Improving Your English

Common idioms: The most popular idioms you need to know

This list of common idioms is a great place to start if you are looking for easy-to-understand expressions in English, together with meanings and examples.

Start by understanding what an English idiom is. Then take a look at this helpful list and use the links to explore topics of interest to you.

However, it’s worth remembering that common idioms will vary from one part of the world to another – and even between regions within a country. Sayings that are often used in one place may not be so common in a different geographic area, even though both populations speak English.

Here we have selected over 50 popular English idioms that are widely used in the UK, the US, and other English-speaking countries, so these are a great place to begin!

common idioms - an overhead view of paper question marks and a cup of coffee

Common idioms

An apple a day keeps the doctor away

This has to be one of the most popular English idioms, and one of the least confusing. The phrase An apple a day keeps the doctor away suggests that eating well or staying healthy (not necessarily only by eating apples) will help reduce your visits to the doctor.

“I always enjoy an apple for lunch as an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

But is this saying true?

Break the ice

In tense situations, sometimes everyone feels awkward about being the first to speak. Whoever does speak first is said to break the ice. They do or say something to make the others feel more at ease.

“Ok team, who wants to break the ice and get things started?”

It’s raining cats and dogs

This might be the most well-known idiom in English! It’s raining cats and dogs is probably one of the first idioms anyone will learn. Maybe the reason it’s used so much is because the British love to talk about the weather – and this expression means that it is raining very heavily.

“I am not going out today. It’s raining cats and dogs.”

There are many more rain-related idioms you might want to learn.

Get out of hand

With so many popular English idioms available, it may be hard to know which to choose. Some may say that all these phrases can get out of hand! This simply means to become unmanageable, chaotic, or difficult to control.

“If people keep drinking like this things will get our of hand!”
“I know a camping trip with 7 kids sounds crazy, but I’m sure you won’t let things get out of hand.”

Curiosity killed the cat

Common idioms for kids don’t come much better than this. Telling a child that curiosity killed the cat is a way of telling them (nicely) not to be so nosy or inquisitive. For example, they might be asking too many questions about Christmas gifts or days out.

“Stop looking around the house for Easter Eggs – remember curiosity killed the cat!”

A penny for your thoughts

The expression a penny for your thoughts is a cryptic way of just asking someone what they are thinking about. It’s often phrased as a question, even though grammatically it is not one.

“You’re very quiet today. A penny for your thoughts?”

Under the weather

If you feel unwell you could be said to be under the weather.

“I’ve been under the weather for about a week now.”

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

Some of these common idioms are actually proverbs; short expressions that offer advice about life.

When someone tells you that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, they mean that sometimes it is best to be thankful for what you have rather than risking it in the hope you will end up with something better.

“Don’t decline that university offer in the hope of being accepted somewhere else – remember a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Hang (on) in there

A fun and friendly way of telling someone to not give up hope and to keep on going is to tell them to hang in there.

“I know things are hard at the moment but hang in there.”

You may also hear hang on in there.

Back to the drawing board

There are plenty of common idioms that you will hear in work settings just like back to the drawing board. You’d use this when a plan of action hasn’t been successful and you need to come up with a new idea.

“We didn’t hit our targets with the new promotion idea, so let’s go back to the drawing board.”

Actions speak louder than words

There are a few versions of the expression actions speak louder than words, for example ‘your actions speak volumes’, but they all mean that what you do is more important than what you say.

“You say you love me, but actions speak louder than words.”

A piece of cake

Here’s another common idiom related to food. When people describe something as a piece of cake, it is (or was) very easy to do.

“That exam was a piece of cake.”

You can’t judge a book by its cover

Here’s a popular English idiom that is also a great life lesson. You should never judge a book by its cover as you can’t tell what someone (or a book) is like just by how they look on the outside.

“Matt seemed such a quiet person but it turns out he is in to axe throwing. I guess you really can’t judge a book by its cover.”

A dime a dozen

Although this list of famous idioms may be valuable to you, the term a dime a dozen describes something very common or with little or no value.

“YouTubers nowadays are a dime a dozen.”

Don’t get confused between the false opposites: valuable vs invaluable. They actually mean almost the same thing. If you want to describe something with no value, use ‘worthless’.

A stitch in time saves nine

Here’s one of the more unusual proverbs or popular idioms – A stitch in time saves nine. This life saying is telling you that taking care of something now will save you time and extra effort in the future.

On the other hand, if you leave the matter until it becomes worse, it will take more time to resolve later on.

“If I was you I’d get your car fixed before you have more issues with it. A stitch in time really does save nine.”

Better late than never

Hopefully, you’ll never have to use this saying if you’re invited to a party or miss a deadline. It’s a cheeky way of saying that it’s better to be late doing something than to not do it at all.

“I know my homework was due yesterday, but better late than never, right?”

We can use time idioms to talk about being early, being late, not having enough time, and more.

