Idioms are expressions that have a meaning that isn’t immediately obvious from the words themselves. Every language has them, and fluent speakers use them casually without even thinking about them. But for young students or those learning English as a second language, these phrases can be really confusing. Share these idiom examples with your students to deepen their understanding and use of American English idioms in no time flat!
We’ve put together a list of some of the most common English idioms, complete with meanings and examples. Try using them for Idiom of the Day lessons, posting them around the classroom, or creating an idiom examples bulletin board.
Get a free Google Slides deck of all 110 idioms to use with your students by filling out the form on this page.
Common Idioms for Kids and ESL Students
A fish out of water
Meaning: Someone in an uncomfortable position or situation
Example: It was Allison’s first day at her new school, and she felt like a fish out of water.
Add fuel to the fire
Meaning: To make things worse
Example: Celia added fuel to the fire by accusing the opposing team of cheating.
Add insult to injury
Meaning: Do something to make a bad situation worse
Example: Learning she failed her science test on the same day her best friend moved away added insult to injury.
All bark and no bite
Meaning: Full of big talk but not willing to take meaningful action
Example: Don’t be afraid of him when he gets mad. He’s all bark and no bite.
Meaning: Eager to listen to what someone has to say
Example: The class was all ears when Ms. Ali mentioned a way to earn extra credit on the test.
Ants in your pants
Meaning: Can’t sit still
Example: “Stop wriggling while I’m braiding your hair!” Kehlani’s mom said. “You have ants in your pants this morning.”
Meaning: Not at all
Example: When they heard about the pop quiz, the students were anything but excited.
Meaning: A person who causes trouble or is dishonest
Example: Most of the group were kind and honest, but a few bad eggs caused trouble for the rest.
Barking up the wrong tree
Meaning: To be looking for answers in the wrong place
Example: James thought Christopher was the one who broke the vase, but he was barking up the wrong tree.
Be a fly on the wall
Meaning: To watch something happen without anyone knowing you’re there
Example: Nico wished he could be a fly on the wall when his sister discovered the toad he’d left in her shoe!
Beat around the bush
Meaning: To avoid saying what you mean, often because it would be difficult or uncomfortable
Example: Don’t beat around the bush. Just tell me why you can’t come to my birthday party on Friday.
Meaning: To make something stronger
Example: My teacher recommended I beef up my essay with stronger examples to support my main point.
Bend over backward
Meaning: To try very hard to do something, even if it causes you problems
Example: I’ve been bending over backward to plan this party at the last minute.
Bigger fish to fry
Meaning: More important things to do
Example: Don’t waste my time with silly little things today. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
Bite the bullet
Meaning: To do something that’s uncomfortable or not fun and get it over with
Example: After putting it off for several days, Alex decided to bite the bullet and start work on the history project.
Blessing in disguise
Meaning: An apparently bad thing that turns out to be good in some way
Example: Dashaun was disappointed he couldn’t go to the party, but after everyone who attended got food poisoning, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Bone to pick
Meaning: To be angry at someone about something and want to talk about it
Example: I’ve got a bone to pick with you! You need to stop leaving your junk all over my desk.
Bread and butter
Meaning: A person’s main source of income
Example: Khalil loves playing with his band on the weekends, but giving guitar and piano lessons is his bread and butter.
Break a leg
Meaning: Good luck! Often used in the theater before a play or performance.
Example: Is your piano recital tonight? Well, break a leg!
Break the ice
Meaning: To do or say something that will make people feel more comfortable
Example: OK, since none of us have met before, let’s introduce ourselves and break the ice by sharing our favorite ice cream flavor.
Burn your bridges
Meaning: To do something that makes it impossible to return to the way things were before
Example: If you insult your boss when you resign, you’ll burn your bridges with that company.
Meaning: To flatter or praise someone to get their help or support
Example: Malik is being really nice to me all of a sudden. I think he’s trying to butter me up and get me to vote for him for class president.
Call it a day
Meaning: To stop working on something and plan to pick it up again later
Example: After working for three hours on her science fair project, Sofia decided to call it a day.
Change of heart
Meaning: To change your opinion about something
Example: Ms. Ramirez used to be opposed to allowing dogs at school, but she’s had a change of heart.
Cherry on top
Meaning: To make something that is already good even better
Example: We won free tickets to the concert, but the cherry on top was learning we’d also won backstage passes!
