Top 10 Most Common Idioms in English

You’re talking to your native English-speaking friend about your recent breakup and how depressed you are when suddenly he turns toward you and says “Don’t worry about it man, girls like that are a dime a dozen!” You then stare at your friend in confusion. You simply don’t understand why your good friend is comparing the girl that was once the love of your life to $1.20.

Actually “dime a dozen” doesn’t mean anything even remotely close to what the individual words in the phrase implies. For native speakers of English, a dime a dozen simply means that something is common and easy to obtain. Because we cannot figure out the meaning by examining the phrase alone, “dime a dozen” is what we call an idiom. As a non-native speaker of English, the best way to understand idioms is to memorize their meanings from the standpoint of a native speaker. We’ve listed the 10 most common idioms in English and their actual meanings.

1. Piece of cake – No, when someone says that the assignment they just finished was a piece of cake, it does not mean that their professor gave them a red velvet cupcake for their midterm paper, what piece of cake actually means is that something is very easy to complete.

2. Costs an arm and a leg – It would be a strange world we lived in if buying that fancy shiny purse literally required us to chop off our body parts to give as tribute to the Louis Vuitton gods. When something costs an arm and a leg it actually means that something is very expensive.

3. Break a leg – Oh, look, another idiom about legs. You’re about to take your dreaded calculus final and before you head into your classroom your roommate texts you, “Break a Leg!”  Why, you think in your head, would he ever wish that upon me? I thought we were cool with each other. Well, your roommate surely doesn’t want your bones to break while walking to your seat in the exam room that’s for sure. Break a leg actually means good luck!

4. Hit the books – If you’re a student in an English speaking environment you’re probably going to be hearing this phrase a lot. Before you imagine students running into their campus library and punching, kicking and wrestling apart the complete works of Shakespeare, we would just like to say that hit the books actually means to study. There there, you can still punch books in your spare time if you want, we won’t judge you.

5. Let the cat out of the bag – Why would someone put their cat in a bag? What did the cat ever do to them? Our last idiom actually means to disclose a secret that was supposed to be kept, well, as a secret.  The next time someone lets the cat out of the bag do not immediately pick up your phone and call animal cruelty control.

6. Hit the nail on the head – This idiom has to do with doing or saying something that is precisely right. If you don’t understand this, just think about that sweet feeling you get when you swing a hammer at a nail and hit it perfectly.

7. When pigs fly – So, have you ever seen a pig fly before? Never? Me neither. This idiom basically means that something will never happen, like fat little pink mammals soaring toward the sun!

8. You can’t judge a book by its cover – How many awesome books do you think you’ve never read in your life just because the cover did not catch your eye? This idiom does not only apply to books however, but can be used for everything in general. Essentially it means that you should not decide upon something based just on outward appearances.

9.  Bite off more than you can chew – Imagine your waiter brings you the biggest juiciest hamburger from your favorite American restaurant. In your hunger, you grab it quickly and take a giant bite out of it. Unfortunately, the bite you’ve taken is too big, and you end up looking like an idiot trying to shove this bite down your throat while drinking water and trying not to choke. That is the most literal sense of the meaning, but in general it just means to attempt to take on a task that is too much for you to handle.

10. Scratch someone’s back – We all know how difficult it is to scratch that itch on your back that your hand just aren’t flexible enough to reach, so why would you want to scratch some random person’s smelly back? Because if you do, they may eventually be willing to scratch your own smelly back when you need it! What this idiom means is to help someone out with the assumption that they will return the favor in the future!

That’s all for now, be sure to keep checking our blog for more idioms in the future! (No that wasn’t an idiom, seriously, check our blog out, and let the cat out of the bag!)

47 thoughts on “Top 10 Most Common Idioms in English

  1. Bethany says:

    I saw some of you were requesting sentences, so I thought I’d help out here.

    1. Piece of cake
    “How did your last final go?”
    “I was really worried, but it was actually a piece of cake!”

    2. Costs an arm and a leg
    “I was going to buy a new car, but it cost an arm and a leg”

    3. Break a leg
    “You’re performing in a play tonight? Well, break a leg!”

    4. Hit the books
    “If I want to do well on that test, I’m really going to have to hit the books.”

    5. Let the cat out of the bag
    “You told Claire about the surprise party? I can’t believe you let the cat out of the bag!”

    6. Hit the nail on the head
    “You seem angry”
    “Well, you really hit the nail on the head on that one!”

    7. When pigs fly
    “I’m going to be an astronaut.”
    “yeah. . . When pigs fly!”

    8. You can’t judge a book by its cover
    “She looks like such a snob”
    “Well, you can’t judge a book by its cover”

    9. Bite off more than you can chew
    “I’m getting really stressed out lately”
    “Well, don’t bite off more than you can chew”

    10. Scratch someone’s back
    “I knew I was going to get that promotion, I’ve been scratching her back for so long!”

  2. Cacy says:

    Good list of idioms and Bethany posted a good l list of examples. I just thought I’d mention that the most common way people use #10 is by saying some variation of: “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

    • Ross Cooper says:

      I was just about to post this same thing Cacy. I will just add, that often the second part of the idiom is omitted:

      Jack: ‘Okay, I’ll drive you to the airport, but only if you help me with my assignment.’
      Pete: ‘Do I have to?’
      Jack: ‘Of course. You scratch my back…’ (note: native speakers will often use a slightly higher pitch when they say it this way)

  3. Hakim says:

    I live in Ireland now and these are very common idioms . I Ike them so much
    Please more difficult next time

  4. muhieddin says:

    Well done. Very helpful. However, I think you could save yourself the trouble of the narration by just giving examples of usage. Thank you very much

  5. Sarah says:

    Soooooooooooooooo funnyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy
    thank u sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much
    I love this website its really Good for English
    thanks thanks thanks ;)))

  6. Idioms Collector says:

    Idioms are of various types and they arise regularly in all languages of the world. And if talk about it in English language in India, for students and learners its weird set of few words, which has quite different meaning than what is look like. This is the real trait of an idiom which makes it too difficult to understand. Students have to remember these all idioms; no one can judge its meaning just by reading its word combination. And there are more than 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the English language, so literally this is one of the biggest challenge to solve the idioms of English subject test papers here in India.

  7. Ross Cooper says:

    Here’s a very frequently used idiom I might add:

    ‘Does (exactly) what it says on the tin’

    It is used to mean something which delivers exactly what you would expect, no more, no less.

    Lisa: ‘You see that film “Cowboys Vs. Aliens”? Any good?’
    Jane: ‘Meh, it does what it says on the tin.’

    The origin of this one comes from a marketing slogan for a product named Ronseal: a brand of woodstain. People liked the ‘no frills’ approach to the advert, and the slogan entered idiomatic use.

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