Make your own free website on

Linguistic Tips

As Idiomatic As English

IPA Chart
Aspects of Language
The -logy Suffix
Binomial Collocations
As Idiomatic As English

Rami Al-Sa'di
English Instructor
Dept. of English, Derna University

As Idiomatic As English


An idiomatic expression can be a single word that imparts a meaning quite distinct from its literal meaning (skinny, for instance, means very thin and has nothing to do with skin). More frequently, and idiom is a chunk of words that function as a single, unified semantic unit. Any such string words (such as 'to rain cats and dogs', 'to have a memory like a sieve', 'a blue-eyed boy', etc) is an idiom, and its meaning is not the sum of the meanings of the words of which it is made up. Instead, it can only be understood through a global understanding of the whole chunk as one lexical item with a unique meaning.

            The meaning of an idiom may sometimes be signalled or alluded to by the meaning(s) of its constituent words (transparent idioms). More often, however, the sum of the meanings of the words that constitute an idiom tend not to allude to the right meaning of an idiom, but rather delude to an irrelevant meaning (opaque idioms). Upon coming across an idiomatic expression for the first time, , the foreign learner – and even the native speaker – is quite unlikely to figure out whether it is a transparent or an opaque idiom unless it were contextualised.

            The idiomaticity of the English language is one of its most prominent distinctive features. In fact, it is not unlikely that English is the most idiomatic language in the world. In consequence, it is vitally important that the EFL learner be aware of the fact that a good lexical repertoire of idioms is one of the bare essentials of linguistic survival. Actually the use or non-use of idioms is a major difference between native and non-native use of English, and how idiomatic your language is is arguably the second factor (after pronunciation and accent) that determines how natural one's English sounds.

            The list of idioms along with their explanations given below is only a thumbnail sketch of a prodigious realm in the English language – an extremely tricky but equally intriguing linguistic domain that has baffled, and continues to baffle, millions of EFL students worldwide.


Following is a brief list of English idioms that you are strongly advised to learn and use in your everyday use of English.


A big-headed person is one who is conceited or boastful.

A nosy person is one who keeps prying into other people's private lives.

A brainy person is an intelligent one.

A cheeky person is one who is rude, especially to one's elders.

A hot-headed person is one who gets angry quickly.

A pig-headed person is one who is stubborn and is unwilling to listen to advice.

A thick person is a stupid person.

A thick-skinned person is one who is insensitive to criticism.

If someone is well off or is rolling in it, that means they are wealthy.

If someone is a live wire or is full of beans, they are active/ energetic.

A hen-pecked husband is one who is controlled by his wife.

Someone who is bald/ hairless can be said to be thin on top.

A skinny person is one who is very thin.

A heartless person is a very unkind one.

To be keyed up is to be feeling awkward and uneasy.

To be hard of hearing is to be almost deaf.

If someone is down in the dumps, they are depressed/ unhappy.

To be heart-broken (or broken-hearted) is to feel sad, especially because someone you love has left you.

To be broke or hard up is to be short of money.

If you are peckish, that means you are hungry.



Exercise 1: Now go through those idioms above once again and then choose the idiom(atic expression) that best completes the sentence.


1. Please speak up. I'm a bit __.

a. brainy            b. thin on top            c. hard of hearing

2. She's so __ and is always disturbing us with endless stories about her achievements.

a. thin on top     b. big-headed           c. hot-headed

3. Mark is such a __ guy. I wonder if he'd ever stop asking me personal questions.

a. nosy              b. thin on top            c. hard of hearing

4. Sara felt __ when she was asked to take the floor and speak in front of a large audience.

a. keyed up           b. nosy                         c. hard up

5. I'm __ at the mo. Can you lend me some money?

a. keyed up           b. full of beans              c. hard up



If you have mastered those idioms above, you may have found it enormously beneficial to be able to use them. Below in a grid is quite a long list of sentences containing idiomatic expressions. Next to each sentence is a succinct explanation. Should you feel that the explanation is inadequate, you may look up the idiom in a good dictionary or consult a teacher.

Sentence containing idiom


John is absent-minded.

He's forgetful.

John is hot-tempered.

It's the same as hot-headed.

John is tight-fisted/ close-fisted.

He's mean with money.

John is two-faced.

He's a hypocrite.

John is down-at-heal.

He looks shabby and dirty.

John is long in the tooth.

He's very old.

John is stuck up.

He thinks too highly of himself.

John is wet behind the ears.

He's nave, inexperienced.

John is bedridden.

He's chronically ill and is in bed (usually for a long time).

John is dead beat.

He's exhausted.

John is ill at ease.

He's confused and finds it difficult to speak.

John is laid back.

He's careless (in a good sense).

John is laid up.

He's in bed because he's sick.

John is on the dole.

He's jobless.

John looks off colour.

He looks slightly ill.

John got tongue-tied.

He got confused and didn't know what to say.

John is scared stiff of snakes.

He's afraid of snakes.

The book is dog-eared.

It's old and has been used by many people.

