45 Idioms in English You Must Know for TOEFL and IELTS

May 9, 2018
9 May 2018,

The meaning of an idiom is a way of speaking which comes naturally to native speakers.  There are many idioms used in English daily, whether in a business context, in the media and in social conversations between friends.  As a result, if you are preparing for English exams like TOEFL or IELTS it is highly recommended that you learn popular idioms. By learning idioms in English, you will be able to improve your scores for the speaking sections of TOEFL and IELTS as well as being able to understand better the materiel in the listening section.  Here are 45 most useful idioms in English:

45 most useful idioms in English for TOEFL and IELTS


Every cloud has a silver lining


Meaning:          Try and be as optimistic as you can be, however difficult you are finding  the situation at the moment, better times will come in the future.

Example:           Every cloud has a silver lining, you will find a new job very soon.


A hot potato


Meaning:          People talking about a current topic which cannot be agreed upon.

Example:          The subject of Brexit is a hot potato.


Give someone the benefit of the doubt


Meaning:          Believe what the person is or has said, until there is proof.

Example:          Give him the benefit of the doubt, he may not have been there.


Let sleeping dogs lie


Meaning:          Leave the situation as it is, do not get involved.

Example:          Let sleeping dogs lie, you were not there so you cannot comment.


Once in a blue moon


Meaning:          Something happens extremely rarely.

Example:           Once in a blue moon there will be an eclipse of the sun by the moon.


Steal someone’s thunder


Meaning:          Take the credit for a situation that someone else deserves

Example:          He stole his colleague’s thunder about doing an excellent job.


Best of both words


Meaning:          A person has all the advantages of a given situation.

Example:          They have the best of both words as they spend half the year in England. And the rest of the year in Switzerland.


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Don’t count your chickens before the eggs have hatched


Meaning:          Do not plan something as the event may not occur.

Example:           Don’t count your chickens before the eggs have hatched as the deal may not



It takes two to tango


Meaning:          Two or more people could be involved in a situation.

Example:           It takes two to tango, so there are more people involved in the problem

                             in the firm than you think. 


Your guess is as good as mine


Meaning:          A person does not know the answer

Example:          Your guess is as good as mine as to where they both went last night.


See eye to eye


Meaning:          To agree with someone else on a subject.

Example:           We see eye to eye on how to progress the matter further.


A picture paints a thousand words


Meaning:          To make a presentation to visually show what you want to do or achieve.

Example:          The picture painted a thousand words of how he thought the firm should develop.


Catch someone off guard


Meaning:          To catch someone by surprise

Example:           He was caught off guard when they asked him to be the new chairman.


Hear it on the grapevine


Meaning:          To hear rumours about a person or an event which may or may not have happened.

Example:           She heard it on the grapevine that he had been promoted.


Get down to business


Meaning:          To get the meeting started properly

Example:           As every member of the team is now here, we can get down to business and start the meeting.


Back to square one


Meaning:          To go back to the beginning and start again.

Example:           The project was not good enough.  We need to go back to square one and start again.


Fifty fifty


Meaning:          To divide something equally ie to divide in half

Example:           Divide the cakes fifty fifty


Go the extra mile


Meaning:          To do more than is expected of you

Example:           He went the extra mile to ensure everything was finished on time.


On the same page


Meaning:          Two people are in agreement about a situation.

Example:           We are on the same page as to how to take the situation forward now.


Don’t rock the boat


Meaning:          Do not cause a problem or make an issue

Example:           Don’t rock the boat about the costs of the project.


Don’t upset the apple cart


Meaning:          Rather like don’t rock the boat, do not make a fuss.

Example            Don’t upset the apple card by making a scene.


The sky’s the limit


Meaning:          A person can achieve anything they want.

Example:           The sky’s the limit, work hard and you will progress to the top of the firm.


The elephant in the room


Meaning:          This relates to an obvious issue that is not being talked about

Example:           Talk about the elephant in the room and deal with the major issue that needs to be discussed now.


Take the bull by the horns


Meaning:          Similar to the elephant in the room.  Deal with the problem.

