What Is an Idiom? Definition and Examples (2023)

An idiom is a phrase that, when taken as a whole, has a meaning you wouldn’t be able to deduce from the meanings of the individual words. It’s essentially the verbal equivalent of using the wrong math formula but still getting the correct answer.

The phrase “kill two birds with one stone” is an example of an idiom. Fluent and native English speakers understand that this doesn’t refer to harming birds or using stones, but that someone is completing two tasks at once.

Our deep dive into this topic will define what an idiom is, go over the different types, help you understand how to use them in writing, and give you some examples.

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What is an idiom?

An idiom is a type of phrase or expression that has a meaning that can’t be deciphered by defining the individual words. Appropriately, the word “idiom” is derived from the ancient Greek word “idioma,” which means “peculiar phraseology.”

And that’s exactly what it is—a phrase that’s normal to fluent speakers (every language has its idioms) but strange to others.

People who struggle with idioms often can’t see the forest for the trees, which is itself an idiom used to describe someone who’s too involved with the details of a situation and can’t see the bigger picture at hand. It doesn’t involve any forests or trees.

(Video) What is an idiom? | Why should we learn idioms?

To understand idioms is to see the forest for the trees, or to look at the phrase as a whole rather than focusing on the individual words.

4 types of idioms

Generally speaking, there are four types of idioms: pure idioms, binomial idioms, partial idioms, and prepositional idioms. Some people may consider clichés, proverbs, and euphemisms to be types of idioms as well, but we’ll explain why they are different from idioms.

1 Pure idiom

This is your typical idiom, the meaning of which can’t be deduced by its individual components. When someone says, “Spill the beans,” they’re asking someone to reveal a secret, not to pour out a can of beans. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at each word of that phrase.

2 Binomial idiom

This idiom is a phrase that contains two words joined by a conjunction or a preposition. Some examples include “by and large” (everything considered), “dos and don’ts” (guidelines on what to do and/or avoid in a certain situation), and “heart-to-heart” (a candid conversation between two people).

3 Partial idiom

This idiom is one that’s been shortened into one part, with the second part generally being understood by fluent speakers. People often use the partial idiom “when in Rome,” with the understanding that the other person knows the second part: “do as the Romans do.”

4 Prepositional idiom

This idiom is a phrase that combines a verb and a preposition to create a verb with a distinct meaning. The phrase “agree on” is a prepositional idiom that combines the verb “agree” with the preposition “on” and is used to express that you share an opinion with someone.

Idiom vs. cliché

A cliché can be an idiom, but an idiom is not always a cliché.

Clichés are expressions or phrases that are overused to the point where they lose their meaning and indicate a lack of original thought. For example, there are few people who feel better when they hear this after a breakup: “Don’t worry, there are plenty of fish in the sea.” That phrase has been used so often that it fails to have any impact.

Idiom vs. proverb

A proverb is similar to an idiom in that its meaning can’t be deciphered by looking at the individual words, but it’s different because it’s used to give advice to someone else.

If someone says, “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” they’re telling the other person not to worry about something that has already happened. The phrase doesn’t mean someone is crying and has nothing to do with dairy.

So once again, a proverb can be an idiom, but an idiom is not always a proverb.

(Video) Idioms | Award Winning Teaching Video | What Is An Idiom? | Figurative Language

Idiom vs. euphemism

A euphemism is a type of idiom that’s used to discuss a sensitive or taboo topic in a polite or understated way. Even if you’re not personally made uncomfortable by a subject, there is still a chance you’re using euphemisms around it, simply because they’re common to the point of cliché. Topics like death, sex, and money have an abundance of euphemisms. For example, “he kicked the bucket” is a euphemism for “he died” (as well as an idiom).

How are idioms structured?

It’s difficult to define an idiom’s structure because it changes from language to language, and it even varies in different regions that speak the same language. Idioms have more to do with syntax—the specific order of words or phrases—than grammar. Remember that the ancient Greek word “idioma” means “peculiar phraseology,” so the rules for how to properly structure an idiom are unique to a specific region.

Most New Yorkers understand the phrase “it’s mad brick” to mean that it’s cold, but people elsewhere in the US may not understand what the phrase means because the combination of those words is unique to New York City.

Learning the structure of a particular region’s idioms takes time and is often achieved by speaking with people from that area.

When are idioms used?

A speaker or writer often uses idioms to convey a message to someone else in a more creative way. Think of them as a type of spice that prevents your conversation or writing from being too bland. So instead of saying “you’re correct” several times, you might throw in “you hit the nail on the head” or even “bingo” for a little variety.

When are idioms used in writing?

As mentioned above, idioms can be used to prevent your writing from appearing too dry or formal, but they can also be used to help the writer connect with the reader.

