What is an Idiom? 

What is an idiom? It’s an expression or phrase that may be difficult to understand because it doesn’t mean the same thing that its individual words mean.

Idioms are very common in English, especially in casual-- and business-- conversations. You will find idioms in some formal speeches and writing as well. Recognizing the meaning of the most common or confusing ones is worth the effort.

Knowing idioms will not only help you understand  conversations better. They will also help you recognize the feelings and values people are expressing. Idioms add color (and sometimes a little mystery!) to English.

What is an Idiom? Some Common Types

Some English idioms are based on the experience of generations. They may refer to cultural conditions that no longer exist. For example, we might tell an impatient friend to “hold your horses!” (control your enthusiasm).

We say that someone needs to “bite the bullet” when they must do something unpleasant. (It refers to giving wounded soldiers a bullet to clamp between the teeth during surgery. It helped them to avoid screaming before anesthesia existed.)

Some idioms come from sports. Examples: “It’s in the ballpark” (in the same general range, approximately the same). “Give me a ballpark figure” (an estimate). Both now used mostly in business discussions. See Sports Idioms.

Some idioms come from observing animals. ”Let sleeping dogs lie” means not to disturb a situation that is currently calm but has the potential for trouble.

Other idioms refer to our bodies or daily activities-- almost any shared cultural experience. Many began as metaphors, but they have become so common we often do not think about the original picture they suggested. 

One very common class of idioms is phrasal verbs-- verbs with an added particle at the end, like get up, figure out, or run out of. The meaning of the phrase may be obvious-- or not. 

For the meanings of phrasal verbs and other idioms, see Common IdiomsList of Idioms, List of English Phrasal Verbs A-M, and List of Phrasal Verbs P-W.

Other Good Sources of Information about Idioms

English has innumerable idioms and proverbial expressions, more than could be put on any list. Check a good English dictionary for expressions you may not find on a list. Most dictionaries list phrasal verbs and other common idioms under the verb or other important first word of the expression.

Check out Longman's Dictionary of Contemporary English. It's a free online dictionary that is good for contemporary English expressions. You can find some common phrases with the Search box.

Many others are not listed there but can be found by using “Browse the Dictionary.” (You choose the letter of the alphabet, and then the page with the verb or other “headword” that starts the idiom.)

See also these Voice of America readings on idioms (as well as proverbs and other short expressions) with sound recordings and lots of examples.

Look quickly through the list of topics. Once you find the right list, see if the expression you're looking for is listed. Then click to read or listen to a quick explanation.

For example, if you hear "It's a dog-eat-dog world" in a business meeting, You could check the VOA page above and find it in the "Dog Expressions" list. As the "Dog Expressions" page demonstrates, most of these idioms talk about dogs but are really making a point about people.

So, what is an idiom? It's a not-so-obvious expression that's worth learning because it's basic to the way English speakers think.

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