English Idioms and Expressions

Resources for English as a Second Language Learners

Sooner or later all English students will learn idioms because English uses so many idiomatic expressions that it is truly impossible to learn English without learning at least a few, but these figures of speech and colloquialisms may be hard for some English as Second Language learners to immediately grasp, especially because they often rely on cultural norms in English-speaking countries to provide meaning for their use.

In any case, ESL learners should employ the use of context clues to attempt to understand what someone might mean when they say "I just killed two birds with one stone by uncovering that video of both of them at the scene of the crime," which means achieving two objectives with one effort.

For this reason, stories involving a number of idioms — oftentimes folk tales and those written in dialectic (spoken) style — are some of the best resources for teachers and students of ESL alike.

Context Clues and Weird Expressions

Oftentimes a simple English to Spanish translation of an idiom will not make immediate sense because of the multitude of words and connotations the English language has to describe our everyday world, meaning that some of the actual intentions of the words might get lost in translation.

On the other hand, some things just don't make sense taken out of the cultural context — especially considering many popular American English idioms have dubious and untraceable origins, meaning oftentimes English speakers say them without knowing why or from where they came into existence.

Take for instance the idiom "I feel under the weather," which translates in Spanish to "Sentir un poco en el tiempo." While the words may make sense on their own in Spanish, being under weather would probably entail getting wet in Spain, but it implies feeling sick in America. If, though, the following sentence was something like "I have a fever and haven't been able to get out of bed all day," the reader would understand being under the weather means to not be feeling well.

For more specific in-context examples, check out "Party Animal," "John's Keys to Success," "An Unpleasant Colleague," "and "My Successful Friend" — which are all full of beautifully expressed idioms in easy-to-understand contexts.

Idioms and Expressions with Specific Words and Verbs

There are certain nouns and verbs that are used in a number of idioms and expressions; these idioms are said to collocate with a specific word such as "put" in "put a cork in it" or "all" in "all in a day's work." These general nouns are used repeatedly in English, and in the idioms are used to represent a commonality shared between multiple subjects. Like, around, come, put, get, work, all, and as [blank] as are all commonly used words associated with idioms, though the full list is fairly extensive.

Similarly, action verbs are also often used in idiomatic expressions wherein the verb carries with it a certain universality to the action — such as walking, running, or existing. The most common verb that's used in American idioms are forms of the verb "to be." 

Check out these two quizzes (Common Idiomatic Phrases Quiz 1 and Common Idiomatic Phrases Quiz 2) to see if you've mastered these common idioms yet!