If you were writing for a Texan audience, and you wanted to describe something as large, you wouldn’t just say that. Instead, you would say it’s “bigger’n Dallas,” which means it’s very big. This shows the reader that you have a familiarity with the topic you’re writing about.

Other types of idiomatic usage

There is another type of idiomatic usage used by fluent English speakers, and it’s called collocations, or a combination of words that have a specific meaning.

In English, it’s common to describe a backup of cars on the highway as “heavy traffic.” It’s not common to describe it as “crowded traffic.” Although the phrases could reasonably be interpreted the same way, the collocation “heavy traffic” simply “sounds right” to English speakers.

Why are idioms challenging for language learners?

Idioms are challenging for language learners because their meanings can’t be deciphered from the meanings of the individual words. It’s like giving someone a jigsaw puzzle containing pieces that look like one thing, only for the finished product to be something else entirely.

But as we mentioned before, that’s also true of people from different parts of the same country who speak the same language.

(Video) What are idioms? 🤔 | Idioms in English | Learn with examples

Because there are no steadfast rules for idioms, the only way for language learners to become familiar with them is to speak with native speakers and have them explained.

Idiom examples

Here are some common idioms in the English language, along with their meaning.

Under the weather

Meaning: Not feeling well

Break a leg

Meaning: To wish someone good luck

Once in a blue moon

Meaning: Rarely

The ball is in your court

Meaning: A decision is up to you

You can say that again

Meaning: That is true

Beat around the bush

Meaning: To avoid saying something

Hit the sack

Meaning: To go to bed

Kick the bucket

Meaning: To die

By the skin of your teeth

Meaning: Barely made it

Idiom FAQs

What is an idiom?

An idiom is a figurative phrase that, when taken as a whole, has a meaning you wouldn’t be able to deduce from the meanings of the individual words.

How do idioms work?

Idioms work based on a language’s syntax—the particular order of words or phrases—and can vary depending on what region of a country you’re in.

(Video) Idioms in English (Part 1) | Idioms in English With Meanings and Examples

When are idioms used?

Idioms are used by a writer to make their work seem more creative and casual and help show mastery of a particular language.

What’s the difference between an idiom and a cliché?

A cliché is a type of idiom that is so overused that its meaning loses any significance and often indicates a lack of original thought on the part of the writer.


What Is an Idiom? Definition and Examples? ›

An idiom is an expression that takes on a figurative meaning when certain words are combined, which is different from the literal definition of the individual words. For example, let's say I said: 'Don't worry, driving out to your house is a piece of cake.

What is a simple definition of idiom? ›

An idiom is a phrase that, when taken as a whole, has a meaning you wouldn't be able to deduce from the meanings of the individual words. It's essentially the verbal equivalent of using the wrong math formula but still getting the correct answer. The phrase “kill two birds with one stone” is an example of an idiom.

What is idioms with example? ›

An idiom is a widely used saying or expression containing a figurative meaning that differs from the phrase's literal meaning. The word “idiom” comes from the Greek word “idioma,” meaning peculiar phrasing. For example, “under the weather” is an idiom universally understood to mean sick or ill.

How is idiom used in a sentence? ›

An idiom can be used in dialogue to give more insight into who a character is, such as someone who says “kicked the bucket” instead of “died.” It can also be used to simplify a more complex idea—for example, writing “he gave her the cold shoulder” instead of trying to detail a character's unwelcoming behaviors.

What is an idiom simple definition for kids? ›

What's an idiom? Idioms are phrases or expressions that are part of a language and whose meaning can't be predicted easily from the meaning and denotation of its individual parts. These expressions are deeply intertwined with the culture of the speaker, and their meanings aren't literal but instead are more figurative.

What is the difference between an idiom and a proverb? ›

An idiom is defined as a phrase that contains its own meaning but cannot be understood in layman's language. A proverb is defined as a well-known sentence that is used to give advice to the other person. 2. An idiom has a non-literal meaning used in reading, writing, and speaking.

How to understand idioms? ›

  1. Try to devise its visual meaning by putting it in a sentence. Eg. ...
  2. Read the idiom again and again and try to draw a connection between the words used. ...
  3. While reading the idioms try to understand the context for which they are used, this will help you in memorizing them.
Dec 1, 2020

What is the idiom of a piece of cake? ›

piece of cake. : something easy to do.

What are 4 types of idioms? ›

Types of Idioms
  • Pure Idioms. Pure idioms are idioms whose original meaning is lost to the extent that there is no possible way to analyze the phrase logically to come to an understanding of its meaning. ...
  • Binomial Idioms. ...
  • Partial Idioms. ...
  • Prepositional Idioms. ...
  • Proverbs. ...
  • Euphemisms. ...
  • Clichés.
Apr 7, 2021

What is the purpose of an idiom? ›

Idioms are particularly useful because they give you a new, creative way to express yourself. Rather than saying 'You're correct', you could say 'You hit the nail on the head', which is a more complex and interesting expression.

