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Posts Tagged ‘idioms’

Always Idioms

Because you can never know too many!

  • While Brandon was still brooding over the team’s loss two weeks later, most of his teammates had gotten over it by then.

The loss of Brandon’s team acts as an obstacle to Brandon’s mind – a stumbling block of sorts. Brandon can’t “get over it.” His teammates, however, have surmounted the obstacle (gotten over the loss) and moved on. To “get over” something means to not dwell on it and, instead, to carry on with other things.

  • Mei-li’s friends thought her four-hour daily practice sessions excessive, but she was of the opinion that practice makes perfect.

The saying “practice makes perfect” is often used by itself, to justify the practice of an activity that a person hopes to perfect. Here, Mei-li practices often and for extended periods because she believes that doing so will help her hone the skills she is working on.

  • When the blueprints were lost in the fire, the architectural team had to start again from scratch.

To “start from scratch” is to start from practically nothing. Essentially, the architectural team has to start planning anew when it loses its recorded plans in the fire.

  • We had planned to visit all of the sites listed in our tour book, but by Wednesday, we had run out of steam and spent the rest of the week by the beach, instead.

The steam from a machine signals energy spent – fuel used. When steam ceases to emanate from a machine, the machine has run out of fuel and has no energy. Hence, when people “run out of steam”, they lack energy. In this case, the subjects of the sentence (some tourists) do a lot before Wednesday and get too tired to visit the sites in their guidebook; instead, they spend the rest of their vacation relaxing on the beach.

  • Said was the perfect salesman; he wined and dined potential clients with a finesse unmatched by his colleagues.

Said is the perfect salesman, because he charms potential clients with fine meals and wine, making it hard for them to resist his pitches. A person who wines and dines others is treating them to lavish and/or expensive things, almost always with the aim of convincing them to do something. There’s an element of persuasion – and sometimes manipulation – involved in wining and dining.

  • While president of the union, Mr. Chen was criticized for turning a blind eye to its members offenses.

As a blind eye cannot see, a person who turns a blind eye is choosing to not look at something (by turning a blind eye, not a real eye) BUT is also trying to maintain the appearance of competence (by pretending to see). Turning a blind eye implies consciously ignoring something – choosing to take notice but do nothing.

  • Nicole and Carol got into a nasty back and forth about who was the better friend.
  • The parties went back and forth for hours, before agreeing to a settlement.

In the first example, a “back and forth” is an argument. Nicole and Carol take turns rebutting each other. The discussion goes back and forth, in the way a ball in competition might (think tennis or ping-pong).

In the second example, “back and forth” does not imply argument. It does, however, suggest a two-sided discussion, in which the parties take turn presenting their views.

Even More Idioms

Once again, more idioms. Idioms are a great way to spice up your writing with expressions that are commonly used by native speakers. (Note that “spice up” is an idiom; it means “to make more exciting or livelier”, just as adding spices to a dish makes the dish taste more “exciting” or “lively”.)

  • Paula was excited when she found a piece of pottery, until Jim explained that archaeological artifacts were a dime a dozen in that area.

Paula thinks the piece of pottery she finds is rare – a real treasure – until Jim explains that such artifacts are actually commonplace and easy to come by and, therefore, not so valuable. Items that are “a dime are dozen” are relatively cheap and easy to buy in large quantities, since a dime is only ten cents – or one tenth of a dollar.

  • Clara’s conversation with her boss was strictly off the record, since her boss didn’t want to be known for revealing that the company was laying off employees.

In official records of events, people’s names may be provided with descriptions of their actions or comments. Records of court proceedings, for example, include witnesses’ names with their testimonies. Newspaper articles include informants’ or interviewees’ names with their quotes. Both court proceedings and newspapers are “records”, in that they provide an official and (ostensibly) verifiable account of what was said and happened. Clara’s boss doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s the person who told her that the company is laying off employees. In other words, he doesn’t want his name to be associated with bad news. He wants their conversation to be “off the record”.

  • Victor’s colleagues agreed that his habit of dressing in polka-dotted suits and big clown shoes was over the top.