Meaning: To be too afraid to do something
Example: She stood on the high diving board for almost 10 minutes, but in the end Dionne chickened out and came back down the ladder instead of jumping.
Chip off the old block
Meaning: A person who is similar to a parent in some way
Example: Kayden loves to play chess as much as his dad does. He’s a real chip off the old block.
Cool as a cucumber
Meaning: Calm and serene, often in a difficult situation
Example: While everyone else panicked about the pop quiz, Inez was cool as a cucumber.
Costs an arm and a leg
Meaning: To describe something that is very expensive
Example: A new PlayStation costs an arm and a leg, so you’d better start saving now if you want to buy one.
Crack a window
Meaning: Open a window slightly
Example: It’s so stuffy in here. Can someone please crack a window for some fresh air?
Cream of the crop
Meaning: The very best of a group
Example: Everyone knows that Harvard and Yale only accept the cream of the crop.
Cross your fingers
Meaning: To wish someone luck or hope for something to happen
Example: Headed to your audition? I’ll cross my fingers that you get the part you want!
Cry over spilled milk
Meaning: To feel sorry over something that has already happened, even though it’s not helpful
Example: It’s too bad you broke your phone, but there’s no use crying over spilled milk.
Meaning: To lie about something to get attention or help
Example: If you keep crying wolf, no one will believe you when you’re really hurt.
Cut somebody some slack
Meaning: To ease up on someone, to allow them some leeway or another chance
Example: Even though Jake was late with his English essay, Ms. Davis decided to cut him some slack since she knew he’d had the stomach flu.
Meaning: To do something quickly and badly in order to save time or money
Example: Liza cut corners on her math homework so she could watch TV and ended up getting most of the answers wrong.
Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
Meaning: Don’t depend on something before it happens
Example: I know you’re sure you’re going to get the lead in the spring play, but don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
Drag your feet
Meaning: To be reluctant to do something
Example: Rohan knew he needed to start his research paper, but he just kept dragging his feet.
Draw a blank
Meaning: To fail to remember something
Example: Keiko studied hard for the test, but when it came time to answer the question, she drew a blank.
Drop the ball
Meaning: To make a mistake
Example: Aisha said she’d make the poster for our project, but she forgot. She really dropped the ball on this one.
Meaning: Close or careful watch on something
Example: Ever since I broke a glass, my parents keep an eagle eye on me when I’m washing dishes.
Ear to the ground
Meaning: To be well informed or try to learn more about events
Example: Keep your ear to the ground and see if you can learn more about their plan.
Every cloud has a silver lining
Meaning: No matter how bad something seems, there’s usually a good side to it as well
Example: Jamal was disappointed that his soccer game was canceled, but it gave him time to go to the movies with his friends, and his mom pointed out that every cloud has a silver lining.
For the birds
Meaning: Worthless or no good
Example: Those cheap pens are for the birds; they barely work at all.
Get off my back
Meaning: Used to ask someone to stop bugging you about something
Example: I told you I’d mow the lawn this weekend—now get off my back!
Get out of hand
Meaning: To become difficult to control
Example: Ms. Rodriguez told her students they could chat while they worked, as long as the noise level didn’t get out of hand.
Get something out of your system
Meaning: Do the thing you’ve been wanting to do so you can move on
Example: Mr. Patel knew his students were eager to try out the new playground equipment, so he told them to go ahead and get it out of their system before they started class.
Get your act together
Meaning: Behave properly, or organize your thoughts so you can do something successfully
Example: After the third time he was late to class, Connor’s teacher told him he needed to get his act together and start showing up on time.
Get your ducks in a row
Meaning: To get things organized or make plans
Example: I have so many things to get done today! I need to get my ducks in a row before I get started.
Get your feet wet
Meaning: To take a small step in an effort to learn or do something new
Example: Before joining the cross-country team, Melanie got her feet wet by running a few local 5K races.
Give it a whirl
Meaning: To try something
Example: I’ve never made a cake from scratch, but I’m willing to give it a whirl.
Give someone the benefit of the doubt
Meaning: To trust what someone says, even if you’re not entirely sure what they’re saying is true
Example: Charlotte wasn’t sure Amelia was really late because she missed the bus, but decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Give someone the cold shoulder
Meaning: To ignore someone, usually because you’re upset or angry with them
Example: Will and Jessica were mad at Emma, so they decided to give her the cold shoulder until she apologized.
