Definition and Examples of English Idioms

Ugly Duckling swimming
The idiomatic phrase "ugly duckling" refers to someone who starts out awkward but eventually exceed exceptions. Wraithimages / Getty Images

An idiom is a set expression of two or more words that mean something other than the literal meanings of its individual words. Adjective: idiomatic.

"Idioms are the idiosyncrasies of a language," says Christine Ammer. "Often defying the rules of logic, they pose great difficulties for non-native speakers" (The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2013).

Pronunciation: ID-ee-um

Etymology: From the Latin, "own, personal, private"

Examples and Observations

  • "Every cloud has its silver lining but it is sometimes a little difficult to get it to the mint."
    (Don Marquis)
  • "Fads are the kiss of death. When the fad goes away, you go with it."
    (Conway Twitty)
  • "We may have started by beating about the bush, but we ended by barking up the wrong tree."
    (P. M. S. Hacker, Human Nature: The Categorial Framework. Wiley, 2011)
  • "I worked the graveyard shift with old people, which was really demoralizing because the old people didn't have a chance in hell of ever getting out."
    (Kate Millett)
  • "Some of the places they used for repairs, Bill said, had taken to calling themselves 'auto restoration facilities' and charging an arm and a leg."
    (Jim Sterba, Frankie's Place: A Love Story. Grove, 2003)
  • "If we could just agree to disagree and not get all bent out of shape. That was one of the main things we decided in therapy.”
    (Clyde Edgerton, Raney. Algonquin, 1985)
  • "Chloe decided that Skylar was the big cheese. She called the shots and dominated the conversation."
    (Jeanette Baker, Chesapeake Tide. Mira, 2004)
  • "Anytime they came up short on food, they yanked one of the pigs out of the pen, slit its throat, and went on a steady diet of pig meat."
    (Jimmy Breslin, The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez. Three Rivers Press, 2002)
  • "Mrs. Brofusem is prone to malapropisms and mangled idioms, as when she says she wishes to 'kill one bird with two stones' and teases Mr. Onyimdzi for having a white girl 'in' (rather than 'up') his sleeve."
    (Catherine M. Cole, Ghana's Concert Party Theatre. Indiana University Press, 2001)
  • "'Just the normal filling for you today then?' Blossom enquires at her usual breakneck speed, blinking rapidly. She's got one brown eye and one blue, suiting her quirky style. 'The ball's in your shoe!'
    "The saying, of course, is the ball's in your court, but Blossom is always getting her idioms mixed up."
    (Carla Caruso, Cityglitter. Penguin, 2012)

Functions of Idioms

  • "People use idioms to make their language richer and more colorful and to convey subtle shades of meaning or intention. Idioms are used often to replace a literal word or expression, and many times the idiom better describes the full nuance of meaning. Idioms and idiomatic expressions can be more precise than the literal words, often using fewer words but saying more. For example, the expression it runs in the family is shorter and more succinct than saying that a physical or personality trait 'is fairly common throughout one's extended family and over a number of generations.'"
    (Gail Brenner, Webster's New World American Idioms Handbook. Webster's New World, 2003)

Idioms and Culture

  • "If natural language had been designed by a logician, idioms would not exist."
    (Philip Johnson-Laird, 1993)
  • "Idioms, in general, are deeply connected to culture. . . . Agar (1991) proposes that biculturalism and bilingualism are two sides of the same coin. Engaged in the intertwined process of culture change, learners have to understand the full meaning of idioms."
    (Sam Glucksberg, Understanding Figurative Language. Oxford University Press, 2001)

Shakespeare's Idioms

  • "Shakespeare is credited with coining more than 2,000 words, infusing thousands more existing ones with electrifying new meanings and forging idioms that would last for centuries. 'A fool's paradise,' 'at one fell swoop,' 'heart's content,' 'in a pickle,' 'send him packing,' 'too much of a good thing,' 'the game is up,' 'good riddance,' 'love is blind,' and 'a sorry sight,' to name a few."
    (David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling. Harper, 2010)

Levels of "Transparency"

  • "Idioms vary in 'transparency': that is, whether their meaning can be derived from the literal meanings of the individual words. For example, make up [one's] mind is rather transparent in suggesting the meaning 'reach a decision,' while kick the bucket is far from transparent in representing the meaning 'die.'" (Douglas Biber et al., Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Pearson, 2002)
  •  "The thought hit me that this was a pretty pathetic way to kick the bucket--being accidentally poisoned during a photo shoot, of all things--and I started weeping at the idiocy of it all." (Lara St. John)

The Idiom Principle

  • "The observation that meanings are made in chunks of language that are more or less predictable, though not fixed, sequences of morphemes leads [John] Sinclair [in Corpus Concordance Collocation, 1991] to an articulation of the 'idiom principle.' He states the principle thus:
The principle of idiom is that a language user has available to him or her a large number of semi-preconstructed phrases that constitute single choices, even though they might appear to be analysable into segments (Sinclair 1991): 110)
  • The study of fixed phrases has a fairly long tradition...but phrases are normally seen as outside the normal organizing principle of language. Here, Sinclair extends the notion of phraseology to encompass a great deal more of language than it is commonly considered to encompass. At its strongest, we might say that all senses of all words exist in and are identified by the sequences of morphemes in which they typically occur." (Susan Hunston and Gill Francis, Pattern Grammar: A Corpus-Driven Approach to the Lexical Grammar of English. John Benjamins, 2000)

Modal Idioms

  • "Modal idioms are idiosyncratic verbal formations which consist of more than one word and which have modal meanings that are not predictable from the constituent parts (compare the non-modal idiom kick the bucket). Under this heading we include have got [to], had better/best, would rather/sooner/as soon, and be [to]." (Bas Aarts, Oxford Modern English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 2011)

The Lighter Side of Idioms

Kirk: If we play our cards right, we may be able to find out when those whales are being released.

Spock: How will playing cards help? (Captain James T. Kirk and Spock in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, 1986)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of English Idioms." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Definition and Examples of English Idioms. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of English Idioms." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).