Idioms – What are they?


Idioms are an essential part of the Lexical Resource section within the IELTS Speaking Criteria, especially if you wish to obtain higher marks (6.5+).

This content is adapted from ‘What is an Idiom?’ at

What is an idiom?

An idiom is a type of phrase or expression that has a meaning that can’t be deciphered by defining the individual words.

And that’s exactly what it is—a phrase that’s normal to fluent speakers (every language has its idioms) but strange to others. 

People who struggle with idioms often can’t see the forest for the trees, which is itself an idiom used to describe someone who’s too involved with the details of a situation and can’t see the bigger picture at hand. It doesn’t involve any forests or trees. 

To understand idioms is to see the forest for the trees, or to look at the phrase as a whole rather than focusing on the individual words. 

4 types of idioms

Generally speaking, there are four types of idioms: pure idioms, binomial idioms, partial idioms, and prepositional idioms.

1 Pure idiom

This is your typical idiom, the meaning of which can’t be deduced by its individual components. When someone says, “Spill the beans,” they’re asking someone to reveal a secret, not to pour out a can of beans. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at each word of that phrase.

2 Binomial idiom 

This idiom is a phrase that contains two words joined by a conjunction or a preposition. Some examples include “by and large” (everything considered), “dos and don’ts” (guidelines on what to do and/or avoid in a certain situation), and “heart-to-heart” (a candid conversation between two people). 

3 Partial idiom 

This idiom is one that’s been shortened into one part, with the second part generally being understood by fluent speakers. People often use the partial idiom “when in Rome,” with the understanding that the other person knows the second part: “do as the Romans do.” 

4 Prepositional idiom 

This idiom is a phrase that combines a verb and a preposition to create a verb with a distinct meaning. The phrase “agree on” is a prepositional idiom that combines the verb “agree” with the preposition “on” and is used to express that you share an opinion with someone. 

Idiom vs. cliché

A cliché can be an idiom, but an idiom is not always a cliché. 

Clichés are expressions or phrases that are overused to the point where they lose their meaning and indicate a lack of original thought. For example, there are few people who feel better when they hear this after a breakup: “Don’t worry, there are plenty of fish in the sea.” That phrase has been used so often that it fails to have any impact.   

Idiom vs. proverb

A proverb is similar to an idiom in that its meaning can’t be deciphered by looking at the individual words, but it’s different because it’s used to give advice to someone else. 

If someone says, “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” they’re telling the other person not to worry about something that has already happened. The phrase doesn’t mean someone is crying and has nothing to do with dairy. 

So once again, a proverb can be an idiom, but an idiom is not always a proverb. 

Idiom vs. euphemism

A euphemism is a type of idiom that’s used to discuss a sensitive or taboo topic in a polite or understated way. Even if you’re not personally made uncomfortable by a subject, there is still a chance you’re using euphemisms around it, simply because they’re common to the point of cliché. Topics like death, sex, and money have an abundance of euphemisms. For example, “he kicked the bucket” is a euphemism for “he died” (as well as an idiom).

Some general Idiom examples

Here are some common idioms in the English language, along with their meaning.

Meaning: Not feeling well 

Meaning: To wish someone good luck

Meaning: Rarely

Meaning: A decision is up to you 

Meaning: That is true

Meaning: To avoid saying something

Meaning: To go to bed

Meaning: To die 

Meaning: Barely made it

Some of the Idioms I used in the 9分达人 IELTS Speaking book, along with their meaning as defined by the Farlex Dictionary of Idioms (

Meaning: to be promoted/move up the ranks of an organisation

Meaning: To establish something, someone, or oneself as a permanent resident or establishment in a certain place.

Meaning: A long time

Meaning: To stop doing something

Meaning: To feel sad, somber, or glum.

Meaning: A figurative trait attributed to someone who is a skilled gardener.

Meaning: An aspect of something that remains unresolved or unfinished.

Meaning: A person who spends a large or excessive amount of time reading or studying.

Meaning: Someone who is especially tidy

Meaning: Something that has a very small chance of succeeding, but you think it is worth trying.