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Popular idioms and sayings

On thin ice

Some people may say you’re skating on thin ice, but whether it’s in a literal or idiomatic sense, it’s a risky situation to be in. As an idiom, it’s a warning that the person is likely to get into trouble if they continue what they are doing.

“Watch what you’re saying; you’re skating on thin ice talking about your manager that way.”
“You guys are on thin ice. If your behavior doesn’t improve, I’ll cancel our trip to the water park.”

A storm in a teacup

When there is a lot of fuss, outrage, or excitement over something quite unimportant or trivial, it would be described as a storm in a teacup.

“I know they lost the game but there was no need to react like that! A bit of a storm in a teacup if you ask me.”

You may not believe it, but there are plenty of other tea-related idioms that we use in English.

Come rain or shine

When you are determined that something will happen no matter the circumstances, you can say that it will proceed come rain or shine.

“Even with this power outage, I will finish my homework come rain or shine.”

Bigger fish to fry

A fun way to express that there are more important things happening or things to do is to say there are bigger fish to fry.

“Honestly, right now I have bigger fish to fry.”

Fish idioms cover a surprisingly wide variety of topics.

Rain check

In a social sense, a rain check is when you need to cancel or decline an invitation with the implication that it will be rescheduled for another day.

“I’m so sorry but we’re going to have to take a rain check tonight. The babysitter has canceled.”

Cut somebody some slack

When you slacken something you loosen it or relax it. To cut somebody some slack means that you relax the rules or don’t insist on enforcing them as strongly as you could.

This may be to allow someone the leeway to complete a task, or to let them off with a lighter-than-deserved punishment.

“Jenny has a newborn baby so cut her some slack if she needs to go home early today.”
“I know it was wrong for Duncan to do that, but it’s the first time he’s been in trouble, so cut him some slack.”

Break a leg

For some strange reason, it’s bad luck to wish someone good luck in a theatre. So people will use the phrase ‘break a leg‘ instead.

“I know your show is tomorrow, so break a leg.”

As right as rain

When you are as right as rain you are in good health.

“Lily was really ill last week, but she’s as right as rain now.”

Birds of a feather flock together

Birds of a feather flock together is a saying that observes that people who have similar hobbies or character traits will often form social circles together.

“Look at those guys getting along so well. It really is true that birds of a feather flock together.”

There are many other idioms about birds you can discover, too!

On cloud nine

When you’re on cloud nine you are feeling very very happy.

“I’ve been on cloud nine ever since we moved house.”

Don’t cry over spilled milk

Some may say don’t cry over spilled milk and others may say there’s no use crying over spilled milk. Either way, it means there is no use getting upset over someone that has already happened.

“Oh well! Nothing we can do now so there’s no use crying over spilled milk.”

This is a very helpful idiom about bad things happening.

Elephant in the room

An elephant in the room is an obvious problematic subject of conversation that should be spoken about but instead is avoided by everyone.

“The mistake in accounting is a bit of an elephant in the room, so don’t bring it up.”

Burn (your) bridges

When you burn your bridges you make it impossible to return things to how they were in a relationship. This includes situations like leaving a job on bad terms or ending a relationship and saying nasty things that hurt the other person.

“When I left my last company I really burnt my bridges so I doubt they’ll have me back.”

This is one of many idioms about fire and burning, and it’s interesting how many different topics they cover.

At the drop of a hat

People who do things at the drop of a hat take action at a moment’s notice. These kinds of spontaneous decisions can be good or bad, depending on how you look at the situation.

“He’s such a great guy. He’s there when I need him, even at the drop of a hat sometimes.”
“We can’t move house at the drop of a hat just because your company wants you to relocate.”

There are lots more idioms about making decisions – whether impulsive or well-planned – for you to discover.

Famous idioms -  a lightbulb on a black board with ideas coming out of it.

Famous idioms

Every dog has its day

Some of these common idioms can be used for motivation. When you need to encourage someone as they are going through a bad, troublesome period, remind them that every dog has its day. This means that everyone is happy, lucky, or successful at some point in their life.

“Don’t give up; every dog has its day.”

There are plenty more idioms to encourage positivity even in difficult situations.

When it rains, it pours

Sometimes in life, bad things seem to all happen at the same time or one after the other. This kind of situation can be described with the common expression when it rains, it pours.

“I have had such a string of bad luck lately. When it rains, it really pours.”

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch

Animal idioms are quite common in English, and here we have one about chickens! It’s important that you don’t count your chickens before they hatch as you should never be overly confident of success before it is confirmed.

“I know you think this horse is a sure thing, but don’t spend your winnings yet – don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

Spill the beans

To spill the beans is to tell the latest gossip or reveal a secret. This may be something that you do yourself, or that you ask someone else to do.

“Come on, spill the beans. How long have you two been dating?”

Chip off the old block

When talking about family resemblances, you could say that someone is a chip off the old block. This means that a child has the same characteristics, habits, interests, or looks as their parents.

