English Idioms

An idiom is a set expression that has a meaning different from the sum of the literal meanings of its components. For example, if you combine the literal meanings of the words “all, of, a, sudden” in the expression “all of a sudden”, you will not get the idiomatic meaning of this expression, which is “suddenly, unexpectedly”.


The English language is rich in idiomatic expressions. English idioms present a great variety of constructions and combinations which are mostly unchangeable and may not follow basic rules of grammar.


The meanings of some idioms can be easily understood (in general; come out; at first; the root of all evil); the meanings of other idioms cannot be understood from the meanings of their components (on end; pack it in; high and low; hard cash). Some idioms contain proper names (a Jack of all trades; Uncle Sam; meet one’s Waterloo); some other idioms are comparisons (as clear as a bell; as the crow flies). Proverbs and sayings may also have idiomatic character (every cloud has a silver lining; still waters run deep; it never rains but it pours).


Many phrasal verbs have literal and idiomatic meanings (break up; go ahead; put on; take off). Many other phrasal verbs have only idiomatic meanings (make out; speak up; dress up; show off).


In the section Idioms we offer lists of useful idiomatic expressions that are frequently used and are generally accepted as part of everyday speech. Short lists in this section include commonly used idiomatic expressions that you need to learn by heart and to use actively in your speech. Exercises in this section will help you to check your knowledge of idiomatic expressions.


Our advice on studying idioms can be found in Standard and Slang, Everyday Idioms Foreword, Phrasal Verbs Introduction and in the other articles of this section.


Books of idioms and other useful resources

Idioms in American Life by Julie Howard, 1987. For beginning and intermediate students. A good introductory book of frequently used everyday idioms, with definitions and numerous exercises. A useful index at the end of the book provides a list of idioms with synonyms, definitions and examples.


Essential Idioms in English, New Edition by Robert J. Dixson, 1994. The book lists common English idioms, with definitions, examples, and exercises in three sections: elementary, intermediate, and advanced.


English Idioms and How to Use Them by Jennifer Seidl and W. McMordie, 1978, 1988. A good reference book for intermediate and advanced students. Idioms are organized into chapters and explained, with a number of examples.


The Idiom Connection A large collection of idiomatic expressions organized both in topics and alphabetically, with definitions, examples and exercises.


English-Russian idioms by Natalya Belinsky. A large collection of idiomatic expressions in alphabetical order, with Russian translation.

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