David Recine

Using Idioms on the TOEFL

“He offered me a penny for my thoughts on the new presidential election, but I just beat around the bush, because politics is a real hot potato with him.”

Buying someone’s thoughts for one cent? Beating a bush? Hot potatoes? What in the world does that sentence above mean? Well, to a native English speaker, the meaning would be clear enough. To offer “a penny for (someone’s) thoughts” means to ask them what their opinion is. To “beat around the bush” means to refuse to answer a question or refuse to speak directly about something. A “hot potato” is a topic, subject or idea that may make people angry or upset. Think about those meanings, reread the sentence above, and you’ll probably understand it.

What is an idiom?

The phrases in bold in the first sentence of this post are a special unit of language called an idiom. Idioms are words that have been given a very different meaning than their common dictionary definition. Most idioms are phrases, such as “sweating bullets” (feeling very nervous or scared) or “pulling a fast one” (tricking someone). But occasionally, an idiom can be a single word. For instance, a “lemon” can refer to a car that doesn’t work very well.

Should you use idioms on the TOEFL?

Idiom use can raise your TOEFL scores in Speaking and Writing— if you are able to use idioms comfortably, naturally, and appropriately. Idioms can actually hurt your score if you’re not using them well. Don’t overuse idioms. Too many idioms in one sentence can sound unnatural or make the meaning of the sentence hard to follow. (The first sentence in this post probably is an example of this.) It’s also possible to slightly misuse idioms in ways that makes your speech sound forced or unnatural.

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But while idioms need to be used carefully, they can also be a lot of fun. I’ve seen many of my students really enjoy certain idioms. I had a student, for example, who absolutely loved the idiom “raining cats and dogs,” which means “raining a lot.” Another student loved the idiom “couch potato,” which means a lazy person who just sits down at home and isn’t active.

When you find an idiom that really makes you smile, that really seems clever, it’s easier to use it in a natural way. If you find idioms challenging but want to be able to get better at them and use them to boost your TOEFL score, pick just a few idioms and master them. Find between 5 and 10 idioms you really love, that you also think will “work” in your TOEFL Speaking responses.

Memorize your list of favorite idioms, and be prepared to use them on the TOEFL… but only if they really do work naturally in your response to the question. Using no idioms is better than using a “forced” idiom. And remember to use idioms a less in Writing than you would in speaking— idioms are very conversational.

There are a lot of places where you can find English idiom lists on the web. As you start searching for idiom resources, I suggest you begin with Dennis Oliver’s Idiom Page on ESLCafe. I’ve used it in a lot of lessons and tutoring sessions, and my students seem to find it helpful.


In my next few posts on this topic, I’ll be using Magoosh Comics to explore some specific idioms. Stay tuned!


  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he’s helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master’s Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he’s presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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