Non-native speakers of English might scratch their heads when someone says, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” or “I finally saw the light.” This is because these phrases do not carry the literal meaning of their individual words.
“Raining cats and dogs,” for example, is an idiom that means “it’s raining very hard,” while “seeing the light” is used when someone finally realizes something.
Native speakers use many idioms like these in everyday speech, often without even realizing it.
An idiom is an expression or phrase that carries a figurative meaning. They usually conjure up images in our mind, and through common usage, native speakers of a language can easily understand them.
However, they pose the greatest challenge to non-native speakers trying to learn the language. As such, it’s important for those studying English to take note of some of the most common idioms and familiarize themselves with their meanings and usage.
Function of Idioms
Public speakers and writers use idioms to help them convey subtle meanings. Idioms make their language richer and more elaborate, giving an added layer of meaning that is not achieved by literal words.
For example, the following idioms, set in bold, mean the same thing but carry different nuances:
The old hermit has finally gone to meet his Maker.
The old hermit has finally kicked the bucket.
Both idioms mean “died.” The first sentence carries a respectful tone, whereas the more casual idiom used in the second sentence makes it seem as though the speaker is indifferent to the old man’s death.
What Are Some Popular Idioms?
Some idioms make up part of a sentence, while others are full sentences themselves, almost like a proverb.
Every language has its share of wise sayings, handed down from generation to generation, making them easily understandable for its own culture.
In the same way, the English language has its own collection of expressions and proverbs.
The following are some of the most popular English idioms:
- Adding insult to injury – Making a bad situation worse
- At the drop of a hat – Doing something instantly or without hesitation
- Beat around the bush – Talking about other things in order to avoid the main issue
- Bite off more than you can chew – To take on a task that is too much to handle
- Blessing in disguise – A good thing that comes out of something bad
- Cross the bridge when we get there – To deal with a problem only when absolutely necessary
- Cutting someone some slack – Not being too critical of another person
- Hang in there – Don’t give up!
- Letting someone off the hook – Giving up on holding someone accountable for something
- Not rocket science – Used to refer to something that’s not as complicated as it seems
- A piece of cake – Refers to a task that is simple or very easy to do
- Seeing eye to eye – Agreeing with someone about something
- Sitting on the fence – Being undecided about an issue
- Spill the beans – To reveal a secret
- Take a rain check – To reschedule plans for another day
Examples of Idioms in Literature
The best writers know how to use idioms to add wit and clarity to their writing. The following examples show how some writers have used idioms:
Example #1. Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish
Some of the best examples of idioms come from the children’s book Amelia Bedelia. The whole plot revolves around the title character, who takes instructions literally, resulting in hilarious outcomes.
For example, when told to “draw the curtains,” she literally sits down and draws them. When told to “put out the lights,” she removes all the light bulbs and hangs them outside.
Example #2. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
“It seems to me,” said Sancho, “that your worship is like the common saying, ‘Said the frying-pan to the kettle, Get away, blackbreech.’ You chide me for uttering proverbs, and you string them in couples yourself.”
This excerpt from Don Quixote contains the expanded version of the idiom or proverb, “The pot calling the kettle black,” which refers to someone who criticizes another person who is just as bad as himself.
Example #3. Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
But natheless, betwixt earnest and game,
He at the last appointed him on one,
And let all others from his hearte gon,
And chose her of his own authority;
For love is blind all day, and may not see.
In this excerpt from Canterbury Tales, Chaucer uses the idiom “love is blind” to emphasize how love doesn’t see another’s faults.
Example #4. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
“How can I be vain when I know I’m homely?” protested Anne. “I love pretty things; and I hate to look in the glass and see something that isn’t pretty. It makes me feel so sorrowful—just as I feel when I look at any ugly thing. I pity it because it isn’t beautiful.”
“Handsome is as handsome does,” quoted Marilla. “I’ve had that said to me before, but I have my doubts about it,” remarked skeptical Anne.
The idiom “handsome is as handsome does” is often quoted as a reminder that what’s inside a person’s heart is what truly matters, more than what he looks like on the outside. This excerpt from Anne of Green Gables illustrates that meaning.
Example #5. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This gave her so much to think of that she began to be quite interested and feel that she was not sorry that she had come to Misselthwaite Manor. In India she had always felt hot and too languid to care much about anything. The fact was that the fresh wind from the moor had begun to blow the cobwebs out of her young brain and to waken her up a little.
“Blowing the cobwebs” in this passage from The Secret Garden refers to Mary’s mind coming alive from the fresh wind of the moor, and not a literal removal of spider webs.
Example #6. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
“It’s just the boy’s gotten out of hand and it doesn’t seem like anyone is doin’ anything ‘bout it.”
The phrase “gotten out of hand,” as it is used in this passage from Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, refers to someone who is behaving out of anyone else’s control.
Example #7. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
In the evening Frodo gave his farewell feast: it was quite small, just a dinner for himself and his four helpers; but he was troubled and felt in no mood for it. The thought that he would so soon have to part with his young friends weighed on his heart. He wondered how he would break it to them.
In this excerpt from The Fellowship of the Ring, “breaking the news” to someone is an idiom that means telling someone important news or updates.
How to Use Idioms
Using idioms can add color to your writing, but in order to use them successfully, you’ll need to understand what they mean.
Study up on the most common idioms and their origins so you can incorporate them seamlessly in your writing.
Do you have any favorite idioms or expressions? Share them in the comments below!