Almost everyone would agree that learning English is hard. It’s a tricky language full of pitfalls for the non-native speaker. Spelling, grammar, and pronunciation often make no sense and just when you think you’ve learned all the rules, you come across another exception. Part of the reason English can be so difficult is that English is spoken in various countries and all around the world and each region has its own rules and cultural norms. It is a flexible language – one that can be twisted and modified across dialects. Australian English can vary greatly from American English, for example, with differing spelling, vocabulary, stress on syllables, and pronunciation.

There are several areas that trip up even the expert English student, but none so much as idioms. Idioms are those turns of phrases that native speakers toss into conversation or writing that make perfect sense to them, but might be strange to someone who has never heard them before. Idioms need to be understood in a cultural context, as deciphering them will literally leave you baffled.

To help the non-native English speaker, we have compiled a list of some of the more common idioms that one might hear in everyday conversation.

Ten of the Most Common Idioms in American English:

10. Under the Weather

You might hear this as the weather turns cold and everyone starts to catch the flu. Saying that you feel under the weather means that you’re feeling ill, not full-blown sick, but not one hundred percent either. Most people think this expression comes from the days of sailing when rough weather would drive people who were seasick to their cabins under the deck.


“I’m sorry I missed class yesterday but I was feeling under the weather.”

9. Think Outside the Box

People say this all the time. You will hear it in school, in business, and in casual cultural references. The “box” in the case, represents what’s been done, the standard, something that’s boring or something everyone else is doing. “Outside the box” means you’re creative, unique, thinking about things in new ways and considering new and different approaches to a problem or idea.


“I think as we approach this project, we really need to think outside of the box.”

8. Putting the Cart Before the Horse

This is an idiom with historic roots. It means that you are rushing into something without thinking or acting thoughtfully. It means you’re doing something out of order. It comes from the days when we used horses and carts. The horse pulls the cart so therefore, it remains positioned in front of the cart. If you put the cart before or in front of the horse, you’re not going anywhere.


“Investing in company X before doing your research is really putting the cart before the horse.”

7. Playing Hardball

This one comes from the good old American sport of baseball. Baseball, and its cousin sport, softball, are both played with a round, stitched ball. The difference is that baseball is played with a rock-hard ball and softball is played with one that is larger and softer. Playing hardball means that you’re not going to take it easy, that you’re going to use every tactic you can to win.


“I want that deal to get done and I’m not afraid to play hardball.”

6. A Dime a Dozen

When you’re describing things that are cheap and common, you would describe them as a “dime a dozen.” It doesn’t literally mean that they cost $0.10 for 12 (although it probably comes from that), but rather shows that they are easy to find and easily obtained.  


“Software engineers are a dime a dozen out in Silicon Valley.”

5. Piece of Cake

If something is a “piece of cake,” it means that it’s easy. It has absolutely nothing to do with actual cake.


“Can you get this project done by Friday?”

“Sure I can, it’s a piece of cake.”

4. Hit the Books

Hitting the books just means that you’re going to study. It doesn’t mean punching the cover of your Complete Works of Shakespeare, although you might want to.


“I’ve got a big exam tomorrow so I’m going to go hit the books.”

3. Hit the Nail on the Head

If you’ve hit the nail on the head, then you’ve captured something precisely. You understand or have done something exactly right. It comes from the rewarding feeling you get when you swing a hammer and hit the nail directly on the sweet spot.


“That’s right, Amanda, you’ve hit the nail on the head.”

2. Costs an Arm and a Leg

Before you start worrying that Americans chop off limbs to pay for things, understand that this idiom just means that something is really expensive.


“Going on Spring Break in Mexico costs an arm and a leg.”

1. Get Your Ducks in a Row

You might be picturing a lot of quacking and feathers flying as you try to line up all those ducks, but this is really about getting your affairs in order. It means you need to get organized with whatever it is that you’re responsible for doing and make sure you have managed all the details.


“Before you go on vacation, you need to get your ducks in a row.”

So with these common English idioms explained, you’re well on your way to understanding some of the more nuanced elements of the English language. Throw a few into conversation and people will think you’re a real-life native English speaker. 

Image via Kennesaw State University

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