliar or difficult to understand. (“This class is way over my head. The professor might as well speak to us in Greek-- I don’t understand anything he says.” Also: “Ann’s sarcasm went right over Jim’s head. He didn’t get it-- he thought she was praising him!”)
- To see eye to eye is to see things from the same perspective as someone else. (This is similar to “on the same page.” See Common Idioms-- link below.)
- To stick your (or his, her, etc.) nose into other people's business is to be too curious about other people. It especially refers to trying to find out about private affairs or relationships someone may not want to discuss. (It's another way of saying that someone is 'nosy.')
- To take advantage of is to use people or situations for one’s own benefit. Often it's without their knowledge or approval. "Joe got Bill and Sarah to spend hours helping him on a project-- and then sold it as his own work! It's fine to take advantage of opportunities. It's not O.K. to take advantage of your friends' hard work without offering to pay them! He didn't even give them credit!"
- To take for granted is to not appreciate a privilege. (Sue takes her good health for granted. She thinks she’ll always have it, even if she doesn’t take care of herself.”)
- To take into account means to be sure to consider something. “Remember to take the new sales tax into account when you set the prices on these products."
- To take it easy means to relax.
- to be on (or off) track,
- to get side-tracked,
- to keep track of,
- and to lose track of
(They're above, except ‘get side-tracked.’ It's on Common Idioms.)
More Idioms & Idiom Practice
There are lots of great lists of English idioms online. (You can also check some dictionaries-- see the bottom of What is an Idiom?) The most useful other list of idioms I have found is TopCorrect's page of 50 Business Idioms.
(It lists 4 or 5 idioms I also discuss, most of them in the Sports Idiom page below. But they're all common and worth understanding.)
Two phone and two in-person conversations demonstrate common idiom examples.
An explanation of different types of common idioms & phrasal verbs, including a number of not-so-obvious idioms with 'get.'
These sports idioms are common in business and everyday conversation. How many do you understand?
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