Victor’s choice of clothes goes way beyond what’s normal. In a sense, it overflows or over-steps the bounds of normality, as a substance might overflow its container; his dress is, therefore, “over the top”.

  • Treating others as you want to be treated is a good rule of thumb.

Measuring something with one’s thumb is an easy and generally reliable way of taking a measurement (“rule”, in this sense, is used in the sense of “rulers”). If something is a “rule of thumb” or is done “as a rule of thumb”, it is considered a generally reliable way of accomplishing a specified end or, even more broadly, of conducting oneself. Treating others as you want to be treated (often called “the golden rule”) is generally a good way to act.

  • Johnny tolerated many of Bonny’s irresponsible behaviors, but when Bonny borrowed Johnny’s car and crashed it into a tree, that was the last straw.

Johnny has been willing to overlook the fact that Bonny is irresponsible. When she borrows his car and crashes it, though, he’s had enough. Think of Bonny’s many little slights as straws (plastic straws or hay, both of which are light). Piled up, they could be heavy enough to break or crush whatever they’re on. The last straw is the straw that makes the pile come crashing down. Another expression heard less often is “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. Think of a camel carrying a bale of hay. The last straw is the piece of hay that makes the bale so heavy that the camel’s back breaks.

  • Dorothy laughed when Greg told her that he had been promoted, since not by any stretch of the imagination could she imagine him in a management position.

Dorothy might have a pretty big or broad imagination, capable of seeing many scenarios as plausible. However, her imagination isn’t big enough to see Greg as a manager. Even if she tries to stretch her imagination to accommodate the idea, she still finds it improbable. So, “not by any stretch of the imagination” can Dorothy see Greg in a management position.

  • Although Jeff was concerned about his ability to do well in his new job, he learned the ropes quite quickly and was promoted within a week.

Good sailors have to learn to handle the ropes that tie the sheets on ships to masts – i.e. they have to learn how ships work. Likewise, new employees have to learn the rules that govern how their new workplaces operate. They, too, have to “learn the ropes”.


Often used informally or conversationally, idioms are common metaphorical expressions that convey ideas via imagery. In the right contexts, they can be a great way to enliven and familiarize your writing. A few examples:

  • After Sharon discussed her options with Tom, it was clear that she was really on the fence about whether to move to Nebraska.

(Sharon was undecided – on neither one nor the other side of a metaphorical fence that represented her decision.)

  • Kim put up with her friend’s complaining for years, but it eventually became clear that she had to draw the line somewhere.

(Kim tolerated her friend’s complaining – but at some point, she decided that it was too much and that she had to draw a metaphorical line the friend was not allowed to cross.)

  • I am perfectly willing to put in extra hours to complete my own work, but I have had it up to here with people asking me to do their work, too.

(Here, the subject feels literally overwhelmed, in the way that a person standing in rising water or a mounting pile of, well, anything might. The pressure has mounted to a high point – “up to here” – and she has had enough.)

  • As a mother, Jamie regularly found herself working 24/7 to take care of her family, see to her own needs, and attend to the responsibilities of her job.

(Jamie felt like she worked around the clock – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.)

  • Agenting is a business in which you really have to pay your dues. Many of the top agents at places like William Morris and International Creative Management started in the mailroom, at base pay.

(Employees in the competitive business of agenting – e.g. agents for authors, musicians, actors – must earn promotions by putting in time and effort, as if manually paying off a debt.)

  • While there are many intellectually talented people working on Wall Street, the real movers and shakers are those who know how to network.

(The real people who progress and make things happen – i.e. move and shake – in the competitive financial industry are not just those who are good thinkers, but those who know how to make personal connections.)

  • Jim initially had difficulty understanding collateralized debt obligations, but he eventually got the hang of it.

(At first, Jim had trouble getting a metaphorical grasp of a challenging concept, but he later got hold of it with his mind as one might something slippery with one’s hand.)

There are dozens of other idioms. Try searching “idioms, English” or check out sites like GoEnglish.com Idioms.