Every language has a different way to describe things, ideas or feelings. We use a combination of words that have a meaning that is not always clear to someone who is learning that language. Each culture has a different set of phrases that have special meaning in their country. In English, we use idioms and phrasal verbs to express ourselves. This idiomatic language is used frequently in our everyday communication so, it's very important that we understand what idioms are and how to use them.

The IELTS Speaking assessment criteria focuses on how well you can use idiomatic language from bands 7 and upwards. At band 7, you will see this statement for Lexical Resource:

• uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary and shows some awareness of style and collocation, with some inappropriate choices

What's an idiom?

An idiom is a phrase or expression that generally has non-literal meaning - the meaning cannot be directly understood by reading each word. For example, if you are very happy because you got a band 8 in your Speaking test, you might say: "I was over the moon when I saw my results". If we look at the literal meaning of these words, we think about looking over the moon up in the sky beyond the stars! However, the idiomatic meaning of this phrase is to do with happiness - "I was very happy when I saw my result."

Idioms are used so often in a natural way by native speakers that they often go unnoticed, we are not even aware that we are using them because we have grown up listening to these phrases and expressions. However, when you are a language learner, you have to learn how to use them correctly, so they don't sound unnatural. You might have heard the term collocation, which is also assessed in the IELTS Speaking test. Collocation refers to words that often go together naturally and are generally used in that order when speaking. For example, you would never say food fast as the order is incorrect, you would always say fast food. Collocation is very important when using idiomatic language as the words you choose are just as important as the order they are spoken in.

What's a phrasal verb?

A phrasal verb is a compound verb where a verb is combined with an adverb or a preposition. When these phrasal verbs are made, they often have idiomatic meaning, and you cannot understand the meaning by reading what each word means. For example, the combination of the verb pick plus the preposition up - pick up - means lift. We can use this phrasal verb to ask someone to pick up something we dropped on the ground, or we can also use this expression to ask for a lift in a car - "I need a lift, can you please pick me up on the way to school?"

So, as you can see, we use idiomatic language all the time to express ourselves in a more colourful way where the combination of words we use have idiomatic meaning.

Let's look at some common idioms and phrasal verbs that are used in everyday communication.

Common everyday idioms

There are thousands of idioms and phrasal verbs used every day when we express ourselves. I will pick out (choose) a few that are used commonly in daily conversation.

Colourful IdiomsMeaningExample
Out of the blueSomething that happened unexpectedlyYesterday, out of the blue, he asked me to marry him!
In the redTo owe money, to not have moneySorry, I can't afford it, I'm in the red.
Give someone the green lightTo give permissionI was given the green light to start this new project
A white lieTo tell a lie that is not very seriousI don't think you should get in trouble for telling a white lie.
Green with envyTo be jealous/enviousShe was green with envy when she saw my diamond ring.

Student IdiomsMeaningExample
Day and nightContinually working without stoppingI was studying day and night for my IELTS test.
Drop outTo leave without finishingShe dropped out of the course because it was too hard.
Learn by heartTo memoriseI learned all my idioms by heart.
Pass with flying coloursTo pass a test with a high gradeI really hope I pass with flying colours.
BookwormSomeone who reads a lotWhen I was younger, I was a bookworm, I just loved reading.

Childhood IdiomsMeaningExample
Brought upRaised/developedI was brought up in the country.
Child's playVery easy to doLearning how to play a guitar was child's play, I could do it easily.
Like a kid in a candy storeVery excited about somethingWhen I arrived in the city I was like a kid in a candy store, there was so much to see and do.
To follow in someone's footstepsTo achieve the same things that someone else didI followed in my mother's footsteps and became a teacher.
To run in the familyQualities that are similar in family membersWe are all good at maths, it runs in the family.

COVID IdiomsMeaningExample
Under the weatherFeeling unwellI'm feeling a bit under the weather. I hope I don't have COVID.
As sick as a dogFeeling very illI was as sick as a dog last night.
On the mendRecovering, getting betterMy mother was very sick but now she's on the mend.
Kick the bucketTo dieMy father was so sick I thought he might kick the bucket
To show promiseTo indicate possible successThe new vaccine is showing promise.

IELTS IdiomsMeaningExample
Practice makes perfectTo continuously improve by practisingMy teacher said that practice makes perfect, so I need to practise more.
Break a legTo wish someone good luckI hope you do really well, break a leg!
Driving me up the wallSomething that annoys youWaiting for my results is really driving me up the wall.
Better late than neverIt's better to do something late than not to try itI didn't know how to drive till I was 30, but better late than never.
Blind as a batCan't see, bad eyesightI'm as blind as a bat, I really need my reading glasses.

Practice makes perfect!

We have only just scratched the surface (looked at something very briefly) as there are so many idioms related to daily life. Our advice to you is to listen to how native speakers communicate and the common idioms that they use. You will notice that they are using them as you may not understand exactly what they are saying. Don't be shy to ask them what an expression means, this is the best way to learn about language.

We mentioned that native speakers use idioms naturally, so be very careful not to overuse them and to make sure that the idiom matches the topic area you are speaking about. Also be careful not to use some that are overused, and sound forced. A quick internet search will produce hundreds of idioms. The best advice is to listen to native speakers by chatting to them or by watching English speaking movies and to copy phrases that have been used. Also learn your phrasal verbs so you know which prepositions go with certain verbs.

Idioms add colour to our conversation and help us to read between the lines (understand the hidden meaning). By learning more idioms and phrasal verbs, this will build your vocabulary and help to improve your lexical resource. It will then help to improve your band score and lead to test-day success. Break a leg!