LIFE: Learn some common English expressions!

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Mike presents the top 10 English expressions. Photo: Gabriel Montes

Idiom: a natural expression used by native speakers

Take a look at any language and you’ll probably find hundreds of idioms – sayings that extend advice or suggestion through a combination of words which, when considered in their literal context, have no clear meaning. Idioms are used colloquially to convey the morals or values of a particular culture.

Learning and using the most common English idiomatic expressions will dramatically increase your ability to follow and speak English – and will hugely improve others’ perception of your ability. Idioms are generally fun in nature, and native speakers use them frequently.

Below, I’ve compiled a list of the most commonly-used English idioms with their meanings and some usage examples. Make an effort to learn these and to use them in your everyday conversations:

1. Take with a grain of salt

Don’t believe everything someone tells you.

Ex1: John often says things that aren’t true; take whatever he says with a grain of salt.
Ex2: The politician means well but her promises should be taken with a grain of salt. She doesn’t have enough power to make all those changes.

2. A piece of cake

Something that is easy to do.

Ex1: I shouldn’t have been worried about the exam; it was a piece of cake!
Ex2: Tying your shoes is a piece of cake.

3. Bite off more than you can chew

Accepting too much work.

Ex1: Susan bit off more than she could chew when she told the director that she could do all three projects. Now she can’t finish any of them on time.
Ex2: Take only as much as you can to be comfortable. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

4. Hit the nail on the head

The perfect answer.

Ex1: That’s exactly what I meant to say; you hit the nail on the head!
Ex2: Her project to help poor people really hit the nail on the head. It was exactly what they needed.

5. Playing (being) the devil’s advocate

To look at something from the other perspective.

Ex1: I know you think this is a great idea, but I’m going to play the devil’s advocate. How about if we do it like this instead?
Ex2: Kevin is a great assistant. He helps me make good decisions by playing the devil’s advocate.

6. Hit the books

Start studying.

Ex1: If you want to pass the exam, you better hit the books!
Ex2: I can’t go to the concert. My mom wants me to hit the books.

7. Break a leg

Do a great job, good luck!

Ex1: Good luck on your interview – break a leg!
Ex2: Today is the competition? Break a leg!

8. Kick the bucket

To pass away, to die.

Ex1: Old man Thompson kicked the bucket last year.
Ex2: I can’t believe Julie kicked the bucket; she was only 39!

9. Scratch someone’s back

To help a person out, to do a favor.

Ex1: I need help moving. If you scratch my back, I’ll give you $20.
Ex2: I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. (I’ll help you if you help me)

10. Let the cat out of the bag

To accidentally share a big secret.

Ex1: It was supposed to be a surprise party but Judy let the cat out of the bag.
Ex2: Hey – don’t let the cat out of the bag – it’s a secret!

It will be easy to memorize these if you find ways to use them every day. Put them in your cell phone or write them down on a piece of paper and whenever you have a spare moment, take a look and try to come up with a different use. If you do that every day for a week, you’ll be golden (yeah that’s another idiom – “to be golden” means that everything will be perfect). Let us know how you like this post and if you want us to make some more.

By the way, once you’ve mastered the idioms here, there are tons more. Here’s a great site to see almost all of them. Break a leg!

If you want help improving your English, click here to read about Speak. They’re one of the top language schools in the city and they’re accepting new students now.

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In a former life, Mike was a corporate project manager in Canadian telecom. For the last 6 years, he has been traveling around Latin America, teaching English and writing. Mike now lives with his partner in beautiful Barranquilla.

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