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10 Common English Idioms: Explained to ESL Students

Updated on September 24, 2012
"What is it again?" Many ESL or English as a Second Language students find idiomatic expressions difficult to understand. It is, however, important to learn about idioms to understand native English speakers.
"What is it again?" Many ESL or English as a Second Language students find idiomatic expressions difficult to understand. It is, however, important to learn about idioms to understand native English speakers. | Source

English Idioms or idiomatic expressions can be very difficult to learn for students of ESL or English as a Second Language.

This is because English idioms are used in informal English conversations that native English speakers make with one another. Because many students of ESL do not have the chance to listen to, much less participate in, such conversations, then they tend to be baffled by these idioms.

English idioms are also difficult to learn because their definitions are so different from the literal definitions of the words that make them up. Definitions of the individual words in an idiomatic expression just do not give any hints about the idiom’s meaning.

Just the same, many native English speakers understand idioms because they have been immersed in an environment wherein almost everybody understands English idioms.

Idioms have colorful, cultural, and curious origins in native English speaking countries. People who grew up in these countries can understand these idioms even if they do not exactly know the idioms’ origins.

Below are 10 of the most common English idioms used in the English language and their definitions. Of course, ESL students must strive to learn as many idioms as possible. Doing so would just ease the language barrier between them and native English speakers.

1. Add Insult to Injury

Add insult to injury is an English idiomatic expression that means “to make a situation worse.” This expression is used when an already bad situation is made even more problematic. Usually, a person or persons are the ones who add insult to injury.

Example:

She shocked the guests in her hideous wedding dress. To add insult to injury, her make-up artist made her look 10 years older than her real age.

2. Costs an Arm and a Leg

Costs an arm and a leg is an English idiom that means “absurdly expensive.” It is often used to describe disbelief about the price tag of a thing or things.

Example:

He skimped on wedding expenses because he had bought her the diamond engagement ring that cost him an arm and a leg.

3. Cut Corners

Cut corners is an English idiom that refers to “doing something badly.” The reason for cutting corners is usually to save on money. The result of cutting corners is a thing or a situation that is distasteful, shoddy, and/or cheap.

Example:

They tried to cut corners so they could honeymoon in Western Europe. They saved on their wedding cake and foods for the reception, which the guest definitely did not enjoy.

4. Feeling a Bit under the Weather

Feeling a bit under the weather is an idiom that tells that somebody might be “feeling sick.” If a person is feeling a bit under the weather, then he or she is not in the pink of his or her health (good health condition).

Example:

After spending 60 days in planning for the wedding and 12 hours in preparing for the ceremony, she felt a bit under the weather. She wasn’t able to leave for Western Europe.

5. Kill Two Birds with One Stone

Kill two birds with one stone is an idiom that means “do two things simultaneously.”

Example:

The enterprising celebrity couple killed two birds with one stone by hosting a wedding and cashing in on it.

6. Once in a Blue Moon

Once in a blue moon is an English idiom that describes an event that happens “infrequently.”

Example:

Once in a blue moon, the celebrity wife steps out in public without make-up, causing a stir about her exceptionally clear skin.

7. See Eye to Eye

See eye to eye is an idiom that means “agree.” Oftentimes, two people see eye to eye on certain issues.

Example:

They didn’t see eye to eye on having kids and staying at home. After two years of marriage, they sought divorce.

8. Speak/Talk of the Devil

Speak of the devil is an English idiomatic expression that people say when somebody they are taking about suddenly arrives.

Example:

She just cannot come on time, can she? Well, speak of the devil, here she comes.

9. Take What Someone Says with a Pinch of Salt

Take what someone says with a pinch of salt is an idiom that warns somebody not accept another person’s or people’s words as complete truth or very seriously.

Example:

She needs to take what her critics say about her with a pinch of salt. They are out to trash her not to support her.

10. The Best of Both Worlds

The best of both worlds is an idiom that pertains to the “advantages or good points of two different things.” A person or people can have the best of both worlds.

Example:

Actually, she has the best of both worlds. She has a happy marriage and a hot career.

Copyright © 2011 Kerlyn Bautista

All Rights Reserved

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    • pomodore profile image

      Larry Gonzaga 

      5 years ago

      Nice hub. You appreciate this if english isn't your first language or know someone who learned english as their second language.

      My mom's chinese so I see her struggle with idioms a lot and invert the words in phrases quite a bit.

    • ramerican profile image

      ramerican 

      6 years ago

      please keep doing more of these.

    • profile image

      Corbow 

      6 years ago

      I would define #5 a little differently. The way it's usually used, it means "to accomplish two goals with one action."

    • ramerican profile image

      ramerican 

      6 years ago

      cool. will share with my ESL students online!

    • vox vocis profile image

      Jasmine 

      6 years ago

      Great selection of English idioms! I need a reminder from time to time :) Voted up, useful and interesting :)

    • kerlynb profile imageAUTHOR

      kerlynb 

      6 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @whynot1 Thank you so much! Very nice of you to say that :)

    • whynot1 profile image

      whynot1 

      6 years ago

      Love your hub! This is great and very helpful!