“I can’t believe how similar they are – he’s a chip off the old block.”

It takes two to tango

Here’s a fun dancing idiom for you. When both parties (both people) in a disagreement need to take responsibility for their actions, the expression it takes two to tango reminds them that they are both responsible.

“I know he said some bad things, but it takes two to tango!”

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink

Here’s another common proverb to help guide your life. When you give someone an opportunity but they aren’t willing to take it, you might comment that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

“I helped him fill in the application form but he didn’t even post it. I guess you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”

Kill two birds with one stone

To kill two birds with one stone is a great phrase to understand. It simply means to achieve two things at the same time, or with one action.

“Right, if I collect the kids, I’ll also have time to pick up the shopping. I’ll kill two birds with one stone – perfect!”

Let the cat out of the bag

As you may have noticed, there are plenty of cat idioms in this list of famous idioms. To let the cat out of the bag is to reveal something private or secret, usually by accident.

“Oops, I totally let the cat out of the bag about the surprise party.”

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

Here’s another proverb hiding in our list of popular idioms! When someone reminds you not to put all your eggs in one basket, they mean that putting all your efforts and resources into one idea or venture may cause you to lose everything.

“I know you want to be an actor, but get a qualification too, as it’s never a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket.”

On the ball

People who are on the ball are up to date, aware of new things and changes, and show a high level of alertness.

“Talk to Lee in accounts. He’s on the ball when it comes to new policies.”

Saving for a rainy day

Saving for a rainy day is a great idea. This is the practice of saving a little money for a time when it is unexpectedly needed.

“Thankfully I’ve been saving for a rainy day, and now the boiler has broken, I’m glad I did.”

In fact, there are plenty of other weather-related idioms for you to enjoy.

More popular English idioms

The early bird gets/catches the worm

One of the stranger popular English Idioms – the early bird gets the worm – is about getting ahead and being successful.

This motivational saying suggests that if you are the first one to react, get to work, invest, or do something else before others, you will have a better chance of success.

“I’ve set my alarm for 5am tomorrow as the early bird gets the worm.”

Miss the boat

Although this sounds like a travel-themed idiom, it’s actually about missing an opportunity or taking advantage of something. Be sure you don’t miss the boat when it comes to understanding idioms!

“She totally missed the boat and didn’t get any tickets for the concert.”

Shape up or ship out

Shape up or ship out is a simple expression to understand. You either improve your performance or attitude or you’ll be fired/forced to leave a situation.

“It’s up to you. You either shape up or ship out. This school will not stand for this behaviour.”

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings

Although the saying should be that it isn’t over until the fat lady sings, you will often hear the nonstandard contraction ‘ain’t’ used in this phrase.

Where the phrase comes from is up for debate, but it’s a way of saying that you shouldn’t give up hope while there’s still a chance that things could change.

“Listen team, I know we are 10 points down but it ain’t over till the fat lady sings!”

There are plenty more fish in the sea

Sadly, this expression is normally used once a romantic relationship has come to an end. To encourage someone to start dating again, you can point out that there are plenty of other people available to choose from; There are plenty more fish in the sea.

“I’m glad you and Steve broke up. There are plenty more fish in the sea who will treat you better.”

There are lots of other relationship idioms you could use in similar situations.

Like the pot calling the kettle black

When someone is calling fault in another person but that fault could equally apply to them, they are like the pot calling the kettle black.

“Dave was complaining that Kevin is always making mistakes, but honestly it’s like the pot calling the kettle black.”

People (who live) in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones

People (who live) in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones – because it will break their own home. In other words, this house idiom suggests you should be careful about criticizing others as it may just highlight your own faults or harm you more than them.

“I can’t believe you said that about him – people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

It’s not rocket science

Rocket science is hard! So if something isn’t rocket science it means it is easy. Not brain surgery is another example of an easy idiom.

“Come on guys! It’s time to get ready and go out. Getting your shoes on isn’t rocket science!”

You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar

Many people would benefit from understanding the expression you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. It means you are more likely to achieve the results you want if you are kind to people rather than mean.

“If you need a favour, why don’t you try being nice? You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.”

Fit as a fiddle

When someone is feeling as fit as a fiddle they are in very good health.

“I was ill in bed all last week but now I feel as fit as a fiddle.”

This is one of many health-related idioms we use in English.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too

The expression you can’t have your cake and eat it too at first may not make sense. It actually refers to the idea that sometimes you can’t have two things at the same time. You either have a cake or you eat it, but once it’s eaten, you no longer have it!

“Wow, you really do ask for a lot! Just remember you can’t have your cake and eat it too!”

Well, there you have it: our extensive list of common idioms. If you’re learning English, understanding these will make a big difference.

We hope you find all our other idiom lists useful too. And of course, leave a comment or question below if you need further explanation or would like to add some more popular idioms to this list.


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