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”).
Why do we use idioms?
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
Idioms used as part of a sentence
|A dime a dozen
|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
|Shelley’s designer bag costs an arm and a leg.
|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
|My project wasn’t ready in time, so the presentation went down in flames.
Idioms functioning as a complete sentence
|Break a leg
|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
|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
|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
|I’m glad we see eye to eye on this matter.
Idioms vs metaphors
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.
Idioms vs proverbs
Proverbs, however, are usually complete sentences that give general life advice.
Hyperbole vs idioms
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”).
Aphorisms vs idioms
Euphemisms vs idioms
Euphemisms are usually words or phrases and not full sentences. They are often used to avoid using offensive language.
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 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 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 a synonym for idiom?
There is no perfect synonym for the word idiom, but some close synonyms include:
- Figure of speech
- Turn of phrase