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Idioms, Slang, Phrasal Verbs, Colloquialisms, Cliches, and Proverbs, with Context Examples (about 100)

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.

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 hundreds of 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 tell a story about these people?
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 quotation marks 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 website.

a firebug
      The firefighters suspect that the fire wasn't started by lightning, but by a firebug. They think a young person who was seen running away just as the blaze started set the place on fire.
a free trial
      We received an offer in the mail today for a six-month free trial subscription for my husband's favorite magazine.
a lame excuse
      She really didn't want to go to the party, but when she told her boyfriend why, he didn't believe the reason she gave. He said she was just giving him a lame excuse.
a life line
      The life line for the aid supplies to the disaster area cut right across their land. The aid vehicles passed by every day on the road out front.
a lifesaver
      That loan from the bank has proven to be a real lifesaver for our young business. It was there when we needed it the most.
a lightning rod
      They put up a high metal pole with a ground wire on the house roof to attract the lightning so it wouldn't hit the other buildings on the hilltop.
a line of sight
      The men approaching over the fields were directly in the observer's line of site as he watched them through his binoculars.
a litterbug
      As the girl dropped the candy wrapper on the ground, her brother reached down and picked it up. "Don't be such a litterbug," he said.
a live-in
      They aren't legally married, just living together, so she is his live-in girlfriend.
a live wire
      She is awake early and very active all day --- a real live wire.
a livelihood
      She made her livelihood working in the office of the local oil company. The job paid well, and had fairly good benefits.
a living death
      He remembered how gaunt she looked after the accident. She had complained that without her health, she was experiencing a living death.
a living room
      Take that cake into the front room and set it on the coffee table for the guests. That's right, into the living room where we do our entertaining.
a living wage
      The boy knew he couldn't make the same pay his father did, but the job offer promised enough money to live on, a living wage.
a loan shark
      The man came at midnight to bully his father and demand that he pay the debt immediately. The boy hadn't realized his father went to a loan shark for money.
a lodestar
      The guiding principle behind our way of life could be called a lodestar. Like the star over the pole, it shows us where we are and which way to go.
a log boom
      First the trees were cut down, limbed, and sawn into logs. Then some logs were chained into a circle, enclosing other logs. This log boom was then taken down river to the mill.
a ragamuffin
      That youngest one in the family frequently comes to school in torn clothes. He looks like a real ragamuffin.
a rule of thumb
      The rule of thumb for writing parallel sentences is to use the same grammatical structure in each clause.
a skiff of snow
      Since she had grown up in snow country, she didn't mind when then got a few centimeters of snow the other day. To her, that was just a skiff of snow, nothing major.
a slow poke
      The oldest girl in the group dragged behind the rest, reading as she was walking. "Come on, slow poke," one of her sisters yelled.
a treasure trove
      The young boy looked at the huge library with joy in his eyes. He thought he had found a real treasure trove of stories, enough to last him for years.
a trial size
      When she got the mail out of the box, she found a small bottle of shampoo. The manufacturer had sent her a trial size and a coupon for more shampoo.
a welcoming committee
      You would wonder why they sent out their ferocious dog to greet the strangers in the dark. What an awful welcoming committee that must have been.
a white lie
      He didn't want to hurt her by refusing to come to the party, so he told her a little white lie. He said he had a previous commitment for the same time as the dance.
at loggerheads
      Those two groups argued their way through the town meeting. They are always at loggerheads about something or other.
foot traffic
      There was a lot of foot traffic by her door on the weekends when the beach was full. She didn't mind. She just sat on her front porch and watched people as they passed.
      You would think she didn't have a care in the world. She seemed to be such a happy-go-lucky girl, always singing and smiling.
in lieu of
      You will have to accept another color because the supplier is out of stock. Will you take a gold one in lieu of the blue one you ordered?
in light of
      In light of the fact that you did so much homework last night, you can take the next night off. But remember, you can't take two nights off, only one.
in recent memory
      Most townspeople could not remember how long it had been since the family had lived at the old homestead. As far as anyone knew, no one had been there in many decades, and certainly not in recent memory.
like a bolt out of the blue
      His offer of marriage came on the third date, before they knew each other well, just like a bolt out of the blue.