Example:           Take the bull by the horns, you must sort out the major problems.


In the black


Meaning:          The business is earning money and making a profit.

Example:           Finally, the business is in the black as we have had a good year and made

                             more profits than we thought we would make.


In the red


Meaning:          The business is not making any profit and so is losing money.

Example:           The business is in the red as they expanded too quickly and their overheads are too high.


Read between the lines


Meaning:          To understand something that may not be entirely clear

Example:           Read between the lines, work out what is not being said at the meeting and sort out the problem.


Uphill battle


Meaning:          There are many obstacles to sort out before we achieve what we want.

Example:           There is an uphill battle to win the contract.


No time to lose


Meaning:          Something must be finished very soon

Example:           He has no time to lose as his project is due in first thing tomorrow morning.


Word and mouth:


Meaning:          News which spreads very fast as people tell other people the same news.

Example:           The news spread by word and mouth that the new hotel was very successful.


Throw in the towel


Meaning:          To give up, leave or quit

Example:           He threw in the towel and left his job as he was unhappy.


Absence makes the heart grow fonder


Meaning:          Being away for a while from someone or something makes you miss/appreciate that person or situation.

Example:           Absence made his heart grow fonder and he realised he missed her terribly.


A watch pot never boils


Meaning:          A situation or event can take far longer than expected.  Don’t keep watching for developments.

Example:           A watch pot never boils when you are waiting for something to cook more quickly.


Better late than never


Meaning:          It is better to finish something no matter how long it takes to do.

Example:           He finally finished the paper.  Better late than never as it was due last month.


Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.


Meaning:          Finish what needs to be finished today rather than tomorrow.

Example:           Don’t put off until tomorrow – finish the project today.


Good things come to those who wait


Meaning:          Be patient.  Good will come out of the situation.

Example:           Good things come to those who wait.  Your promotion will come soon.


Birds of a feather


Meaning:          People who are like minded often spend more time together.

Example:           Those two are birds of a feather.  No wonder they meet so often.


There is no time like the present


Meaning:          Do what you want to do now.  Do not put off until tomorrow.

Example:           There is no time like the present. You need to finish your project and you have the time to finish it now. 


If it ain’t broke don’t fix it


Meaning:          If something is already or still working, leave it as it is as it is still working.

Example:           If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, the car still works so do not buy a new one.


There is no such thing as a free lunch


Meaning:          Everything has a hidden cost.

Example:           There is no such thing as a free lunch.  He wants you to invest in his



Practice makes perfect


Meaning:          Keep practising and you will become better at it.

Example:           You will become a great tennis player. Practice makes perfect. 


When in Rome, do as the Romans do


Meaning:          When you are doing something new, act like others do in that situation.

Example:           Try eating English food when in England.  When in Rome, do as the Romans do.


Laughter is the spice of life, laugh on (also known as laughter is the best medicine)


Meaning:          Laughing can help us get through a difficult time in our lives.

Example:           Laughter is the spice of life, laugh on and we will help cheer you up.


Don’t judge a book by its cover


Meaning:          Do not be quick to judge a person or a book –  you might like the person more than you think you will/you may enjoy the book more than you  expected.

Example:           Don’t judge a book by its cover.  The book is excellent and I recommend that you try reading it again.


Honesty is the best policy


Meaning:          Telling the truth is always the better option.

Example:           Honesty is the best policy.  Tell your manager you made a mistake.


You will find that by learning these idioms in English will help you raise your TOEFL and IELTS scores specially helping you in the speaking and listening sections. Further, you will enjoy the language more as well as feeling you can converse as a native with natives. As you will see from the above list of idioms, they give a more vivid meaning to a set of words.  Many native English speakers in fact do not realize they use idioms so often as they do during their daily lives.  Make a note of these idiom in English and learn their meanings.  Then enjoy using them and using them in conversations with others. 


Related resources:

Want to learn more about other business idioms in English? Check this article

Want to expand your knowledge on British idioms in English? Here is a great free guide

List of most commonly used sports idioms in English