Go back to the drawing board
Meaning: To start something over again with a completely new idea
Example: When her science experiment failed completely, Hailey knew it was time to go back to the drawing board.
Go the extra mile
Meaning: To do more than you’re required to do
Example: Minh went the extra mile and really impressed the selection committee.
Meaning: A reaction based on an emotional response instead of reason
Example: I want this project to work out, but I’ve got a gut feeling we’re doing things the wrong way.
Hang in there
Meaning: Don’t give up, keep on trying
Example: “I’m sorry you’re having a rough day,” Lucas told Olivia. “Hang in there. I’m sure things will be better tomorrow.”
Happy as a clam
Meaning: Very content with a situation
Example: Give her a book, some hot chocolate, and a warm blanket, and she’s happy as a clam.
Meaning: Something that might be good sometimes and bad other times
Example: Anna was a bit hit-or-miss when it came to remembering to take out the trash on Thursdays.
Hit the sack/hit the hay
Meaning: To go to bed
Example: “Nine o’clock!” said Mia’s dad. “It’s time to turn off the TV and hit the sack.”
Hold your horses
Meaning: Slow down, stop and think about what you’re doing
Example: “Hold your horses!” their dad said. “You can’t go swimming until you put on sunscreen.”
Hook, line, and sinker
Meaning: Completely tricked or deceived
Example: I told my teacher the dog ate my homework, and she fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
In the same boat
Meaning: To be in the same bad situation as other people
Example: We’re all in the same boat here; let’s help each other out and fix the problem.
It’s not rocket science
Meaning: Used to describe something that isn’t complicated or difficult
Example: All you have to do is put the books back on the right shelf. It’s not rocket science!
It’s raining cats and dogs
Meaning: To rain very hard
Example: I hope you brought your umbrella. It’s raining cats and dogs out there!
Let someone off the hook
Meaning: To not hold someone responsible for something
Example: Logan was caught running in the hallway, but Ms. Walker let him off the hook because she knew he was late for the bus.
Miss the boat
Meaning: To be too late for something that’s already started or is over
Example: Sarah wanted to join the lacrosse team, but she was too late to sign up and missed the boat.
On cloud nine
Meaning: Extremely happy about something
Example: When Wyatt learned he’d gotten a perfect score on both his math and science tests, he was on cloud nine for the rest of the day.
On the ball
Meaning: To be quick and alert, dealing with things right away
Example: Alice got all her homework done and practiced her clarinet before dinner. She’s really on the ball today!
On the same page
Meaning: To agree with someone
Example: I think you and I are on the same page; we both agree that recycling is important.
On thin ice
Meaning: In a risky situation or position
Example: When Mrs. Chen had to ask Ava and Noah to stop talking for the fourth time that day, she warned them both that they were on thin ice.
Out of the blue
Meaning: Suddenly and without warning
Example: Everything was going fine when out of the blue, Joey said they were really mad about something.
Out on a limb
Meaning: To take a risk for someone or something
Example: I’m going to go out on a limb and give them the extra funding they’re asking for.
Piece of cake
Meaning: Extremely easy
Example: Putting the new desk together was a piece of cake.
Meaning: To eat a whole lot all at once
Example: Come over for dinner and we’ll pig out on pizza and ice cream.
Play it by ear
Meaning: To figure things out as you go
Example: We didn’t get a schedule in advance, so we’ll just have to play it by ear as the day goes along.
Pleased as punch
Meaning: Extremely happy about something
Example: Tia is pleased as punch about going to Hawaii for spring break.
Pull someone’s leg
Meaning: To tease someone or try to fool them
Example: No, the cafeteria isn’t really giving away free ice cream. I was just pulling your leg!
Pull yourself together
Meaning: To calm yourself down when you’re very upset
Example: I know you’re upset that your team lost the game, but you need to pull yourself together and go congratulate the winners.
Run in circles
Meaning: To try very hard but have little or no success
Example: We’re just running in circles here; we need a plan before we do any more work.
Meaning: A fresh burst of energy
Example: Quinn thought she was too tired to go to the party after playing soccer all afternoon, but then she got a second wind.
See eye to eye
Meaning: Agree with someone about something
Example: No matter how long they argued, they couldn’t seem to see eye to eye about painting the room orange.