      "Fraidy cat, fraidy cat, you're just chicken," the small boy hooted. "And who are you to call me a lily-livered coward, when you won't do it yourself?" his older sister demanded.
      They said he was funny, off-the-wall, a little off his rocker, out of his head, crazy, and just plain loco.
not on your life
      Do you think I would go out there in the freezing cold when it is thirty degrees below zero without wearing a warm coat and mittens?  Not on your life I wouldn't.
part and parcel of
      She works full time. He doesn't like it, but that is just part and parcel of who she is as a professional.
      Shoddy work, poor quality, done too quickly, the whole project was just slapdash, throw it together.
      The graduation party ended at the restaurant, and the group left noisily. The other diners watched them carefully as they drove away, remarking to each other about how silly and slaphappy they were.
the boob tube
      In the early days of television, the nickname for the TV was the boob tube, because people watched stupidly like boobs, without thinking.
the livelong day
      "Sakes alive," said the grandmother, "I have never seen so much mess in all my born days. It'll probably take you young ones the rest of the livelong day to clean it up."
to be a skinflint
      He is so tight with money. He won't even buy his daughter a new pair of good shoes. He is a real skinflint.
to be at liberty
      She has been sworn to secrecy. She is not at liberty to discuss the settlement before it is made public.
to be letter perfect
      The five-year-old was frustrated when she tried to write her full name. "It's okay, dear," her mother said, "it doesn't have to be letter perfect."
to be level-headed
      When he saw the kids push the dog into the creek, he did what any level-headed person would; he waded into the frigid water and pulled the tiny dog out.
to be liable
      I don't trust him. He is liable to lie to me if I ask him directly what he did with my money. Remember, he lied the last time I asked.
to be light-fingered
      The toddler grabbed the candy bar and ran out of the store. When her mother caught her and returned the candy to the store, she said "Please forgive her. She isn't light-fingered. She is too young to steal. She doesn't know that we have to pay money for what we take home."
to be lightheaded
      The young woman had an allergy to chocolate, and felt light-headed, quite dizzy and faint, after she ate the cake. She asked the cook, and found out the cake was iced with white chocolate.
to be off limits
      The construction zone is off limits to anyone who is not wearing a hard hat.
to be on the level
      He says he didn't swipe his brother's allowance, but I don't think his story is on the level. I think he took it.
to be smack dab in the middle of
      He secretly hoped there would be a false fire alarm when they were smack dab in the middle of the exam, but he was disappointed.
to be not someone's business
      It's not my business how much you make, what your religion is, or who you vote for. That's your own business, it is private.
to bone up on
      Tomorrow is the final exam, so he is at home boning up on the major and minor parts of the course.
to dawn on
      Someday it will dawn on the family how fortunate they are to have that little girl, and they will really understand their good fortune.
to do one's level best
      The small girl was doing her level best to draw a perfect circle, but she fretted and tore up the paper after each try.
to feel it in one's bones
      She just knew something had happened to her cat when it didn't come home that night. She said she felt it in her bones.
to get a load of
      "Can you believe she turned him down when he asked her for a date?" "Whoa, get a load of that kind of snobby attitude," the two women whispered to each other.
to get in a passle of trouble
      If he doesn't find another backer for his scheme soon, he'll get in a passle of trouble with his bank.
to get skunked
      They went fishing early this morning and caught zip. There is nothing like getting skunked, but hey, there's always next time.
to hang on for dear life
      Once the horse started really running, the wagon came around the corner too fast, and he grabbed the side and hung on for dear life.
to have a bone to pick
      He came in the room and looked at her like he had a bone to pick. Sure enough, with the first words out of his mouth, he started a fight.
to keep a stiff upper lip
      That family is quite reserved. Their grandmother died recently, but nearly all of them kept a stiff upper lip at the funeral, and didn't break down and cry.
