Idioms in English: Easy, Intermediate, and Advanced

Early bird representing idioms in English

Learning idioms in English is a necessary and important step toward becoming fluent. Native speakers use idioms, sayings, expressions, and proverbs all the time in their English vocabulary. Without knowing their true meaning, a non-native speaker might feel left in the dark. Thankfully, some easier idioms have context clues that point to their underlying message.

In order to better understand idioms and their importance in your IELTS vocabulary journey, let’s take a look at 30 common idioms that you are likely to encounter in English. This list will be divided into easy, intermediate, and difficult idioms. Additionally, we will provide sample sentences so that you can start using these phrases in your own conversations!

What exactly are idioms in English?

Idioms in English are phrases with an established meaning that differs from the literal meaning of the words. Much like metaphors, idioms use terms and imagery that are seemingly unrelated to their intended meaning. However, metaphors differ somewhat from English idioms; idioms are phrases that are commonly known and used by English speakers, which is not necessarily the case with metaphors.

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To get a better idea of what English idioms are like, check out this video with some examples of idioms used at work.

10 Easy English Idioms with Example Sentences

These idioms are easy because it is possible to extract their meaning without a definition. Additionally, these phrases use relatively simple vocabulary that is easy to remember. So, here are 10 easy English idioms, their meanings, and example sentences:

English Idiom Meaning Example Sentence
Better late than never It is better to arrive late than to never arrive at all. He was 20 minutes late to the rehearsal, but better late than never.
It’s not rocket science An activity is easy to understand (unlike rocket science, which is very complex) Soccer has really simple rules. It’s not rocket science.
Make a long story short To explain something quickly or to summarize (to literally shorten a long story) I had a terrible day yesterday. To make a long story short, I got locked out of my house and arrived late to work.
No pain, no gain You must work hard to succeed (commonly refers to exercise) If you want to lose weight, you’ll need to start going for a run every morning. Remember: no pain, no gain.
Time flies when you’re having fun It feels like time moves more quickly when you’re doing something you enjoy Last night I went to a really great party, but it ended way too soon. I guess time flies when you’re having fun.
That ship has sailed It is too late (a missed opportunity) I would love to go back to college, but unfortunately, that ship has sailed.
Kill two birds with one stone Accomplish two tasks with one action If I listen to American music to learn English while I do my math homework, I can kill two birds with one stone!
You can’t judge a book by its cover Don’t make judgments based on someone’s appearance He may not be good-looking, but he is a really nice person. You can’t judge a book by its cover.
Barking up the wrong tree Looking for something in the wrong place The crime was committed by a man, so the police were barking up the wrong tree when they questioned the woman.
Bite off more than you can chew Take on more work than you can handle I don’t know why you volunteered to finish the project by tomorrow. I think you bit off more than you could chew.

10 Intermediate English Idioms with Example Sentences

These English idioms are a little more difficult because they use more complex vocabulary. In some cases, you may not be able to figure out what they mean without further explanation or context. So, here are 10 intermediate English idioms, their meanings, and example sentences:

English Idiom Meaning Example Sentence
Ignorance is bliss Sometimes you’re better off not knowing something I wish you hadn’t told me that. Ignorance is bliss.
Live and learn To make mistakes and learn from them Nobody’s perfect, and we all have to live and learn.
Rain on my parade To ruin a good thing for someone It’s my birthday and you’re being really grumpy. Don’t rain on my parade!
In the heat of the moment Overwhelmed by a situation I said something really mean in the heat of the moment.
There are plenty of fish in the sea There are many other opportunities available (often refers to romantic partners) I know you’re sad that your girlfriend broke up with you, but there are plenty of fish in the sea.
Back to the drawing board Start over All of my equations were wrong, so I guess I need to go back to the drawing board.
Hang in there Don’t give up I know that school is hard now, but you just need to hang in there for a little while longer.
So far, so good The situation has been good and continues to be good I’ve only been at college for a month, but so far, so good.
The best of both worlds Benefits from two different things at the same time I celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, so I get the best of both worlds.
See eye to eye To agree My wife and I used to argue about everything, but now we see eye to eye.
When pigs fly Refers to a time that will never come; something that will never happen (because pigs will never be able to fly) I will apologize to her when pigs fly.
To cost an arm and a leg To be very expensive His new house cost an arm and a leg!
To cut corners To finish something quickly and without following the standard procedures, often resulting in low quality work The engineer decided to cut corners with his design, and now the dam is about to collapse!
Add insult to injury Make a bad situation even worse To add insult to injury, the worker stole money from the register after quitting without notice.
Hit the nail on the head Get something exactly right You hit the nail on the head when you said that he was a troublemaker.

10 Advanced Idioms in English with Example Sentences

These idioms are difficult because they provide little or no context related to their meaning. Without a definition, it would almost be impossible to figure out what they mean. So, here are 10 difficult English idioms, their meanings, and example sentences:

English Idiom Meaning Example Sentence
Throw caution to the wind Take a risk I know I haven’t trained much for the marathon, but I’m going to throw caution to the wind and run anyway.
Beat around the bush Avoid saying what you actually mean He wanted to ask for a raise, but when the moment came, he got nervous and beat around the bush instead.
Break a leg Good luck (often used with actors) You’re going to do great in the school play. Break a leg!
Call it a day Stop working We’ve been here for 10 hours; let’s call it a day.
Get out of hand Get out of control The party got out of hand when more people showed up.
On cloud nine Very happy I was on cloud nine when they accepted my job application!
Under the weather Sick or ill I stayed home from school because I was feeling under the weather.
Speak of the devil When someone you were just talking about arrives Speak of the devil! We were just talking about you!
Once in a blue moon Very rarely I only go to the movies once in a blue moon.
A piece of cake Easy That history exam was a piece of cake.

There you have it! These are 30 English idioms to help you advance your speaking vocabulary for IELTS and beyond.

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  • Matthew Jones

    Matthew Jones is a freelance writer with a B.A. in Film and Philosophy from the University of Georgia. It was during his time in school that he published his first written work. After serving as a casting director in the Atlanta film industry for two years, Matthew acquired TEFL certification and began teaching English abroad. In 2017, Matthew started writing for dozens of different brands across various industries. During this time, Matthew also built an online following through his film blog. If you’d like to learn more about Matthew, you can connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or his personal website!

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