Sell like hotcakes
Meaning: To sell quickly and in large amounts
Example: The latest iPhone model is selling like hotcakes!
Sleep like a log
Meaning: Sleep very soundly without waking
Example: After a long day at the beach, Jayma slept like a log that night.
Slip your mind
Meaning: To forget something
Example: I meant to do the laundry, but it totally slipped my mind.
Spill the beans
Meaning: To give away a secret
Example: Isabella’s surprise party was ruined when Sarah spilled the beans a few days before.
Start off on the wrong foot
Meaning: To start a relationship or activity badly
Example: After starting off on the wrong foot, Robin and Hayden finally figured out how to work together.
Take a rain check
Meaning: To postpone a plan until another time
Example: I’d love to play basketball after school, but I’ve got to go home to mow the lawn. Can I take a rain check?
The ball is in your court
Meaning: The decision or next step is up to you
Example: Nick’s mom told him he could either join the basketball team or sign up for karate class, so he had to choose one. “The ball is in your court,” she said.
The early bird gets the worm
Meaning: Those who arrive first have the best chance for success or receive the best things
Example: Grayson and Jayden showed up to find the best seats in the room already taken. “The early bird gets the worm!” said Maya with a grin.
The elephant in the room
Meaning: A large, obvious issue or problem that people are avoiding mentioning or dealing with
Example: After waiting for Joseph to explain his bright-green hair all through dinner, his mom finally decided it was time to address the elephant in the room.
The icing on the cake
Meaning: Something that makes a good situation even better
Example: The band was excited to learn they’d earned a place in the regional competition. Finding out it would take place at Disney World was the icing on the cake.
The last straw
Meaning: The last in a series of events that causes someone to run out of patience
Example: “That’s the last straw!” said Elena after her little brother’s ball landed in her cereal bowl. “Go play outside!”
The whole nine yards
Meaning: Everything, all the way
Example: Grace and Nora went the whole nine yards to make sure Hannah’s birthday party was really special.
Think on your feet
Meaning: To react quickly in a tricky or fast-moving situation
Example: Dani excels at basketball because she’s so good at thinking on her feet.
Through thick and thin
Meaning: When things are good and also when they’re bad
Example: Sophie and Chloe had been best friends since first grade, sticking together through thick and thin.
Time flies when you’re having fun
Meaning: When you’re having a good time, you don’t notice how quickly the time is passing
Example: “Recess is over already?” said Ben. “I guess time flies when you’re having fun!”
To get bent out of shape
Meaning: To get upset about something
Example: I didn’t mean to step on your foot—there’s no need to get bent out of shape about it.
To make a long story short
Meaning: To give the basic facts about something instead of a long explanation
Example: To make a long story short, Liam tripped over his shoelace and that’s how he broke his wrist.
Under the table
Meaning: To do something secretly, often used to refer to working for pay unofficially (and illegally)
Example: Gabi knew she shouldn’t, but she took a job working under the table so she didn’t have to worry about paying taxes.
Under the weather
Meaning: To be sick
Example: Miguel won’t be at the Scout meeting today because he’s feeling a little under the weather.
Up in arms
Meaning: Very angry about something
Example: When they heard the plans to cut down the old oak tree, the townspeople were up in arms.
Up in the air
Meaning: Uncertain or unsettled
Example: Until we know if it’s going to rain or not, our weekend plans are up in the air.
We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it
Meaning: If that problem comes up, we’ll deal with it then, not right now
Example: We might have a snow day on Monday, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
When pigs fly
Meaning: Something that will probably never happen
Example: Would I ever go sky-diving? When pigs fly!
Wild goose chase
Meaning: A senseless or hopeless attempt to do something
Example: They looked all over for a copy of the new video game, but in the end it turned out to be a wild goose chase.
Wrap your head around something
Meaning: To understand something complicated or surprising
Example: It’s hard to wrap your head around just how big the universe is.
You can say that again
Meaning: I completely agree with what you just said
Example: “This pizza is the best food I ever ate!” exclaimed Mateo. “You can say that again!” Dylan agreed.
Your guess is as good as mine
Meaning: When you have no idea what the answer is to a question or problem
Example: “Do you know how to solve number four in our math homework?” Maria asked. “Your guess is as good as mine,” David replied, shrugging his shoulders.
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