What is the difference between an idiom and a metaphor? ›

An idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (Examples: barking up the wrong tree, once in a blue moon, see the light ). A metaphor is an expression representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.

What are 3 sentences using idioms? ›

Don't jump the gun. He decided to let her off the hook. He missed the boat. I go out for walks once in a blue moon.

What is an example of the idiom of the day? ›

For example:

The government had a few teething problems early in its term, but most people think they did a good job overall. We're still having a few teething troubles, but when everyone adjusts to their roles, everything should be fine.

Is when pigs fly an idiom? ›

However, even though the saying "when pigs fly" is a common one, that's not something you'll probably ever see. This phrase is an idiom of improbability used to describe something that is never going to happen.

What are the three types of idioms? ›

In general, idioms can be classified into phrasal verb, prepositional phrase and partial idiom.

What are the 20 idioms with meaning? ›

20 Idioms With Their Meanings and Sentences
  • Adding insult to injury – Make things worse. ...
  • Beat around the bush – Avoid saying something. ...
  • Blessing in disguise – An unexpectedly good thing. ...
  • Birds of a feather flock together – People with a lot in common become good friends. ...
  • Biting off more than you can chew - Be overwhelmed.
Oct 15, 2020

Are all idioms metaphors? ›

Idioms and metaphors have some similarities, but they are not the same thing. An idiom can have a figurative and literal meaning, while a metaphor is a figure of speech that refers to one thing to show a fact about another thing.

What's a proverb example? ›

A proverb is a short sentence that people often quote, which gives advice or tells you something about life. For example, `A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. ' An old proverb says, `The enemy of my enemy is my friend'.

What is the most popular idiom? ›

The most common English idioms
Speak of the devilThe person we were just talking about showed up!
That's the last strawMy patience has run out
The best of both worldsAn ideal situation
Time flies when you're having funYou don't notice how long something lasts when it's fun
33 more rows

How do beginners teach idioms? ›

Only introduce a few idioms at a time

Instead, introduce a few idioms at a time. It can also help to keep them all related to a theme. For example, focus one lesson on a few animal-related idioms, such as “work like a dog,” “dog days,” “raining cats and dogs,” and “the cat's out of the bag.”

Why are idioms difficult to learn? ›

So what makes idiom difficult? The answer is its meaning. Idioms are not easy to understand - especially for non-native speakers, because their meanings are usually metaphorical.

What is the idiom see eye to eye? ›

phrase. Definition of see eye to eye. as in agree. to have or come to the same opinion or point of view The two did not see eye to eye on certain political issues.

What does the idiom a walk in the park mean? ›

something that is very easy to do, and usually pleasant: He's used to hard physical work - this is a walk in the park to him. SMART Vocabulary: related words and phrases.

What does the idiom an arm and a leg mean? ›

: a very large amount of money.

What is a pure idiom? ›

Pure idioms are idioms where the components of the phrase bear no literal resemblance to the meaning of the phrase. This is often what people think of when they think of idioms. Examples of pure idioms include: Spill the beans (Tell your secrets)

What is the meaning of the idiom all eyes on me? ›

If all eyes are on someone or something, everyone is watching that person or thing and waiting to see what will happen: All eyes are on the president to see how he will respond to the challenge to his leadership. SMART Vocabulary: related words and phrases. Using the eyes. accommodate.

Is break a leg idiom? ›

"Break a leg" is a typical English idiom used in the context of theatre or other performing arts to wish a performer "good luck".

Is an idiom a figure of speech? ›

In summary, an idiom is: a figure of speech. a phrase that should not be taken literally. used to express a particular sentiment.

Do idioms improve the language? ›

Findings demonstrated that by learning and using some idioms the learners were able to increase their knowledge about idioms, they learned new vocabulary, and improved their communicative skill.

Is raining cats and dogs a metaphor or idiom? ›

Answer and Explanation: The statement "It's raining cats and dogs" is not a metaphor, which is a comparison of two unlike things. Instead, the phrase is an idiom, which is an expression which taken on a completely different meaning than what it says literally.

Is the elephant in the room a idiom? ›

Elephant in the room is an English-language metaphorical idiom for an obvious problem or risk that no one wants to discuss.

What is similar to an idiom? ›

Note: An idiom, a metaphor and a simile, all are figurative language. The difference lies in the fact that an idiom is a saying or a phrase that is used to describe a situation, a metaphor is an indirect comparison to describe something. And a simile is a direct comparison.

What is the idiom for difficult situation? ›

To be in deep water

To be in a difficult situation which is hard to deal with: "I'll be in deep water unless I pass that exam.

