Improving Your English

Idioms about bad things happening and bad situations (with examples)

Life doesn’t always go as planned, so it’s no wonder there are plenty of English idioms about bad things happening.

Some of these idioms are used to describe a choice or feelings; others are useful for offering advice to people in a tough situation. To ensure you don’t use the wrong one in the wrong situation and cause even more upset, we have included definitions and example sentences with all of these expressions about bad things happening.

Idioms about bad things happening

At your wit’s end

If you’re feeling perplexed and unsure of what to do next, or perhaps you are confused and exhausted by an issue or difficult situation, you can express this by saying you are at your wit’s end.

“I have no idea what to do with the kids. I’m at my wit’s end with them.”

Interestingly, this is one of the English idioms from the Bible.

Bad taste in your mouth

It’s important to remember that with this idiom about bad things happening, there is no actual bad taste in your mouth. You just use it when you have had an experience that left you feeling unhappy, dissatisfied or displeased. A great example of this would be bad customer service.

“I wasn’t impressed with how the staff spoke to us. It’s left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.”

Bite the bullet

When you bite the bullet, you do something that you would prefer not to do. It’s likely something you have been putting off because it is uncomfortable to do, but you realize that you must just get on with it.

“I’m going to have to bite the bullet and admit my mistake.”

Perhaps this saying is taken from war times when soldiers would bite down on a bullet if they were in pain while receiving medical help without painkillers.

Catch 22

Catch 22 is an interesting expression. People say this to describe a situation, problem or task in which there is no obvious solution because of illogical, contradictory or paradoxical rules or conditions.

It’s often the case that each solution is dependent on another, and therefore neither one is possible to achieve.

For example, you can’t get a job without work experience BUT you can’t get work experience without a job.

“This is a bit of a Catch 22. No matter what I do, it’s not going to work out for me.”

This term to describe a difficult situation originates from the 1961 novel of the same name by Joseph Heller. You may be more familiar with the 2019 comedy miniseries based on the novel, though.

Chin up

Although this sounds similar to the saying ‘stiff upper lip’, to keep your chin up is more of an American English phrase. It’s telling you to remain strong and keep on trying in hard or scary times. It can also be an instruction to act confident and hold your head up high.

“I know that you didn’t make a great first impression, but chin up, let’s see what happens tomorrow.”

This list of idioms about bad things happening mentions your chin, lip, mouth and legs. There are plenty of other body part idioms if you need more to look through.

Clutching / grasping at straws

When you’re in a bad situation but you keep thinking of increasingly desperate ways to improve the situation, some people might say you are clutching at straws. Even though it’s very unlikely your efforts will succeed, you keep pushing ahead.

This idiom can also refer to someone being overly optimistic even though there is nothing really left to hope for in a particular situation.

“Ok, I think you’re clutching at straws with that argument.”
“I told myself that maybe he had just lost his phone, but really I was clutching at straws. Turns out he wasn’t interested in me.”

Dodge a/the bullet

The dodged bullet in this phrase isn’t a physical one. It represents bad news, injury, disaster or another unwanted situation that you manage to avoid (perhaps with a little luck on your side).

If someone says you dodged a/the bullet, it probably means they expected the bad thing to happen, but fortunately it didn’t.

“I was so lucky. I really dodged the bullet on that one.”

Down in the dumps

Down in the dumps is a simple phrase to describe a state of sadness, dejection or gloominess.

“I’ve been feeling a bit down in the dumps since our team lost.”

Check out some more idioms to describe sadness.

Face the music

Could this be one of the idioms about bad things happening with a more positive twist? It depends how you look at it. When you face the music you are taking responsibility for a situation and accepting the (perhaps negative) consequences.

“I think it’s time I face the music and admit what happened.”

There is also a longer version of this phrase: face the music and dance – read more about this and other music idioms.

You may hear a similar saying, let’s face it, which is a request to be realistic about an unwelcome fact or situation. You could also adapt it to say it’s time to face facts, which again means to stop ignoring something bad.

It never rains but it pours

It never rains but it pours is a proverb about how bad things, bad luck or difficult situations seem to follow each other in quick succession. They may even arrive all at the same time.