to lift someone's spirits
      The cake she made for him really lifted his spirits, and he no longer felt depressed.
to lie in wait for
      The cat was lying in wait for the mouse as it came out of its mouse hole.
to lie low
      He thinks he flunked the exam, so he is lying low until his Dad leaves for work tonight, hoping he won't ask about it.
to lie through one's teeth
      The young boy said he had not seen his brother's new toy airplane, but everyone in the family knew he was lying through his teeth.
to light into
      The mother found her daughter's closet full of new clothes, and really lit into her about spending so much money.
to light out
      Those crooks didn't stick around when their fraud was discovered, but lit out for another town far away.
to lighten up
      Do you think he can stop being so serious around her, and just lighten up a bit?
to limber up
      The exercise class was doing well after several weeks. Many members reported they had been limbering up nicely, gaining flexibility each week.
to lip read
      She can't hear you over the motor, so she will have to lip read.
to lip sync
      The vocal group says they don't sing to taped backup and just lip sync, but few people believe them.
to liquidate
      They will probably quit business and liquidate their stock soon. If they do, some big sales are on the way.
to live and let live
      Those two couples won't quit their disagreements at family gatherings, even though the rest of the family tells them to back off and live and let live.
to live down
      Now that he has become a juvenile delinquent, it will be hard for him to live down what he has done. Everyone in his hometown knows about it.
to live it up
      Now that the course is over, we can really live it up a little, and celebrate.
to live out
      If you expect good things, and you live out your life the way you expect, you will be a happy person.
to live through
      That family has lived through so many things, one more thing gone wrong probably won't affect them too much.
to live together
      They aren't living together anymore. They went their separate ways last spring. Their baby is two years old now.
to live up to
      He wants to live up to their expectations, but they expect so much that is nearly impossible for him to do. One thing I can say, is that he is living up to his reputation as a flirt.
to loaf
      The two boys were sitting on the back porch, playing cards, sipping cold drinks, and just loafing.
to loiter
      If you hang around the train station, they will tell you to leave. They don't like people loitering.
to make light of
      She tried to make light of her troubles, but her mother asked some hard questions. Finally, she broke down and told her the truth.
to make no bones about
      He doesn't like his mother-in-law, and she knows. He doesn't hide it all. He makes no bones about it.
to make off with
      The two thieves made off with many art works from the museum's collection.
to mean business
      The boy's father sat down on the boy's bed and told him he wanted him to stop fighting with his sister. The boy could tell his father was very serious, and really meant business.
to pay lip service to
      She isn't really being sincere, she is just paying lip service to get a promotion at the company.
to pull a boner
      He really made a mistake that time, pulled a real boner.
to raise a ruckus
      "You don't have to raise a ruckus to get fed, now settle down," the mother told her screaming toddler.
to see the light
      He will eventually come around to our point of view and see the light about the whole affair.
to sit bolt upright
      The girl had a nightmare, and crying, suddenly sat bolt upright in bed, fully awake.
to skim off profits
      One of the clerks has been dishonest with the financial records of the company, skimming off the profits without the owners knowing.
to skip town
      The man who impersonated a physician closed up shop suddenly and skipped town, disappearing during the night.
to skip trace
      The credit department of the company will find the people who owe them money, skip tracing them to where they are now.
to smack of
      That idea is so self-serving, it smacks of self-interest.
to suck the life out of
      The foreign company sucked the life out of the failing mill. They sold the stockpiled lumber, bled the profits, and then closed the mill.
to take liberties
      Be very careful with the essay on that exam. Don't take any liberties with the essay structure, grammar, or word choice.
to the letter
      They want you to follow their instructions exactly, right to the letter.
to tide someone over
      There is enough money in the bank to tide the family over until the strike at the plant is over.
to try out for
      He wants to try out for the team. If he is good enough, they will let him join.
to use one's leverage
      He promised to use his leverage at the store to get a special deal for his brother-in-law. He knows the owner personally, and his brother does not.

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