What Are Idioms? │ Definition & Examples

An idiom is an expression that uses figurative language to convey a meaning different from the individual words’ literal meaning.

Idioms can either stand on their own as complete phrases/sentences (e.g., “Time flies when you’re having fun”) or as one part of a larger sentence (e.g., “on thin ice”).

Idiom examples
The best friends had been there for each other through thick and thin.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

I’ll take a rain check on our lunch today as I’m not feeling well.

Why do we use idioms?

Idioms are primarily used to emphasize a point or an idea that we’re trying to communicate. Instead of saying, “Things will get better,” you might say, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Both sentences mean the same thing, but the second option is more engaging because it offers a visual contrast. A reader is more likely to remember the sentiment if sensory words are employed.

Idioms are also used to make our language more interesting and playful. While idioms are often used to emphasize an idea, sometimes it’s just more fun to say “Don’t beat a dead horse” than “Stop talking about the same idea over and over.”

Common idioms in English

There are thousands of idioms in the English language, but some are used more than others and have become a normal part of our day-to-day communication.

Idioms used as part of a sentence

These idioms cannot stand on their own as full sentences; however, they are used within sentences to emphasize a point.

Idiom Meaning Example
A dime a dozen Common Those shoes are a dime a dozen.
Hit the sack Go to sleep I’m going to hit the sack after dinner.
The best of both worlds Benefits of two things and no disadvantages She has the best of both worlds living in the country and working in the city.
Bite off more than you can chew Take on more responsibility than you can handle Don’t bite off more than you can chew by getting a puppy after your baby is born.
Costs an arm and a leg Is expensive Shelley’s designer bag costs an arm and a leg.
Cut corners Do something poorly to save time/money They cut corners with the spring musical to stay within budget.
As right as rain To feel well or healthy After her treatment, Sally felt as right as rain.
(Like) two peas in a pod Two things that are similar The twins are two peas in a pod.
Through thick and thin Through good and bad He stood by his wife through thick and thin.
Go down in flames To fail My project wasn’t ready in time, so the presentation went down in flames.

Idioms functioning as a complete sentence

These idioms function as complete sentences on their own. However, they can also be used as a part of a sentence, particularly in compound sentences.

Idiom Meaning Example
Break a leg Good luck Break a leg in your performance tonight.
Hang in there Don’t give up Hang in there; it will get better.
Time flies when you’re having fun You don’t notice how quickly time passes while you’re enjoying yourself I’ve been here for three hours; time flies when you’re having fun.
You can say that again I agree Right, you can say that again.
Actions speak louder than words What people do is more important than what they say they will do Never mind what he said; actions speak louder than words.
Don’t quit your day job You’re not good at this I know you enjoy painting, but don’t quit your day job.
It’s a piece of cake It’s easy Riding a bike is a piece of cake.
There are other fish in the sea There are other opportunities available Don’t worry about the interview; there are other fish in the sea.
You’re off your rocker You are crazy The referee is off his rocker.
See eye to eye To agree I’m glad we see eye to eye on this matter.

Idioms vs metaphors

Metaphors are a type of literary device that compares two dissimilar things, typically by using a form of the verb “be” (e.g. “My sister is a ray of sunshine”). Idioms, on the other hand, are more broadly defined as common expressions that use non-literal language to convey a meaning.

As idioms can also be used to make comparisons, idioms and metaphors sometimes overlap. For example, describing something as “a piece of cake” is both a metaphor and an idiom. Some idioms might use implied metaphors that don’t explicitly say that something is something else (e.g., “bite off more than you can chew”).

One of the key distinctions between idioms and metaphors is that idioms are always fixed expressions, while metaphors do not need to be.

Metaphor examples
Her voice was music to my ears.

You are a chicken for not watching the scary movie.

This is the icing on the cake.

Idioms vs proverbs

Idioms and proverbs are very similar; they both employ figurative language to convey an idea in an oftentimes poetic way.

Proverbs, however, are usually complete sentences that give general life advice.

Proverb examples
Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

If you want something done right, you must do it yourself.

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

Hyperbole vs idioms

A hyperbole is an obvious exaggeration of something, while an idiom is a common phrase that might not be understood at first glance.

While both idioms and hyperbole are used to emphasize a point, a sentence that contains hyperbole is likely to be understood without further explanation (e.g., “I’m drowning in responsibility”), while an idiom might not make sense unless you understand the context (e.g., “I’ve bit off more than I can chew”).

Idioms are also popular fixed phrases that everyone uses the same (e.g. “A dime a dozen”). Hyperbole can overlap with idioms (e.g., “It’s raining cats and dogs”), but not all examples of hyperbole are fixed expressions; rather, people can come up with their own ways of exaggerating and using hyperbole (e.g. “My grandma is a thousand years old”).

Hyperbole examples
I haven’t seen my brother in a million years.

This new schedule is killing me.

I’ll never sleep again after watching that scary movie.

Aphorisms vs idioms

Idioms employ figurative language to emphasize a point, and aphorisms are short phrases that are used to impart wisdom.

Aphorism examples 
All is fair in love and war.

Speak softly and carry a big stick.

All you need is love.

Euphemisms vs idioms

Euphemisms employ figurative language to convey unpleasant ideas with pleasant-sounding language. They are used for more specific purposes, like neutralizing harsh language and making taboo subjects more palatable, whereas idioms are just more creative ways of saying things.

Euphemisms are usually words or phrases and not full sentences. They are often used to avoid using offensive language.

Euphemism examples
Grandma is in a better place now. [i.e., Grandma died]

Randy is unique looking. [i.e., Randy is ugly]

Adult beverages will be served at the party. [i.e., the party will have alcohol]

Frequently asked questions about idioms

What are examples of common idioms?

We use many idioms in our everyday language. Some examples of common idioms include “The early bird gets the worm,” “Curiosity killed the cat,” and “It’s raining cats and dogs.” They make language more playful and are used to emphasize the things we are saying.

How are idioms used in English?

Idioms are used to emphasize an idea or point in a more colorful way than literal language (e.g., “After her nap, the child got a second wind”). In this case, “got a second wind” is synonymous with “gained more energy.”

What is the difference between an idiom and a metaphor?

An idiom is a popular fixed phrase that describes a thing or situation (e.g., “Slow and steady wins the race”).

A metaphor is a statement that directly compares two dissimilar things or situations (e.g., “All the world’s a stage”).

An idiom can be a metaphor, but not all idioms are metaphors.

What is the difference between an idiom and an aphorism?

An idiom employs figurative language to make a point (e.g., “It’s a piece of cake”). Idioms can be used in a variety of contexts.

An aphorism is a short phrase used to impart wisdom. Some aphorisms may use figurative language also. But this is not always the case (e.g., “You can’t always get what you want”).

What is a synonym for idiom?

There is no perfect synonym for the word “idiom,” but some close synonyms include:

  • Expression
  • Figure of speech
  • Turn of phrase
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