10 Idiomatic Expressions with Meanings for English Learners

Learning English takes time and happens in a number of different stages. One of the final stages and, thus, extremely useful for more advanced English learners is the study of idiomatic expressions. Depending on your cultural background, some idioms might sound very familiar or can even be used in your native language while others might seem strange, confusing or even funny. Understanding the meaning behind idiomatic expressions will help you communicate more casually with English speakers.

What is an idiom?

An idiom is a group of words that over time with usage has taken on a meaning that is not deducible from the words themselves. Typically, we use idioms as fixed expressions in a non-figurative sense. For example, when you ask someone to spill the beans, you are not asking them to, figuratively, spread beans all over the floor; instead, you are asking them to tell you secret information. English native speakers use idioms without even thinking about their literal meaning.

Why are idioms difficult to understand and use?

Idioms are especially difficult because English learners are often not sure about what the idioms are based on, and depending on cultural background idioms might originate from very different topics. For example, even in English the usage of idioms differs from country to country. While rugby idioms are very common in Australia, football and baseball idioms are widely used in the United States.

How to best learn idioms?

The old-fashioned approach to teaching idioms was to introduce them to English learners in an arbitrary fashion. Nowadays, we know that idioms should be studied systematically. Thus, the best approach is to learn about their figurative meaning and, then, apply it to how we use idioms in a non-figurative sense. Further, it is helpful to group the idioms based on area of usage and/or domain they are derived from.

Below, you’ll find some of the most common idioms in the English language. You’ll hear these while watching movies, reading English books, or out with your friends.

Five idioms based on area of usage:

Idioms about secrecy and discretion

Behind closed doors

When something takes place behind closed doors, it is done in secret or privately.

Example: The members of the finance committee discussed the matter behind closed doors.

To bite your tongue

Biting your tongue means that you try not to say what you really feel or think.

Example: When my relatives were discussing politics, I really had to bite my tongue.

To spill the beans

To spill the beans means that you are revealing a secret.

Example: Come on Sam, spill the beans! What did Jane tell you yesterday?

To cover your tracks

If you cover your tracks, you destroy or hide evidence of what you have been doing or where you have been.

Example: The politician regretted that she had not covered her tracks better when the press discovered that she accepted money from private companies.

To keep/leave someone in the dark

If you leave/keep someone in the dark, you don’t inform them about something.

Example: The employees were kept in the dark about what was going to happen with the company’s move to a different country.

Five areas based on domain they were derived from:

Let’s now look at idioms that come from the area of entertainment (theater, stage, circus):

Behind the scenes

When you do something behind the scenes, you are doing it in secret.

Example: The business deal was struck behind the scenes.

Waiting in the wings

When you are waiting in the wings, you are ready to act when needed.

Example: In business, there are always plenty of people waiting in the wings ready for a chance to advance their careers.

A balancing act

When we call something a balancing act, we call it a difficult compromise.

Example: It has always been a balancing act to combine the interests of environmentalists and oil companies.

To run the show

When you describe someone as running the show, you are saying that they are in charge.

Example: When Sarah started at the company she was simply answering the phones, now she is running the show.

To steal the show (from someone)

When you steal the show from someone, you outperform them.

Example: Her performance stole the show. She was simply the best.

By using these idioms you will improve your English fluency considerably. If you have to do business in English, they will make you more relatable to English native speakers and help you draft presentations and speeches. Practice these in context and you’ll quickly master the use of idioms!


Marike Korn