Speak Read Write

Idioms, Slang, Phrasal Verbs, Colloquialisms, Cliches, and Proverbs, with Context Examples (about 700)

by Sally Jennings

Expressions are alphabetized according to the first word in the expression. Spelling is Canadian. If you wish to change the document to U.S. spelling, you can download it as a word processing document and then run it through your U.S. spell checker to catch words like "honourable," "chequing account," and so on before you print it. It is about 33 pages when printed.

Pronouns have been used instead of names in almost all cases to avoid obvious ethnicity in the examples. The English language has no room to maneuver around using either "he" or "she;" because of this, please consider that any use of "he" could just as well be "she," and vice versa.

The language in the context examples is not intentionally aimed at any job class or occupation. Many situations described had to be stated negatively since the particular idiom is used that way. Some idioms are used almost exclusively to refer to one occupation.

Warning to students: many of these expressions are far too informal for formal writing. If you are not familiar with an expression you see here, and need to know if you may use it in formal written work, ask your teacher. Decisions about the use of idioms in formal writing are often decided on a case-by-case basis, one at a time. I have not had time to make these decisions and mark acceptability partly because there would be 700 decisions to be made! Besides, how can I judge what you or your teacher will find acceptable in your situation?

However, there was one type of marking I could not resist doing. Parenthesized idioms (shown like this), are worn-out expressions. You might hear them or read them somewhere, but if you avoid using them, you just might make the world a better place.

Square brackets [ ] enclose an expression similar in meaning to the expression before the brackets.

Suggestions for student use:
Replace some of the non-idiom words with blanks, use the structure and the idiom as it stands, and form different sentences. This is a type of pattern practice.

How much can you guess about who might be speaking the idiom from the clues in the context? Can you make up a story about this situation?
Can you define the idioms from the context? Do you know an equivalent expression in another language?

Some of the context is in "direct speech" form, but without quotation marks, or speaker identification. Some of the context is in "reported speech" form. Can you identify which is which, and change the "reported speech" forms into "direct speech" and add quotations wherever they are necessary?

Do some research into the background of some of the more interesting idioms (using the Internet or a good dictionary).

Can you spice up the idioms by using names of people, trade names, brand names, and company names where possible?

Can you group some of these idioms into patterns within a metaphor structure (for example "finances" and "war," we "fight inflation.")

Compose a short story using several idioms together, perhaps part of a group using one word. For an examples of this, see my stories "The Night Out" (with optional mp3 audio) and "Up to Something" (with optional mp3 audio) on other pages of this web site.

This is a work in progress. After you have used it, I welcome your response at the Webmaster email link in the page footer. I have a baccalaureate degree in Arts, with a major in English (language emphasis), and extra Linguistics courses from the University of British Columbia. English is my first language. Nevertheless, I still have a lot to learn about English.

Listen while you read - mp3 audio clips, 10 idioms each clip

mp3 audio of the next 10 idioms

a background check /a backgrounder
      We did a background check on him. He's clean. No prison record, outstanding warrants, that kind of stuff.
a ballpark figure
      Just give me the ballpark figure for the project, I don't need it down to the exact cent.
a big deal /a really big deal
      "So I blew my curfew, big deal," said the teenager.
a bitter pill
      After their winning streak, and intensive training schedule, the team's defeat was a bitter pill to swallow.
a box office hit/a blockbuster
       The movie was a great success, a box office hit, a blockbuster.
a breadbasket
      The Prairies are the breadbasket of Canada, they grow many of Canada's food products.
a breadwinner
      As the main wage earner, he is the breadwinner of the household.
a brief interlude
      After a brief interlude, they resumed their work.
a brief respite
      The shower offered a brief respite from the searing heat of August.
a calming influence
      This teddy bear is a calming influence for my toddler.

mp3 audio of the next 10 idioms

a case of mistaken identity
      They talked to me as though I were my twin sister. It was clearly a case of mistaken identity.
a change of habit
      Unless you show a change of habit, you will fail.
a chief executive officer (CEO)
      The CEO is the Chief Executive Officer, the head of the company.
a combined total
      They added the subtotals of the two sections to arrive at the combined total.
a crime of passion
       He killed his lover. It was a crime of passion.
a crucial component
       Studying is a crucial component in academic success. A student cannot succeed without studying.
a day off /a week off /a month off / time off
      She wanted a week off, but her boss only gave her three days off.
a dirty trick/dirty tricks
      He played a dirty trick and deceived them.
a dog's breakfast
      The book covered too many things too quickly; it was a real dog's breakfast, a mixed up mess.
a fact-finding mission
      The diplomat went to the Middle East on a fact-finding mission.

mp3 audio of the next 10 idioms

a fait accompli
      It is too late to change your mind, the order has been shipped. It is a fait accompli, an accomplished fact.
a fat cat
      Some say that rich, privileged people are fat cats.
a feverish pace
      They rushed to complete the highway before the deadline. They had been working at a feverish pace.
a fitting memorial
      The sports scholarship fund was a fitting memorial to the famous athlete.
a flash in the pan
      He had high grades in his first semester, but quit school partway through his second semester. He was just a flash in the pan.
a flat out lie /a flat out guess
      She meant to deceive them, but they caught her, accusing her of a flat-out lie.
      He didn't win the count-the-pennies contest through skill, he just made a flat-outguess.
a foregone conclusion
      They predicted events would turn out like this. Everyone could see it coming. It was a foregone conclusion.
a gene pool
      He is a habitual criminal. So you can't say he made a positive contribution to the gene pool.
a habitual liar
      Why believe her? She's just a habitual liar. She lies as a habit, a lot of the time, about many things.
a half-baked idea
      His plan won't work.  He hasn't thought about it enough yet. All it is is some half-baked scheme he has.


This Idiom Guide has 23 pages, in alphabetical order. This is page 1. Click below to go to a different page.

1     2     3     4     5

6     7     8     9     10

11     12     13     14     15

16     17     18     19     20

21     22     23

More Idioms (about 100) at:
Speak Read Write Idioms Two

For more mp3s, original articles, easy readers, short stories, puzzles,
minimal pairs exercises, grammar and vocabulary help and more, go to:
Speak Read Write Educational Resources

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