    • kerlynb profile imageAUTHOR

      kerlynb 

      6 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @name Welcome :)

    • profile image

      name 

      6 years ago

      thanks again....

    • Sawasdee-Kub profile image

      Sawasdee-Kub 

      6 years ago from Thailand

      this is a really good information.

      thx for sharing. (:

    • kerlynb profile imageAUTHOR

      kerlynb 

      7 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @MonetteforJack Very glad you found it useful and interesting. A million thanks! :)

    • MonetteforJack profile image

      MonetteforJack 

      7 years ago from Tuckerton, NJ

      A very useful and interesting hub, I voted up! I haven't heard numbers 1 & 9 for a long time. Because of the economic situation it is always -- cost an arm and leg -- that is often in used. Thumbs up!

    • kerlynb profile imageAUTHOR

      kerlynb 

      7 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @Sally's Trove Hello! Thanks for your comment. I know, native speakers just know all these idioms that confound us ESL learners :) Just to bridge the communication gap, we just have to keep on learning about idioms, I guess :D

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 

      7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      I enjoy your ESL Hubs very much, and this one is no exception.

      Although English is my first language, and I'm comfortable with hearing and speaking these idioms, I don't give them much thought...for me they are ingrained cliches. It's thought-provoking to have a fresh look at them.

    • kerlynb profile imageAUTHOR

      kerlynb 

      7 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @tirelesstraveler Wow, I'm so happy you stopped by! Really :) That's another idiom. Thanks for sharing!

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      7 years ago from California

      I once told an Iranian friend that his totally adorable son who had mud all over his face,"Had a face only a mother could love". I meant his mother will think he is cute even with all the mud on him. My friend went home and asked his wife, a native English speaker, "Why doesn't she like our baby anymore?" I had to really think hard how to explain that idiom. My girl friend laughed when we got it all sourced out. Thanks for pointing out how difficult idiom can make life for ESL learners.

    • kerlynb profile imageAUTHOR

      kerlynb 

      7 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @Husky1970 Thanks much for your message, really appreciate it. Well, we ESL speakers must do everything we can to put down this high language barrier by trying to understand English as much as we can :)

    • kerlynb profile imageAUTHOR

      kerlynb 

      7 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @Taleb80 Thank you for stopping by my hub and for the vote :D

    • kerlynb profile imageAUTHOR

      kerlynb 

      7 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @Stephanie Henkel There you go, another idiomatic expression - dog and pony show. Hmmm, an elaborate presentation for gaining approval. Thanks for sharing! :D

    • kerlynb profile imageAUTHOR

      kerlynb 

      7 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @Fellow Mumbaite Thanks for dropping by! Hope you'll never ever feel a bit under the weather :D

    • profile image

      Husky1970 

      7 years ago

      It is helpful that you remind everyone that we take certain sayings in our language for granted. Excellent examples of idioms that can be very confusing to individuals who speak English as a 2nd language. Interesting hub and voted accordingly.

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 

      7 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      I printed this one for my writer files! You have this laid out beautifully and it is easy to understand. Keep up the great HUBS. I must give this an “Up ONE and awesome.” I'm always your fan! RJ

      Based upon your HUB, you might enjoy this HUB…

      https://hubpages.com/entertainment/Tiny-Tim-and-th

    • Taleb80 profile image

      Taleb AlDris 

      7 years ago

      I voted "Useful" as it is.

      Thanks for sharing.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 

      7 years ago from USA

      The English language can be really confusing even for those who are proficient in the language. Recently, I was with a non-native speaker and someone used the expression, "dog and pony show" in referring to a business presentation. It was quite baffling to her. Interesting hub, and useful, too!

    • Fellow Mumbaite profile image

      Fellow Mumbaite 

      7 years ago from India

      Interesting hub, very educational. One of the idiom 'Feeling a Bit under the Weather' was not known to me, thanks a lot for this info!

    • kerlynb profile imageAUTHOR

      kerlynb 

      7 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @asmaiftikhar Thanks for always visiting my hubs! I really appreciate the time you give to read and comment :)

    • asmaiftikhar profile image

      asmaiftikhar 

      7 years ago from Pakistan

      well don kerlynb.keep it up

    • kerlynb profile imageAUTHOR

      kerlynb 

      7 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @lzlpio90 Thanks dear! Glad you learned from this hub :)

    • kerlynb profile imageAUTHOR

      kerlynb 

      7 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      @Ratanak Ou Thanks for reading and for the vote :)

    • lzlpio90 profile image

      lzlpio90 

      7 years ago

      what a useful hub...Thanks for these idioms you've shared... I only knew a few of days..:D This is great!

    • profile image

      Ratanak Ou 

      7 years ago

      Great hub, I love to read and learn from your writing. Rated up !

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