7 great idioms every language learner needs to know

One of my most motivated students is an advanced ESL student, and we work exclusively on idioms. She’s obsessed with idioms, so much so that now I’m obsessed with idioms. I collect them like people collect stamps or seashells. Every time I hear one or use one that she and I have not yet talked about, I type it into my notepad on my phone. So, by the time I see her each week, I have a treasure trove of idioms to share with her.

We get giddy talking about idiomstheir history, their usage, how they differ between her native language and English, and how the idioms differ between American English and British English. Needless to say, it’s a lot of fun for a couple of lovers of English.

With that in mind, here is a handful of phrases that she and I recently discussed.

I either personally used these expressions in my everyday conversations during the course of one week or heard someone else use them. I’ll offer some context around each one and then discuss the meaning.

Get on my soapbox (or come down from my soapbox)

My husband loves the Lord of the Rings. In fact, he can’t resist sharing the movies with my 5-year old daughter. I get on my soapbox every time I catch him showing the movies to her. Why? Because it has way too much violence for a child, in my opinion. He is so used to my rants that he doesn’t even hear me anymore.

So, if I get on my soapbox, what am I doing?

You guessed it. I’m giving my unsolicited opinion in a very persuasive manner. When I am done, I “come down” or “step down” from my soapbox.

If I don’t come down, my husband might say, “Get off your soapbox!”

That won’t cut it

You might hear this expression in the following context:

You can cram for the test, but that probably won’t cut it. You will need to study every day for several days in order to really understand the material.

So, the question you might have is “Cut what?” Imagine a pair of scissors trying to cut through steel. It’s not enough. It won’t work. Thanks for playing, as they say. So, whatever method you are using to solve your problem, it is simply insufficient; try another way.

To get busted

With this next idiom, I promise that my example has nothing to do with me personally. I simply listen to a lot of podcasts and interesting conversations in coffee shops.

Context: He got busted for smoking marijuana.

You can get busted for any number of large or small indiscretions. This is an informal phrase to be used among friends. Among colleagues, it is better to stick with “He or she got arrested.”

Think outside the box

This idiom has become cliché (completely overused) in the business world, in particular. Yet, like the Energizer Bunny, it keeps on going. This particular week, I heard one podcast in which the host was encouraging small business owners to “think outside of the box” when it comes to developing new ways to market their products.

Do you have a guess about the meaning?

You probably gathered that this expression has nothing to do with actual boxes, but perhaps you can imagine your brain as a box. All of your run-of-the-mill (average) thoughts exist inside of the box, but your boss, teacher, or mentor wants you to reach beyond that to where the new and exciting ideas exist.

Truthfully, I recommend finding an alternative way to express the process of finding new and extraordinary ideas. This expression is simply overplayed.

In one ear and out the other

A common theme around my household is the lack of quality listening. For example, when I tell my daughter to clean her room, it goes in one ear and out the other.

You can picture it in your mind, right? You can visualize the words going into one little ear, bypassing the part of the brain the registers information, and then sailing out the other ear.

If you can picture that, you can picture 99% of the interactions I have with my daughter.

But, back to my point, this is a great idiom to use when someone missed your point or simply wasn’t listening.


This is one of my favorite suffixes, and it is often used here in America to add a little “wiggle room” to words.

For example: I’ll see you around 10ish. In other words, I might get there a few minutes earlier or a few minutes later. Another example: Her shirt was kind of purple-ish. Maybe it was pink; maybe it was plum; maybe it was purple. If you’re unsure, you can just add -ish.

(Disclaimer: There are alternative ways of spelling this newish American word if you check the spelling on the internet.)

Hair of the dog (the hair of the dog that bit you)

For those of you who imbibe from time to time, perhaps you have heard of this old remedy.

Here is the phrase in context: Nancy drank too much last night, so she decided to try the hair of the dog this morning to see if it would lessen her hangover.

So, what did Nancy do to cure her problem? She drank some more alcohol! Now, I don’t know any doctor who would advise this, but it is a theory that has enough of a following that an entire idiom grew from the idea. It’s a good one to know.

Now, I encourage you to keep a little notebook near you throughout the day and jot down the brilliant idioms that you hear in television shows, on podcasts, on the news, or while eavesdropping at coffee shops. It can be a very real and fun way to learn colorful expressions in context. And, that’s the best way to learn English!

Interested in learning more? Visit us at www.talaera.com.

Stephanie Schottel, M.A. is an ESL instructor at Talaera and the owner of Cup of Tea Language Coaching, a Houston-based business that specializes in one-on-one ESL coaching that empowers English learners to express themselves fully and confidently in their communities and workplaces. By using her own experience of studying and working abroad in Germany (and feeling unable to express her true self with the language tools she had), she brings insight, empathy, and knowledge of the language learning process into every session. She is passionate about helping ESL students to master the language so that they have the tools at hand to convey their ideas, values, and personality without compromise. When she is not teaching English, you will likely find her doing art projects with her daughter, on a jog or on a paddle-board, or looking up new German vocabulary words in her 25-year old German dictionary (that is literally falling apart).