Idioms are a crucial part of the English language, and they are often used in academic and professional settings. Being able to understand and use idioms confidently and correctly is important for success in English language proficiency exams, such as the TOEFL, IELTS, and Cambridge exams.

Why are Idioms Important?

Idioms are expressions that have a figurative, rather than literal, meaning. They can add depth and nuance to communication, and can convey complex ideas in a concise and memorable way. For example, the idiom cutting corners means to take shortcuts or to do something in an easier, but less thorough, way. This expression is commonly used in professional contexts to describe behaviour that is unethical or unprofessional. By understanding and using idioms appropriately, test-takers can demonstrate their ability to communicate effectively in academic and professional settings.

In addition, many English language proficiency exams include tasks that require test-takers to read and interpret academic texts, write essays or reports, and engage in conversation or discussion. Idioms may be used in these tasks to test a test-taker’s ability to understand and use idiomatic expressions in context. By familiarizing themselves with common idioms and understanding their meanings and usage, test-takers can improve their overall language proficiency and increase their chances of success on these exams.

piece of cake idiom
Idiom – A piece of cake

Here are 15 examples of common idioms that may be used on English language proficiency exams, along with their definitions and example sentences:

  1. A piece of cake – something that is very easy to do
    • “I thought the exam was going to be difficult, but it turned out to be a piece of cake.
  2. Bite the bullet – to endure a difficult or unpleasant situation with courage and determination
    • “Even though I was nervous, I had to bite the bullet and give the presentation.
  3. Call it a day – to stop doing something
    • “We’ve been working on this project for hours, so let’s call it a day and continue tomorrow.”
  4. Cost an arm and a leg – to be very expensive
    • “Going to university in Australia is going to cost me an arm and a leg.
  5. Cutting corners – to take shortcuts or to do something in an easier, but less thorough, way
    • “I don’t want to cut corners on this project – I want to make sure we do everything properly.”
  6. Go the extra mile – to make an extra effort or to do more than is expected
    • “If you really want to impress the interviewer, you should go the extra mile and do some research on the company beforehand.”
  7. Hit the nail on the head – to make an accurate assessment or to identify the crux of a problem
    • “I think you hit the nail on the head – the main issue with the project is the lack of communication between team members.”
  8. Jump the gun – to act prematurely or before it is appropriate
    • “Let’s not jump the gun and make a decision before we have all the facts.”
  9. Keep your chin up – to remain positive and optimistic in a difficult situation
    • “Even though you didn’t get the job, you should keep your chin up and keep trying.”
  10. Miss the boat – to miss an opportunity or to be too late
    • “If you don’t apply for the scholarship now, you’ll miss the boat.”
  11. On the same page – to have the same understanding or to agree
    • “I think we’re on the same page about the direction of the project.”
  12. Pull someone’s leg – to tease or joke with someone in a playful way
    • “I’m just pulling your leg – I don’t actually think you’re a terrible singer!”
  13. Sweating bullets – to be very nervous or anxious
    • “I was sweating bullets during the interview – I really wanted that job.”
  14. Under the weather – to feel sick or unwell
    • “I’m sorry I can’t come to the meeting today – I’m feeling a bit under the weather.”
  15. Win hands down – to win easily and convincingly
    • “I think our team will win hands down – we’ve been preparing for weeks.”
Idiom – Under the weather

For a more comprehensive list of idioms check out our big list of English idioms.

By familiarising yourselves with these and other idioms, you can improve your ability to understand and use idiomatic expressions in context – which is essential for success in academic and professional settings. Additionally, using idioms appropriately can make language more engaging and memorable, which can help you to stand out in a crowded field.

Suggestions For Learning Idioms:

  1. Start with common idioms: Begin by learning some of the most commonly used idioms in English, such as a piece of cake, cost an arm and a leg, and hit the nail on the head. Knowing these idioms will help you better understand conversations and help you sound more fluent in English.
  2. Pay attention to context: It’s important to understand the context in which an idiom is being used. Don’t try to interpret idioms literally; instead, try to understand the meaning of the idiom within the context of the conversation or text.
  3. Use a dictionary: Keep a dictionary or a resource that contains a list of common idioms and their meanings. This can be a great way to learn new idioms and understand how they are used in context. If you think you hear an unfamiliar idiom being used in conversation – look it up! TheFreeDictionary is a good place to start.
  4. Practice using idioms in context: Once you’ve learned some idioms, practice using them in your conversations or writing. This will help you become more comfortable with using idioms correctly and help you remember them better.
  5. Watch movies and TV shows: Watching movies and TV shows can be a fun way to learn idioms and see how they are used in real-life situations. Pay attention to how the characters use idioms and try to understand their meanings in context. We recommend TV shows like Friends or The Simpsons if you are learning American English – and Sherlock or The Great British Bake Off if you prefer British English.

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