When I talk to my ESL students, one of the first things that throws them off in conversation is the use of idioms.
I used one right there: to throw someone off.
You may very well understand the meaning of the word throw, but why am I using it in a sentence about idioms and my students?
With this post, I want to introduce beginner and intermediate level students to some of the most common idioms you’ll hear native speakers use in their day-to-day speech. Hopefully, understanding these figurative expressions will help you avoid confusion when conversing in English.
I am not going to list the most well-known idioms, such as “piece of cake” or “it’s raining cats and dogs”; there and plenty of those lists around. Instead, I am going to write about the idioms that most often find their way into my speech, or that I hear fellow native speakers use most often.
In fact, many of these expressions I’ve taken from classes with my students because I’ve noticed that whenever I use figurative instead of literal speech, students who otherwise have good listening skills often become confused.
These expressions are short and simple and often make their way into everyday conversations. They combine simple vocabulary words such as “throw”, “catch”, and “kill”, often with prepositions (a.k.a. prepositional phrases) to create a phrase with an entirely different meaning.
(1) to throw (someone) off
Essentially, throwing someone off means to confuse them. If your teacher gives you a quiz that seems easy, but unexpectedly adds a trick question that is difficult to answer, he or she is throwing you off. The same could apply in a job interview:
"The interviewer really threw me off when he asked me a personal question that I wasn't prepared to answer."
Additionally, If you’re reading a book and there’s a sudden twist that upsets or confuses you because you didn’t see it coming, you could say that the author of the book threw you off.
Bonus: when you don’t see something coming, it means something happened that you weren’t expecting or could not predict.
(2) to catch up
Here’s a phrase that’s very common in native English and yet unfamiliar to many of my students, even of advanced levels.
There are quite a few ways you might hear it in conversation, so I’m going to give you a few definitions and examples.
(a) catch up: do work or other tasks that one should have done earlier;
For example, you might say: “Now that I’m back from vacation, I have a lot of work to catch up on.”
Let’s say you took a week-long vacation from work. While you were away, work was piling up on your desk and now that you’re back you’re behind schedule. Because you’re behind, you need to catch up—which leads up to the next definition.
(b) catch up: succeed in reaching a person who is ahead of one;
Here’s another example: “In the first round the red runner was behind the blue runner, but in the second round she caught up with the blue runner, overtook him, and won.”
In this example, we have two runners competing in a race. At first, the red runner is behind her competitor, so she needs to catch up. Once she catches up to him, she manages to overtake him, take the lead, and win the race.
(c) catch up: to talk with a friend or acquaintance about what has been happening in each of your lives since you last met
“I can’t believe it’s been a year since the last time I saw you! Why don’t we catch up over a cup of coffee?”
This phrase, “catch up over”, is used frequently among old friends or people who haven’t seen each other in awhile.
“Let’s catch up over lunch!”
“Would you like to catch up over drinks tomorrow night?
“We should catch up over dinner. Are you free tonight?
As stated in the definition, to catch up with someone, whether it’s an old friend you haven’t seen in years or a colleague who has been on vacation for a few weeks, simply means you meet to talk and update each other on what you’ve been up to or what’s been going on in your lives since you last spoke.
Bonus: what you’ve been up to refers to what you have been doing lately; similarly, what’s going on refers to what has been happening in your life recently.
Here’s one final example of how you can use the phrase “catch up”:
(c) catch (someone) up: filling someone in on what they missed from a particular activity;
“I’m sorry I couldn’t come to class yesterday. Can you catch me up on what I missed?”
When you miss (a part of) something—a class, a lecture, a meeting—and you want someone to fill you in on the contents, you can ask them to catch you up. This means you’re asking them to share with you the information you missed.
For example, if you missed yesterday’s English class, you might ask your teacher or one of your classmates to share the new vocabulary from that class with you so that you will not fall behind in the next lesson.
“Thank you for catching me up on idioms from the class I missed yesterday!”
(3) to get or be brought up to speed
When you need to get up to speed on something--or be brought up to speed--it means you need to be updated. It is, in fact, similar to the phrase “catch up”.
“John was out of the office yesterday so he needs to be brought up to speed on our work project.”
“Sorry I missed the first class. Thanks for getting me up to speed.”
In both cases, someone missed part of an activity and needs to be filled in or informed of what they missed.
“Thanks for filling me in on what I missed yesterday and bringing me up to speed on our project, Mike!”
(4) to kill time
When you have nothing to do and you’re looking for an activity to fill an empty space of time, you are trying to kill time.
For example, you’re at the doctor’s office waiting for an appointment. There are a lot of patients today so you’ll have to wait for at least another hour and you have nothing to do. You decide to kill time by playing a game on your phone.
Here’s how that might sound in conversation:
“Bob, you won’t believe it! I had to wait at the doctor’s office for three hours today.”
“Wow, that’s ridiculous! What did you do to kill time?”
“At first I played a game on my phone, but then my battery died so I had nothing to do but read lifestyle magazines.”
“That sounds terribly boring.”
“I know. Next time I need to remember to bring a good book to read; that’s a much better way to kill time.”
(5) to run out of luck
We understand luck: success and good fortune that comes to us by chance. However, when we’ve run out of luck, our good fortune comes to an end we begin having bad luck.
“Hey, Mario, how is your winning streak going?”
“Actually, Luisa, I ran out of luck and lost it all in one bad bet.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. Next time you need to quit while you’re ahead.
