Idioms: How Common Are They?

November 20, 2019 by Ashlee Hunter Ashlee Hunter

As native English speakers, we use idioms in our speech throughout the day. Although there are common idioms that are taught in English classes and books, some are outdated. Here are some common and not so common idioms that are used in everyday English.

Commonly Used Idioms

These idioms are used frequently and could be beneficial when doing the speaking section of the IELTS test.

  1. Close call - a narrow escape from danger
    This is commonly used when someone wants to emphasize how close someone was to a bad situation.

    Ex. That was a close call! You almost got hit by that car!
  2. Be on board with - agree with
    Instead of just saying, ‘I agree with you’, some people will use this phrase.

    Ex. I’m on board with building the restaurant on the beach.

  3. In the loop - aware of information that a group knows

    This phrase is used when someone wants you to know that you are a part of a special group of people who know something.

    Ex. Keep all the group members in the loop about the project.

  4. Hang in there - don’t give up

    This commonly replaces, ‘Don’t give up.’

    Ex. Just hang in there, the benefits will come.

  5. Touch base - briefly contact someone

    This phrase is commonly used because it’s easier to say, ‘touch base’ than, ‘I will contact you briefly.’

    Ex. I want to touch base with you before we make any changes.

  6. Pull through - overcome an illness

    Someone may use the phrase, ‘pull through’ to show the difficulty of getting through the illness.

    Ex. He was in the hospital due to pneumonia, but we knew he’d pull through.

  7. Whip up - make something quickly

    Someone wants to stress that they are going to make something quickly.

    Ex. I’m going to whip up some lunch before we go to the park.

  8. Hold off - not do something

    It’s common to replace, ‘not doing something’ with, ‘hold off’ because it easily describes what you are doing.

    Ex. Hold off on buying the car until we know we received the money.

  9. Get away with - not get in trouble for

    Again, some idioms sound better to our ear than actually explaining the situation. This is an example of that.

    Ex. She got away with not studying before the big exam.

  10. Under the table - making a payment secretly

    This is a phrase that we commonly use in order to be discreet about what we're talking about.

    Ex. I got paid under the table.

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Not So Commonly Used Idioms

These idioms are used, but not as frequently as some English textbooks may suggest. Although they may not be used as much today, they're still good to review.

    1. A penny saved is a penny earned - just as useful to save money as earning it
      This phrase is a bit long and difficult to understand. This is why it’s not commonly used.

      Ex. You should put that money I gave you in the bank; a penny saved is a penny earned.

    2. Raining cats and dogs - raining heavily
      Although this idiom is in many English textbooks, it's not commonly used today.

      Ex. It’s raining cats and dogs outside.

    3. Barking up the wrong tree - pursuing a mistaken course of action
      This phrase is not used as often today because it’s not as intimidating as it used to be.

      Ex. I don’t know why you keep fighting with me. You are barking up the wrong tree.

    4. Hit the sack - go to bed
      When we use this idiom, we want to dramatize how tired we are.

      Ex. I’m so tired I need to hit the sack

    5. Under the weather - to be sick
      It’s just as easy to say, ‘I’m sick’, so many people today do.

      Ex. I can’t come today, I’m feeling under the weather.

    6. A dime a dozen - very common
      Here's another outdated idiom because it’s just as easy to say, ‘similar’ or ‘common’.

      Ex. All of these houses are a dime a dozen.

    7. Go back to the drawing board - rethink an idea or plan
      This is a phrase that's trying to paint a picture of what you have to do but it's not used as frequently as it once was.

      Ex. This floorplan doesn’t work. We need to go back to the drawing board.

    8. By the skin of your teeth - barely doing something
      This phrase shows just how lucky you were to get out of a bad situation. Although it's dramatic, it’s not commonly used.

      Ex. You’re lucky to be alive! You got out of the river by the skin of your teeth.

    9. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush - keep what you have, don’t risk it for something better
      This is another phrase that is difficult to understand.

      Ex. I wouldn’t risk all of your money to win the pot. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

    10. Birds of a feather, flock together - similar people with similar personalities hang around
      Although this phrase is easy to understand, it is not so common today.

      Ex. Julia and Jack are always together watching baseball. You know, birds of a feather, flock together.

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Idioms are a great addition to your everyday conversation, especially when speaking during the IELTS test. Learn when and how to use them and try to incorporate them into your speech. Try to use idioms that are more commonly used today so that your conversation doesn’t sound outdated.



Ashlee Hunter

Ashlee has been involved in the ESL world for over ten years and has now planted her roots in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Nothing gives her more pleasure than watching students and candidates reach their language and IELTS goals.

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