Idiomatic Expressions

Idiomatic Expressions

Idiomatic expressions are a type of informal language that have a meaning different from the meaning of the words in the expression. 

Raining cats and dogs - literally

Here's an example of an idiomatic expression:

Hold your tongue.

This idiom doesn't actually mean that you should stick your fingers in your mouth and grab a hold of your tongue. It means that you shouldn't talk.

People "hold their tongues" when they're in situations where they want to talk, but it would be better if they didn't. So, while their tongue is ready to do some talking, they "hold" it and don't say anything.

Holding your horses - literally

Scroll down to see a list of twenty common idioms and their meanings. 

Idioms & Culture
Every language has idioms, and they can be difficult to learn if you're not a native speaker of that language. If English isn't your native language, the best thing that you can do is have conversations with native speakers and ask them about phrases that you don't understand. Since idioms are influenced by the culture, learning the idioms of a language can be very interesting and enlightening!

20 Common Idiomatic Expressions
& Their Meanings

1. She was tickled pink by the good news. ---> made very happy

2. You are hands down the best player on the team. ---There was no competition.

3. He's been down in the dumps lately. ---> sad or depressed

4. I feel sick as a dog. ---> very sick

5. My grandma has been under the weather. ---> not well

6. Rise and shine! ---> Wake up and be happy!

7. Close, but no cigar. ---> You were very close, but you did not make it.

8. I could play outside till the cows come home. ---> for a very long time

9. Bring your umbrella. It's raining cats and dogs out there! ---very hard rain

10. That sound is driving me up the wall! ---> making me very annoyed

11. This assignment is a piece of cake---> very easy

12. Although he broke a serious rule, he was only given a slap on the wrist. ---> A mild punishment

13. Yikes! This shirt costs an arm and a leg. ---> It is extremely expensive.

14. I was just pulling your leg. ---> just joking

15. It's Greek to me. ---> I don't understand.

16. Keep your chin up. ---> Be happy.

17. Hold your horses. ---> Be patient.

18. We're all in the same boat. ---> All of us are in the same position.

19. I will clean my room when pigs fly. ---> never

20. He's a loose cannon.* ---> unpredictable

    * As Wikipedia describes it, the literal definition of a loose cannon is, "a cannon which gets dislocated and moves about randomly on the decks of a battleship, creating a hazard to crew and equipment." This never meant much to me until I read Victor Hugo's novel "Ninety-Three." You can read the beautiful description here if you'd like. :)  


If you'd like to use one of these expressions as an idiom, know that many of them need to be used in a very specific way—you can't change the words at all. Let's look at a couple of examples.

  • We're all in the same boat. = idiom
  • We're all in the boat together. = not an idiom*
  • You're pulling my leg. = idiom
  • You've got to be pulling on my leg. = not an idiom* 

* If you try using an idiom and end up changing some of the words like this, it's likely that people will understand what you mean, but formulations like this will also disclose or draw attention to the fact that you're probably a non-native speaker. (That's not necessarily a bad thing!) 

Gru "You've got to be pulling on my leg" idiom

Gru's attempt to use this idiom in Despicable Me is endearing, and it makes movie-watchers love him more!

Idiom or Not? 

Are these expressions always idioms? Nope. The sayings listed on this page are only idioms when they're used together to have a meaning different from the words by themselves.

Someone could say the exact same words that are listed in one of these idiomatic expressions, but the person could mean them literally, and then the words would not create an idiom. This means that it's important to think about the context in which one of these expressions is used. 

Let's look at an example with the expression keep your chin up

  • Keep Your Chin Up Used As An Idiom

Imagine that you're sitting with a friend describing how distraught you are by a low grade you received on a test. Your friend says, "Keep your chin up." In this situation, these words are being used as an idiom. Your friend is really telling you to stay positive and not get too sad. 

  • Keep Your Chin Up Used Literally (Not An Idiom)

Imagine you have just joined a gym, and the coach is teaching you how to do a pull-up. As your head nears the bar, your face is pointed down when it's supposed to be pointed up. Your coach might say, "Keep your chin up." In this situation, these words are not an idiom. Your coach is not telling you to have a positive attitude—she's telling you that you literally need to keep your chin toward the ceiling.

Many of these expressions will always be idiomatic, simply because there is no actual situation in life in which you'd use them literally. For example, cats and dogs are never actually going to be falling from the sky, so if you hear someone saying that it's raining cats and dogs, you can be sure that it's being used as an idiom!


Let's review what we covered on this page.

  • Idiomatic expressions are informal phrases that aren't interpreted literally.
  • For many idioms, you need to use a very specific formulation of words. 
  • These expressions are only idioms when they are not used literally.
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