Idioms word concept on small wooden tiles on a dark wood background
If you’re moving to the U.S., we know you’ve got a lot on your mind. But we want to add one more thing: English idioms. Why? Consider this anecdote (based on a composite of Fluency Corp client experiences):

During a crucial update meeting, Elaine, a project manager at a global corporation, was eager to impress her new boss, Mr. Sakai, who had recently relocated from Osaka, Japan, to Elaine’s office in Dallas. She began her presentation with great enthusiasm:

All right team, let’s hit the ground running and really go the whole nine yards. I know this project may seem like it’s costing an arm and a leg in terms of resources, but trust me, we’re not biting off more than we can chew here.

Mr. Sakai, although attentive, found himself puzzled. He turned to his assistant and whispered, “What does ‘hit the ground running’ mean? And why are we talking about biting off arms and legs?”

Despite Elaine’s good intentions to motivate the team with familiar expressions, she inadvertently created a communication barrier with Mr. Sakai. What was the problem? Elaine’s use of idioms.

What Are Idioms?

Idioms are words used together that have a different meaning than the individual words alone. Take Elaine’s use of the phrase “costing an arm and a leg.” Native English speakers automatically understand that this idiom does not mean that you have to pay an actual arm and a leg to get something.

Instead, it means that something is very, and perhaps unreasonably, costly to obtain. In the U.S., native speakers of American English use idioms like “costing an arm and a leg” without giving it a second thought. But for a non-native English speaker who has just moved to the U.S., idioms can be a real obstacle to understanding.

In our anecdote, Mr. Sakai studied English from junior high through university. He had visited the U.S. a couple of times before, but he had never worked with native English speakers, day in and day out. His classes did not give him exposure to the American English idioms that his new colleagues in Dallas use.

As language trainers, we see this situation quite frequently. With any language, there’s a big gulf between the vocabulary you learn from a textbook and school and the language as it’s actually spoken by native speakers in everyday use.

Non-native English speakers who are working in the U.S. often share with us that they’ve lost track of what was being said in a meeting or conversation while they were trying to break down the parts of an idiom and interpret its true meaning.

As a result, they may have missed key information or an opportunity to share knowledge or insight. That’s frustrating, and it can ultimately hurt your job performance.

How to Learn English Idioms

If you’re moving to the U.S., we advise taking some time to get used to the idioms you’ll probably hear at work. Here are the steps we suggest:

  • Even before you move, start taking English classes that emphasize everyday conversation.
  • Start exploring English-language TV shows, movies, podcasts, books, magazines and music, paying special attention to idioms. (Tip: You’re much more likely to encounter idioms in some materials vs. others. For example, People magazine will use more idioms than an economics journal.)
  • When you run across an idiom you haven’t heard, write it down and take it to your next English class to talk about with your instructor.
  • Check out our list below of some of the most common idioms used in the U.S. This list doesn’t encompass every idiom you’ll ever hear. But it should serve as a great starting point for mastering less-formal American English.

Common Idioms in U.S. English

  • Break a leg. Good luck. You have a job interview? Break a leg!
  • Hit the hay. Go to bed. I’m exhausted; I think it’s time to hit the hay.
  • Bite the bullet. Face a difficult situation with courage. I know none of us wants to stay late, but we need to bite the bullet this time.
  • Piece of cake. Something very easy to do. The presentation was a piece of cake.
  • Burn the midnight oil. Work late into the night. I have a deadline tomorrow, so I’ll be burning the midnight oil.
  • Hit the nail on the head. To describe exactly what is causing a situation or problem. You really hit the nail on the head with your analysis of the issue.
  • Jump on the bandwagon. Join others in doing something that has become fashionable or popular. After Lisa endorsed the plan, everyone else jumped on the bandwagon and started supporting it, too.
  • The ball is in your court. It’s your turn to take action or make a decision. I’ve done my part; now the ball is in your court.
  • Bite off more than you can chew. Take on a task that is way too big or beyond one’s capabilities. I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with this project.
  • Cut to the chase. Get to the main point without wasting time. Let’s cut to the chase: How much will this project really cost?
  • The whole nine yards. Everything, all the way. We’ll host a formal dinner, present gift baskets for everyone — the whole nine yards.
  • Hit the road. Begin a journey or leave. It’s getting late; I should hit the road.
  • Hold your horses. Be patient. Hold your horses! I’ll be ready in a minute.
  • Actions speak louder than words. What you do is more important than what you say. The executives say don’t worry, but actions speak louder than words.
  • Don’t cry over spilled milk. Don’t worry about things that have already happened and can’t be changed. We missed an opportunity, but we can’t cry over spilled milk. Let’s just move on.
  • Let the cat out of the bag. Accidentally reveal a secret. Tony let the cat out of the bag: Lori is the next Employee of the Month.
  • Keep your chin up. Stay positive in a difficult situation. Keep your chin up, guys. We’re so close to having this project done.
  • Let sleeping dogs lie. Avoid bringing up old conflicts or issues. He didn’t address what happened at the last conference, but I’m just going to let sleeping dogs lie.
  • Steal someone’s thunder. Upstage someone. Before David could give his update, Tim stole his thunder with a surprise announcement.
  • Throw in the towel. Give up or surrender. Maybe we need to throw in the towel on this client. The terms they’re proposing just aren’t reasonable.

Want to Improve Your Conversational English?

If you need to improve your conversational English skills before moving to the U.S., or you need to purchase English language training for employees at your organization, we’d love to talk with you about how Fluency Corp can help.

We offer English classes around the world, for employees at all levels, as well as online classes. To learn more, you can watch video testimonials, see some of the major companies we’ve worked with, and read about how our classes work. We’re also happy to answer your questions directly. Just get in touch.