Learn English Idiomatic Expressions without Memorizing

Most lists of common English idiomatic expressions I see have 2 things wrong with them. They include a lot of out-dated expressions that no one actually uses anymore (it’s raining cats and dogs), and they’re really hard to memorize.

Rather than force you to memorize a list of expressions, we’re going to teach you some tricks that will make it easy to understand English expressions, even if you’ve never heard them before.

Most idiomatic expressions can be divided into a few groups, and these groups have things in common that make them easier to understand. Below you’ll find these groups, with the English expressions in bold.

English Expressions About Life:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – so said Lao Tzu, the founder of Chinese Taoism.

When he said these wise words, he wasn’t just offering encouragement to people who had to walk long distances in Zhou Dynasty China during the 6th BC, but was talking about every kind of journey in life.

The quotation is generally taken to mean that any undertaking in life – even really big ones – must start with small steps, and that we must not become discouraged by the size of the tasks in front of us. The idea that our tasks, and indeed our lives, can be seen as physical journeys that can be broken down into steps is common in many languages; English is no exception.

So we might set out on a new career, saunter through life without a care, follow in someone’s footsteps or take a difficult task one step at a time.

And just as the physical hikes, strolls or walks that we go on require paths or roads, which can be straight or winding, and sometimes lead to dead ends – so it is with our projects, careers and lives.

This means that some of us want to follow a clear career path, are proud of the milestones we achieve and don’t want to work in a dead end job. When deciding on a course of action we might find ourselves at a crossroads in life, wondering which way to turn, hoping we don’t take the road to ruin!

Examples of idiomatic expressions about life:

  • He’s put his criminal past behind him – He’s on the straight and narrow now!

  • It’s a difficult system to get used to, so let me just walk you through the first few steps.

  • We need to come up with a road map to go forward with these negotiations.

  • Being selected for the national team was the first major milestone in my career.

  • So you want to invest in his business? I wouldn’t go down that road if I were you!

  • I feel like I’m at a crossroads in my career and I’m not sure which way to turn.

  • I have tried to follow in Dad’s footsteps and to do the right things.

  • I suppose I’ve gone down quite a winding career path – I’ve never done things the easy way!

  • Holmes had crossed paths with Moriarty several times before and it had never gone well.

  • I know I said you should read a bit more, but War and Peace? Don’t run before you can walk!

Please note that we use the imperial system, rather than the modern metric system, to refer to distances in idioms:

  • We are just inching forward with this project at a snail’s pace.

  • I think I can get good mileage out of this idea.

Notice the way that prepositions are used to imply movement or direction in life:

  • He envied his grandchildren having their whole lives in front of them.

  • I always try and put failures behind me and get on with my life.

Also, if we are traveling along a road or pathway, we might expect to find obstacles to our progress and have to handle them in some way:

  • We need to tread carefully here because ethnic tensions in the area can be a minefield.

  • I don’t know yet what we’ll do if they reject our offer – but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

And please note that idioms involving roads can refer to other things:

  • The information superhighway has changed the way we think about the world.

English Expressions About Truth:

In Steven Spielberg’s excellent 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones must find the Ark of the Covenant.

This was a kind of box which was supposed to contain the 10 commandments that were given to Moses. There’s something symbolic in this – if you consider that the commandments represent some kind of universal truth or wisdom, then perhaps you can see the search for the covenant as a search for truth.

I used to work as an archaeologist and watching this excellent movie was more or less compulsory for us ‘diggers’ at the time – we used to joke that Indy was searching for truth itself and that an archaeologist was the ideal person to choose for a search for truth and wisdom!

But you don’t need to get your hands dirty to unearth interesting information, because in the English language, any kind of discovery can be made under the ground.

It often seems that an investigation is an excavation: information may be hidden from us, perhaps buried deep somewhere; it needs to be dug around for, and finally brought to light.

English Expressions About Truth:

  • I want you to dig deep into your memories and think about your first day at school.

  • The Police have reopened the case after new evidence came to light.

  • I’ve been working in the archives for the last few months and have unearthed some interesting stories about him.

  • Ask Mary – she’s a mine of information on the subject!

  • They have started an investigation and hope to get to the bottom of the problem soon.

  • I don’t want the newspapers digging into my private life.

  • She had tried to bury the memory of it for years.

  • New developments in the scandal emerged over the weekend.

  • I think we need to get things out in the open and talk about them honestly.

  • The city is home to a vibrant underground music scene.

When a meaning is obvious and easy to understand we use a reversal of the idiom:

  • We need new financial transparency regulations.

  • I understand you – your message is crystal clear.

Interestingly, if we have an exam to prepare for or a bill to pay, many of us adopt a very interesting strategy – often called the ‘Ostrich method!‘

  • This is no way to run a company – whenever there’s a problem you just put your head in the sand and hope it will go away!

If you’ve got any questions, feel free to email us at myenglishbuddy1@gmail.com and we’ll respond. If you want to take your English further, try a live, online English class with MyEnglishbuddy1.com.

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