It's an eye-catching (or a breath-taking) design.

It's a beautiful design.

Houses in this town are few and far between.

There are not many houses.

There's sth fishy about it.

There's sth that's not quite right, sth suspicious.

He received a frosty welcome.

A very cold welcome.

It was a hair-raising accident.

It was a terrible accident.

It was a long-winded lecture.

It was a very long, boring lecture.

I bought a second-hand car.

I bought a used car.

This car changed three hands before you bought it.

It was owned by three people before you bought it.

We give you our whole-hearted support.

We support you strongly and unconditionally.

I have a splitting headache.

I have a severe headache.

My car battery is flat.

It's empty.

I have a soft spot for Oxford.

I love Oxford.

It was a narrow escape (or a hair-breadth escape).

It was a miraculous escape.

She escaped by the skin of her teeth from being knocked down by a car.

She was nearly knocked down by a car.

He's a confirmed bachelor.

He wants to stay single forever.

It's one of my pet hates.

It's one of the things I hate most.

She has a sharp tongue.

She's a scold.

The tramp had a square meal.

He had a substantial, filling meal.

It's an unwritten law.

Sth that's observed by everyone although it's not a law.

I haven't the foggiest (or slightest) idea.

I have no idea at all.

Samantha's a backseat driver.

She keeps telling the one driving the car how to drive.

Jim is a big shot (or a bigwig).

He's an important person.

John's a dark horse.

He has latent capabilities that surprised everyone.

John's the boss's blue-eyed boy.

He's the boss's favourite employee.

John's a fair-weather friend.

When you need him, he doesn't help as a friend should do.

John's a general dogsbody.

He's active and always does the hardest part of the work that no-one else would do.

John's an old hand in teaching.

He's an experienced teacher.

John's a rough diamond.

He appears to be rough but in fact has a heart of gold.

John's a smart aleck.

He pretends to know everything.

John's a wet blanket.

He's annoying and no-one likes him.

He's a killjoy.

He spoils other people's fun.

He's a trouble-maker.

He's always causing trouble when there is no need for that.

It's a plum job.

It's a lucrative job.

It's a dead-end job.

It is profitless and has no prospects.

John retired and received a golden handshake.

He was given a large sum of money from the company upon retirement.

It's a tight spot.

It's a difficult situation.

It's a tall story.

It's an unbelievable lie.

It's a cock and bull story.

It's an unbelievable lie.

He got his jumper on back to front.

He got it on the wrong way.

The committee outlined the pros and cons.

It outlined the possible advantages and disadvantages.

They're always fighting tooth and nail.

Fighting fiercely.

Life is full of ups and downs.

A mixture of good and bad things.

I'm at the end of my tether.

I've given up.

I'm at a loose end.

I have nothing to do.

It was a weight off my mind.

It was a great relief.

He can't make ends meet.

He can't earn enough money.

It slipped my mind.

I forgot it.

It was a slip of the tongue.

I didn't mean to say that.

I take your point!

I agree with you.

Mark my words.

Just take my words for granted, and you'll discover I'm telling you the truth.

I give you my word.

I promise you.

She told them off.

She reprimanded them.

I've made up my mind to do that.

I've decided to do that.

I've changed my mind.

I've decided to do sth different.

John dropped me a line.

He wrote me a letter.

It's pointless.

It's no use.

It's not the end of the world.

Don't give up.

I read it between the lines.

I conjectured that.

John couldn't keep his head above water.

He can't stay out of debt.

John's in the red.

He's in debt.

John saw red.

He got angry.

The publication of the magazine was hindered by red tape.

It was hindered by bureaucracy.

We had a whale of a time.

We had a very good time.

We had a hell of a time.

We had a hard time.

We go back a long way.

We've been friends for a long time.

My house is off the beaten track.

It's far away from other people, houses, etc.

Playing games is a good way of killing time.

Spending time.

It's all water under the bridge.

It happened a long time ago and is unimportant now.

John's got Jill under his skin.

He's extremely attracted her.

The two warring countries turned over a new leaf.

They decided to change their attitudes to each other  and start a new relationship.




Exercise 2: Complete each idiom in the following sentences by adding one word.


1. You need a map to reach our home. It's off the beaten __.

2. No, not the silver one. I've __ my mind.

3. I'll do that for you. I give you my __.

4. The boss is so __-tempered. He easily gets angry.

5. The under-secretary is always making coffee for the boss so as to be his blue-eyed __.

6. Some people are scared __ of flying and would rather travel by train.

7. The company is in the __. Something ought to be done or it will go bust.

8. The two rivals agreed to turn __ a new leaf and start being friends.

9. When my aunt retired, she received a golden __ of 10,000.

10. The car almost hit me. It was really a miracle that I escaped by the __ of my teeth.



"For the idiom of words very little she heeded,

Provided the matter she drove at succeeded,

She took and gave languages just as she needed."


Matthew Prior (1664 - 1721)

English diplomat and poet.


"Jinny the Just"

Find Out more About your discipline