American English Idioms

Photo of cake being cut into with a knife that says, "happiness is a piece of cake"

Idioms are phrases or expressions used in everyday speech to communicate non-literal meanings. Since idioms are based largely on culture and language, you may come across them in your instructor’s e-mails, classroom discussions, or less formal readings but not know what they mean. To help, here’s a list of common American English idioms:

Common American English Idioms and Expressions


Actions speak louder than words = What you do is more important, and shows your intentions and feelings more clearly, than what you say

Add insult to injury = To make a bad situation worse

Back to the drawing board = When an attempt fails and it’s time to start all over

Ball is in your court = It is up to you to make the next decision or step

Barking up the wrong tree = Looking in the wrong place. Accusing the wrong person

Best of both worlds = A situation where you can enjoy the advantages of two very different things at the same time

Best thing since sliced bread = A good invention or innovation. A good idea or plan

Bite off more than you can chew = To try to do something that is too difficult for you

Burn the midnight oil = To work late into the night

Can’t judge a book by its cover = Cannot judge something primarily on appearance

Costs an arm and a leg = Very expensive or costly. A large amount of money

Cross that bridge when you come to it = Deal with a problem if it becomes necessary, not before

Cry over spilt milk = To express regret about something that has already happened or cannot be changed

Cut corners = When something is done badly to save money

(To play) Devil’s Advocate = To present a counter argument

Feel a bit under the weather = Feeling slightly ill

Hit the nail on the head = Do or say something exactly right

In the heat of the moment = If you say or do something in the heat of the moment, you say or do something without thinking because you are very angry or excited

Kill two birds with one stone = To do two things in a single action

The last (or final) straw = The latest problem in a series of problems, that makes a situation impossible to accept

Let the cat out of the bag = To allow a secret to be known, usually without intending to

Miss the boat = To lose an opportunity to do something by being slow to act

On the ball = Alert, competent, or efficient. Quick to react to changes or developments

Piece of cake = Something that is very easy to do

Put all your eggs in one basket = To depend for your success on a single person or plan of action

See eye to eye = Saying that two or more people agree on something

Sit on the fence = To delay making a decision

Speak of the devil = Something you say when the person you were talking about appears unexpectedly

Steal someone’s thunder = To do what someone else was going to do before they do it, especially if this takes success or praise away from them

Take with a grain of salt = This means not to take what someone says too seriously, because you think it is unlikely to be true

Whole nine yards = Everything you could possibly want, have, or do in a particular situation

Wouldn’t be caught dead = That you would never like to do something or dislike it

More Idiom Resources


American Heritage Dictionary:

Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms:

Commonly-used American Slang:

The Free Dictionary: Idioms and Phrases:

The Phrase Finder: English Idioms, Phrases, and Expressions:



Last Updated April 5, 2017