Common English Idioms

10 Common English Idioms + How to Use Them Correctly in Writing & Speaking!

Hi! I’m Ms Nellie Lim, a teacher at Lil’ but Mighty. Today, we will take a closer look at some common English idioms and how we can use them in our writing or speech accurately.

Idioms are figurative expressions with fixed meanings. Therefore, when idioms are used literally or used without consideration of their true meanings, your sentences can sound quite queer. (Read on to see some incorrect and possibly hilarious way which the idioms are used!) Thus, remember to learn the idioms’ meanings and apply them correctly in your daily usage.

In each of the examples below, read the examples of correct and wrong usages of the idioms carefully to understand how to apply them accurately in speaking and writing.


1. Butterflies in my stomach

Meaning: feeling nervous or excited about something

Correct usage in a sentence:

“Oh no, it’s going to be my turn to perform on stage soon and I’m having butterflies in my stomach!” Penny cried.

Incorrect usage in a sentence:

“I regret eating so much spicy food. Now, I’m having butterflies in my stomach!” Penny groaned.

Explanation: The idiom has been used incorrectly in this sentence as having butterflies in one’s stomach does not mean having a stomachache.


2. By the skin of your teeth

Meaning: barely made it or to get by

Correct usage in a sentence:

“I still can’t believe that George made it to the finals of the interschool debate competition. In fact, I think that he made it by the skin of his teeth with his weak closing argument!” June insisted.

Incorrect usage in a sentence:

“I’m so annoyed by this inconsiderate neighbour next door that I’m almost gritting by the skin of my teeth!” Mrs Ng complained.

Explanation: The idiom has been used incorrectly in this sentence as by the skin of your teeth is not the same as gritting one’s teeth.


3. Fish out of water

Meaning: to feel out of place

Correct usage in a sentence:

“I feel like a fish out of water studying in the new school. Everyone else is so talented and I’m just not like them at all,” Terry confided in his best friend.

Incorrect usage in a sentence:

“I really like the wide variety of sports CCA this school offers. With so many choices, I feel like a fish out of water and am ready to explore my options!” Janet gushed.

Explanation: The idiom has been used incorrectly in this sentence as feeling like a fish out of water does not mean that one gets to explore new opportunities or takes new risks.


4. A taste of your own medicine

Meaning: Bad treatment that one receives for treating others badly

Correct usage in a sentence:

After being so condescending to his teammates, Fred finally had a taste of his own medicine when the football coach reprimanded him in front of the entire team and made him feel humiliated.

Incorrect usage in a sentence:

Having been unwell for a week, May finally visited the doctor and had a taste of her own medicine.

Explanation: The idiom has been used incorrectly in this sentence as having a taste of your own medicine does not mean that one is literally taking medication.


5. Finding a needle in a haystack

Meaning: virtually impossible to find

Correct usage in a sentence:

With so many buildings and homes destroyed by the recent tsunami, searching for survivors was akin to finding a needle in a haystack.

Incorrect usage in a sentence:

There are so many talented contestants in the competition that it is akin to finding a needle in a haystack if you can only play a single musical instrument.

Explanation: The idiom has been used incorrectly in this sentence as finding a needle in a haystack does not mean having a slim chance of success or victory.


6. Go the extra mile

Meaning: to make an extra effort

Correct usage in a sentence:

Linda always goes the extra mile when it comes to her customers at the cafe. She is willing to adjust the sweetness level of their drinks so that they will be satisfied.

Incorrect usage in a sentence:

Go the extra mile past the finishing line and you will lose this race,” the coach warned the athletes sternly.

Explanation: The idiom has been used incorrectly in this sentence as going the extra mile does not mean to run more than the distance required.


7. Every cloud has a silver lining

Meaning: you can find the good in every bad situation

Correct usage in a sentence:

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in many deaths but every cloud has a silver lining. Countries were seen supporting each other during this difficult time with richer countries donating vaccines to the poorer countries who could not afford them.

Incorrect usage in a sentence:

We should think of a wet weather plan. Every cloud has a silver lining and If it rains, we will not be able to carry out the picnic.

Explanation: The idiom has been used incorrectly in this sentence because every cloud has a silver lining does not mean that there is a possibility of rain.


8. Get something off your chest

Meaning: to talk about something that has been bothering you for a long time

Correct usage in a sentence:

“I rather get this off my chest now, I cheated in the Science test,” Michael admitted sheepishly.

Incorrect usage in a sentence:

In order to get it off his chest, the class bully stormed up to Michael and punched him in his face.

Explanation: The idiom has been used incorrectly in this sentence because getting something off your chest does not mean losing one’s temper and venting one’s frustration on someone else.


9. Miss the boat

Meaning: missing out an opportunity or chance at something

Correct usage in a sentence:

“Don’t take too long to ponder over your decision or you might just miss the boat,” Mum advised Sally.

Incorrect usage in a sentence:

“If you do not check your answer again carefully and look out for errors, you might just miss the boat,” Mrs Ng reminded her students.

Explanation: The idiom has been used incorrectly in this sentence because miss the boat does not mean that one is being careless and not picking out mistakes or errors.


10. Bite the bullet

Meaning: to force yourself to perform a difficult action or be brave in a difficult situation

Correct usage in a sentence:

Despite being afraid of dentists, Johnny decided to bite the bullet and visited one to get his toothache resolved.

Incorrect usage in a sentence:

“Don’t bite the bullet or else your teeth will fall out!” the dentist warned Johnny.

Explanation: The idiom has been used incorrectly in this sentence because biting the bullet does not mean literally biting something hard or tough.


Now that you know how to use idioms appropriately, I hope you will apply them in your speech and writing. Till the next time we meet again, adios!


P5 and P6 English Creative Writing Tuition

Components covered:

Paper 1

– Composition Writing (with 20 Composition Topics covered)
– Situational Writing

 

Ms. Nellie

As an educator, Ms Nellie believes that every child is unique and learns differently. As such, every classroom experience becomes an opportunity for reflection and spurs the teacher to find different ways to reach out to the child and establish a strong teacher-student relationship which helps to nurture the child holistically. During her free time, Ms Nellie also enjoys reading, watching movies and plays because there’s nothing like a piece of writing coming to life with moving pictures and sounds. A big fan of Dystopian novels and plays, she can always be seen at bookstores with her nose buried in her favourite books.

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