“I’ve really had some bad luck recently. It seems like it never rains but it pours.”

You may hear an alternative version of this rain idiom: When it rains, it pours.

There are many more idioms about luck (both good and bad) in English.

Out of the woods

Some idioms about bad things happening are really useful to know. The ‘woods’ in this phrase refers to danger or difficult times.

Be sure to check whether someone is saying that you are out of the woods (meaning out of danger or difficulty) or, perhaps more commonly, not out of the woods yet (meaning danger or difficulty still lies ahead).

“Sadly team, we are not out of the woods yet.”
“It seems we are out of the woods financially, but not emotionally.”

On its last legs

Here is one of the most common idioms about bad situations, although its meaning is a little sad. To talk about something being on its last legs is to say that it is in bad condition and likely to break or fail soon.

“The garage just called and said that the car is on its last legs.”

You may also describe an animal in this way if it is very ill or old and likely to die soon. Although you could say this about a person, it wouldn’t be very kind and there are more appropriate idioms about death to use.

More idioms for bad situations

On the line

This is one of the more serious idioms about bad things happening. If something is on the line, it means that there is a risk of you losing it or messing it up. This could apply to your life, your job, an opportunity, your marriage, your education, and so on.

“This is such an important test. Everything is on the line.”
“He put his life on the line to save a stranger from a burning building.”

This expression does have a less serious meaning too, related to phone calls.

On the rocks

This phrase is commonly used to describe a marriage or business relationship. A relationship that is on the rocks is experiencing problems and is likely to fail unless action is taken to improve it.

“Sadly their marriage has been on the rocks for a while now.”

We have plenty more relationship idioms here for you to check out.

Sinking feeling

Have you ever had a sensation that something bad has happened or is about to happen? Perhaps a premonition of dread or worry? Well, out of all the idioms about bad situations, a sinking feeling best describes this sensation.

“I have a bit of a sinking feeling about this.”
“I got a sinking feeling as soon as I saw the look on his face.”

Prevention is better than cure

Prevention is better than cure is a great attitude to apply to most aspects of life. This advice means that it’s better to stop a problem before it happens than to have to fix it afterward.

The words ‘prevention’ and ‘cure’ often apply to health, and although this can be used as a health-related idiom, it can also apply to all kinds of other situations.

“Remember to brush your teeth twice a day. After all, prevention is better than cure.”
“Prevention is better than cure, so I always get my car serviced when it’s due.”

Stiff upper lip

This British idiom about bad things happening may get confused with the American saying ‘chin up’. However, the meaning is slightly different. To have a stiff upper lip is to be stoic and not show your feelings even when you are upset or things are not going well.

“I know things seem bad right now, but let’s all keep a stiff upper lip.”

Some believe this phrase comes from when British Army officers kept a tidy, straight-looking, stiff mustache during war times. Or perhaps it is to do with keeping your mouth neutral and not allowing your lips to shake like they do when you cry. What do you think?

The tip of the iceberg

When people refer to the tip of the iceberg they are saying that although you are aware of part of a problem or bad situation, there may be much more to it than you realize.

This idiom comes from the fact that around 90% of an iceberg’s volume is underwater while only the tip is visible.

“I thought I knew what the problem was, but that turned out to only be the tip of the iceberg.”

Ups and downs

The phrase ups and downs refers to the good and bad things that happen in life; the positive and the negative in the things we experience. This could apply to wealth, personal experiences, health, or even business ventures.

“My new job is going ok, but it has its ups and downs.”
“A strong marriage will carry you through life’s ups and downs.”

Hopefully, you won’t need to use too many of these idioms about bad things happening. If you do, please leave a comment and let us know how they came up in conversation. If you want to focus more on the positive than the negative side of life, take a look at some good idioms next.

You might also find it helpful to know some idioms about stress and worry so you can convey your feelings clearly when bad situations do occur.

Do you want to be more confident using English? Why not try Grammarly's free proofreading tool. It checks as you write and helps you correct and improve your spelling and grammar.

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