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What Is an Idiom? (with Examples)

An idiom is a commonly used expression whose meaning does not relate to the literal meaning of its words.

idiom examples
Formal Definition

An idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. over the moon, see the light).

Some Common Examples of Idioms

Here are some common idioms:
  • He's been pushing up the daisies for a year.
  • (He's been dead for a year.)
  • Let's paint the town red.
  • (Let's have a good time in town.)
  • She has a bun in the oven
  • (She is pregnant.)

An Idiom Is a Form of Figurative Language

Idioms are classified as figurative language, which is the use of words in an unusual or imaginative manner.

Figurative language includes the use of metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole, euphemisms, and pun.

More Examples of Idioms

Here are some more examples of idioms:
  • He was just a flash in the pan.
  • (The idiom a flash in the pan means something that shows potential at the start but fails thereafter.)
  • He is trying to be a good Samaritan.
  • ("A good Samaritan" is a person who helps someone in need with no thought of a reward.)

  • Does he have an axe to grind?
  • ("To have an axe to grind" means to have a dispute with someone. )
  • We should let sleeping dogs lie.
  • ("To let sleeping dogs lie" means to avoid restarting a conflict.)

Thirty More Examples of Idioms

Here are thirty more examples of idioms with links to the pages explaining their origins. (The links open new tabs.)

Why Should I Care about Idioms?

Here are two good reasons to think more carefully about idioms.

(Reason 1) Foreigners might not understand your idioms.

It is a well-noted observation that non-native English speakers can "understand the first meaning but not the second."

Essentially, this is a warning that any foreigners among your readers might not understand the meanings of the idioms you use (which makes perfect sense given that idioms by definition don't mean what their words mean).

Here are some examples of how you might tune your words for a foreign audience:
English-speaking EnvironmentOption for a Non-native-speaking Environment
The new project is money for old rope.
Be ready at the drop of a hat.
Such an opportunity is once in a blue moon.
The new project pays us again for our previous work.
Be ready starting from now.
This is a rare opportunity.
Often, context will ensure your non-English speakers follow the conversation (especially as many idioms are fairly obvious analogies). However, bear in mind that using an idiom could throw a spanner in the works.

Read also about foreign audiences missing word connotation.

(Reason 2) Idioms can make your writing more engaging.

Idioms are classified as figurative language (the use of words in an unusual or imaginative manner). Figurative language is typically used to express an idea more clearly or more interestingly.

As a rule, idioms do not help with expressing ideas more clearly, but they can sometimes help to ensure your writing is:
  • Less stuffy (idioms give a sense of informality and familiarity).
  • More succinct (idioms can be less wordy than a non-idiomatic explanation).
Read about other types of figurative language.
Ready for the Test?
Here is a confirmatory test for this lesson.

This test can also be:
  • Edited (i.e., you can delete questions and play with the order of the questions).
  • Printed to create a handout.
  • Sent electronically to friends or students.

See Also

List of common sayings, proverbs, and idioms What does literal meaning mean? What is figurative language? What are metaphors? What are metonyms? What are similes? What is personification? What is hyperbole? What are euphemisms? Glossary of grammatical terms