What does it mean once in a blue moon? ›

1. Once in a blue moon: This poetic phrase refers to something extremely rare in occurrence. A blue moon is the term commonly used for a second full moon that occasionally appears in a single month of our solar-based calendars.

What is the idiom for difficult task? ›

#4 An uphill battle. Definition: A hard struggle; a very difficult task. “Starting my own business truly is an uphill battle."

Is head over heels an idiom? ›

Is Head Over Heels an Idiom? Yes, the common expression “head over heels” is a simple idiom. We usually say head over heels when we're describing someone who is totally, utterly, deeply in love or extremely enthusiastic about something.

What is the idiom of a fish out of water? ›

A person away from his or her usual environment or activities. For example, Using a computer for the first time, Carl felt like a fish out of water, or On a hiking trail, Nell was a fish out of water. This expression alludes to the fact that fish cannot survive for long on dry land. [ Late 1300s]

How do you dress up like an idiom? ›

Idiom Halloween costumes. Raining cats and dogs, kick the bucket, wear your heart on your sleeve, butterflies in my stomach, hold your horses, not made of money, chip on my shoulder, when pigs fly, jumping through hoops, read between the lines, pulled a rabbit out of a hat, and smartie pants.

What is the idiom for never going to happen? ›

One idiom you might not know is "when pigs fly". 'When pigs fly' is used when something is never going to happen. Example: "He will clean his room when pigs fly." This means he is never going to clean his room.

What does zip your lips mean? ›

US, informal. : to stop talking immediately. Tell your sister to zip her lip!

What does the idiom keep your chin up mean? ›

idiom. : to stay cheerful and hopeful during difficult times. He's still keeping his chin up despite all his health problems.

What does the idiom have the cockroach mean? ›

A cafard is a cockroach. If you avoir le cafard you literally “have the cockroach”, which means to feel sad, be depressed, have the blues or be down in the dumps.

What grade teaches idioms? ›

The goal in upper elementary for fourth and fifth grade is to identify and explain the meaning of common types of figurative language such as idioms. To achieve this goal, get kids to learn to recognize idioms phrases and their meaning.

What is the idiom for something rare? ›

"As rare as hen's teeth". "As rare as rocking-horse poo".

What does idiom mean for dummies? ›

An idiom is a phrase that, when taken as a whole, has a meaning you wouldn't be able to deduce from the meanings of the individual words. It's essentially the verbal equivalent of using the wrong math formula but still getting the correct answer. The phrase “kill two birds with one stone” is an example of an idiom.

What age should children understand idioms? ›

The findings showed that as early as five years of old (preschool age), children begin to understand some kinds of idiomatic expressions and that such ability slowly develops throughout childhood. At the age of 9, children mainly interpreted idioms literally.

What age do you understand idioms? ›

The results showed normally developing children comprehend some idioms by five years of age, and comprehension was essentially complete by eleven years of age.

What is the best meaning of idiom? ›

According to them, an idiom is “an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as up in the air for “undecided”) or in its grammatically atypical use of words (such as give way).”

What is idiom short definition literature? ›

An idiom is a short expression that is peculiar to a language, people, or place that conveys a figurative meaning without a literal interpretation of the words used in the phrase.

What is idiom definition and synonyms? ›

Definitions of idiom. an expression whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up. synonyms: idiomatic expression, phrasal idiom, phrase, set phrase. types: ruralism, rusticism. a rural idiom or expression.

What is the idiom all the best? ›

used to say goodbye, or to end a letter to someone you know well, or to send good wishes to someone: All the best to your parents! Hope to see you soon. All the best, Rod.

Why is it called an idiom? ›

The word “idiom” came into English in the 16th century from the French idiome, but its ultimate source is the Greek idioma, meaning a peculiarity or a peculiar phraseology. The root of the word is the Greek idios (one's own).

Can an idiom be one word? ›

An idiom cannot be one word. A word with many meanings means a word with many meanings. The word "hot" for example has many meanings.

Why do people use idioms? ›

Idioms are particularly useful because they give you a new, creative way to express yourself. Rather than saying 'You're correct', you could say 'You hit the nail on the head', which is a more complex and interesting expression.

What is the opposite of an idiom? ›

Antiphrasis is the rhetorical device of saying the opposite of what is actually meant in such a way that it is obvious what the true intention is. Some authors treat and use antiphrasis just as irony, euphemism or litotes.

What are 5 idioms and their meanings? ›

Common English idioms & expressions
It's a piece of cakeIt's easyby itself
It's raining cats and dogsIt's raining hardby itself
Kill two birds with one stoneGet two things done with a single actionby itself
Let the cat out of the bagGive away a secretas part of a sentence
55 more rows


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