In this scenario, Mario’s winning streak means he had been winning many bets in a row without any losses. However, his good fortune came to an abrupt end when he made one bad bet and lost everything.
Bonus: "to quit while you’re ahead" means to stop while you are at an advantage and not wait until your advantage has been lost. For example, if you have won some money at a casino, you can choose to stop playing and leave with your winnings. However, if you continue gambling you may lose and leave with nothing.
(6) to be close with (someone)
This is a great example of a word that can have both a literal and a figurative meaning, depending on the context.
Literal: “I’m close to your place. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Literal: “My daughter is shy; when we meet new people she stands very close to me.”
Figurative: “My mother and I are close; we tell each other everything.”
Figurative: “On the other hand, I was never close with my father because he was always working.”
When you are close to someone it means you are standing near them. When you’re close to a location it means you’re almost there. Close literally means near.
On the other hand, being close with a person means that you have a close relationship with them and that you are on intimate or affectionate terms with each other. This can refer to family members, good friends, and romantic partners.
This is a good lesson on why prepositions are important!
(7) to be or get behind (someone or something)
For this phrase, let’s take another look at the contrast between literal and figurative meanings.
Literal: “Hey, I got in line first. You need to get behind me.”
Literal: “Who is that behind you?”
Figurative: “Now this is a company I can get behind. I respect their principles and the way they do business.”
Figurative: “I am behind you 100% on your decision.”
When you are figuratively behind something, it means that you support it in some way. For example, you may choose to support an ethical business by purchasing from them or to support a charitable cause by giving a donation. You can also stand behind a person, or stand behind them on a decision, meaning you support them fully.
Essentially, standing behind something or someone is a way of showing your support.
to run into (someone or something)
This phrase, again, has both a literal and a figurative meaning.
Literal: “I was looking at my phone while walking down the street and I ran into a light post.” (Bam! Your body literally hits the post because you walked right into it!)
Figurative: “I was walking down the street when I ran into an old friend.”
In the second sentence, you didn’t literally bump into your old friend. In this case, running into each other just means you saw each other by chance.
Bonus: This actually gives us a great example of how to correctly use the word literally in a sentence. When something can have both a literal and a figurative meaning and you want to clarify that you mean it literally, you can say something like this:
“I was walking down the street when I literally ran into an old friend. We were both on our phones and we bumped into each other. I spilled my coffee all over his shirt.”
In this case, you not only met each other by chance but you actually hit each other and, as a result, you spilled coffee your coffee. You use the word "literal" here to explain that. However, using the word literal for something that can only have a literal meaning is unnecessary and incorrect.
Incorrect: “I am literally starving!”
In this sentence, the word starving already has a literal meaning: to suffer severely from hunger. Therefore, there is no reason at all for you to add the word literal to the expression. If you want to emphasize that you are extremely hungry, it is more than sufficient to simply say:
Correct: “I am starving!”
Or, if you are looking for something more passionate:
Correct: “I am famished!”
(8) show up
“I would like to show you something.”
To show means to make something visible or to display it for others to see.
However, the idiom “show up” is used in a different way.
“I can’t believe my friends aren’t here yet. I hope they show up.”
To show up means to arrive at an appointment or gathering. Similarly, you can also use the expression “turn up”.
In the example above, someone has planned a party but none of their friends have arrived yet. Thus, “I hope they show up”, means they hope everyone is still coming.
“I’m so glad you made it! With this weather, I didn’t expect anyone to turn up.”
In this example, let’s say that you’ve invited someone to your house for dinner. However, there’s an unexpected snowstorm and because of the extreme weather, you don’t expect him to come anymore. When he shows up anyway, you are pleasantly surprised.
(10) work out
Our final idiom for today is one you will hear a lot and that can be used in a few different ways. Let’s take a look.
(a) work out: to solve a problem
“There has been a mistake in one of our client’s orders. They are very upset so this needs to be worked out right away.”
A problem can be worked out because you work to solve it, but things can also work themselves out, or work out on their own.
“Can you try to work this out together?”
“We’ve tried everything; there’s nothing else we can do. We just have to trust that things will work out in the end.”
When things work out in the end, it means that even though things went wrong at first, everything ended up alright. For example, you may encounter a lot of problems while working on a project, but if the end result is still good, you can say something like this:
“Despite many setbacks, everything worked out in the end.”
Thus, another way to define the expression “work out” is as follows:
(b) work out: when something goes according to plan or has a good result
“I was worried that no one would come to my party because of the rain, but the weather cleared up and everything worked out. It was a great party!”
When a friend tells you about a challenging experience that ended well, you can say:
“Wow, that must have been difficult. I’m really glad everything worked out!”
Now, there’s one other way to use this expression, and it means something quite different:
(c) work out: to engage in vigorous physical exercise or training
Working out is also a common term for exercising, either at home or at the gym. It doesn’t refer to playing specific sports, but instead to doing body exercises such as weight, muscle, or endurance training.
“I worked out for two hours at the gym yesterday.”
“I prefer working out at home with some weights and an exercise video.”
“I like to work out at the park; I use the monkey bars to do pull-ups.”
Congratulations! You now have a solid understanding of ten of the most commonly used idiom in the English language, plus some bonus lessons and expressions! Now that you are familiar with them, you’ll probably hear these expressions a lot more, and hopefully, you’ll start using them in your own speech as well.
If you would like to practice these and more idioms and learn new ways to speak confidently with and like a native speaker, feel free to send me a personal message so we can schedule a class together!