Idiomatic Expressions in American English

Female teacher teaching students in the class.

Idioms or idiomatic expressions are difficult to learn in any language. Taken literally, they often make no sense, but once they’re learned, they add a natural flare to a language that will make you sound more native. Just be sure to learn how to use them correctly!

Some idioms are phrasal verbs: a verb plus a preposition that gives it a different meaning. Take the word “take” for example. When you take up something such as a hobby, you are started it for the first time. But when you take over something, you are commandeering it. And when you take in a sight, you are looking at it, when you take in an idea, you are trying to understand it. You can also be taken in by someone, meaning they have deceived you, but when you take in someone, you are hosting them in your home, often charitably.

Other idioms are a different use of a word or combination of words to mean something other than what the individual words mean. Take the expression “a tall order” for example. It doesn’t mean a command that is large in height: it’s an unusually difficult request. “We will try to come up with what you’ve asked for in two days, but that’s a pretty tall order.” It can be substituted for the expression “a big ask.”

Here are some more idiomatic expressions and examples of how they might be used.

to be tied up with something or someone: to be busy. “I was tied up with work all day and couldn’t return your call.”

to be killing someone: to be very painful. “My knee is killing me; I think I hurt it playing basketball.”

to do a number on something: to damage, destroy, or hurt something badly. “I really did a number on your knee playing basketball. I hope it’s not sprained.”

a surefire way to do something: a way that will definitely have a certain outcome or result. “Doing sports without stretching first is a surefire way to injure yourself.”

to take it easy: to do things slowly and carefully, without tiring yourself. “You’ve been working too hard; you should take it easy for a few days.”

to keep an eye on: to watch carefully. “Keep an eye on that knee to make sure it doesn’t get worse.”

to get in touch with: to contact, to talk to someone. “Get in touch with your doctor if your knee gets any worse.”

to drop by: to visit someone. “Drop by and see me when you’re in town!”

to outdo yourself: to do something very well. To do better than you normally do. Note that this expression is often used in a sarcastic way. “Leftover pasta for my birthday dinner? You’ve really outdone yourself…”

to be out of the question: to be impossible to accomplish. “Getting all of this work done before the weekend is out of the question; let’s tell them it will be ready on Monday.”

to handle something: to cope with or manage a situation. “If I have to tell the kids to be quiet one more time, I’m going to lose my temper.” “Don’t worry; I’ll handle it.”

to be a piece of cake: to be very easy. “I finished the report in fifteen minutes. It was a piece of cake!”

to follow up on something: to address or check on a situation later. “We’ll follow up on this project with you on Monday.”

Want to learn more? Check out our Easy American Idioms course, or visit our English page to see our other English course offerings.