Top 20 Common Idioms in English for IELTS Speaking

Using idioms in your IELTS Speaking test can be a game-changer. Idiomatic expressions not only make your speech more colorful and engaging but also demonstrate your advanced understanding of the English language. Here, we present the top 20 common idioms in English you should know for the IELTS Speaking test, along with detailed explanations, examples, and practical applications in conversations.

Break the Ice

Meaning: To initiate conversation in a social setting, often to relieve tension. Origin: The phrase comes from breaking the ice to open up a channel in frozen water to allow boats to pass through. Example: “At the beginning of the meeting, I tried to break the ice by sharing a funny story.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: How do you usually start a conversation with new people?
  • A: I usually try to break the ice with a light-hearted joke or by asking about their hobbies. It’s a great way to ease into a conversation and make everyone feel more comfortable. For instance, when I meet new colleagues, I might share a humorous anecdote or ask them about their favorite movies. This approach not only helps to dissolve any initial awkwardness but also sets a friendly tone for the rest of the interaction. Breaking the ice is crucial in any new social setting because it helps establish rapport and opens up pathways for more meaningful discussions.

A Piece of Cake

Meaning: Something very easy to do. Origin: This idiom likely comes from the simple pleasure associated with eating cake. Example: “Passing the driving test was a piece of cake for me.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: How did you find your final exams?
  • A: Honestly, they were a piece of cake. I had prepared well, so I found them quite easy. For example, I had spent weeks reviewing all the material, practicing past papers, and even joining study groups to discuss difficult topics. By the time the exams came around, I felt so confident that answering the questions seemed almost effortless. This level of preparation made the exams feel like a walk in the park, and I was able to complete them with time to spare.

Hit the Nail on the Head

Meaning: To be exactly right about something. Origin: This phrase comes from the accuracy required to hit a nail precisely on its head with a hammer. Example: “When you said that practice makes perfect, you hit the nail on the head.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: What do you think about the importance of daily practice in learning a language?
  • A: You really hit the nail on the head there. Daily practice is essential for mastering any language. For example, when I was learning English, I dedicated at least an hour each day to practicing speaking, listening, reading, and writing. This consistent effort paid off significantly because it allowed me to reinforce my learning and improve steadily over time. Moreover, daily practice helps to build muscle memory and makes using the language more natural and automatic.

Costs an Arm and a Leg

Meaning: Very expensive. Origin: This idiom suggests that something is so expensive that it costs as much as losing one’s limbs. Example: “Buying a house in the city center costs an arm and a leg.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: Why did you choose to live in the suburbs?
  • A: Living in the city center costs an arm and a leg. The suburbs are much more affordable. For instance, the rent for an apartment in the city center can be double or even triple what you would pay in the suburbs. Additionally, living in the suburbs offers more space and a quieter environment, which is perfect for raising a family. While commuting might be a bit longer, the financial savings and improved quality of life make it a worthwhile trade-off.

Let the Cat Out of the Bag

Meaning: To reveal a secret, often by mistake. Origin: This phrase may come from markets where traders would substitute a cat for a piglet in a bag, revealing the deception when the cat was let out. Example: “She let the cat out of the bag about the surprise party.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: How did your friend react to the surprise party?
  • A: She found out beforehand because someone let the cat out of the bag. For example, while we were all trying to keep the party a secret, one of our mutual friends accidentally mentioned it in a casual conversation. The friend who was supposed to be surprised started asking questions and it became clear that she had found out about the party. Although the surprise element was lost, we still managed to have a great time celebrating together.

Under the Weather

Meaning: Feeling ill. Origin: This idiom likely comes from sailors feeling seasick during bad weather conditions. Example: “I was under the weather last week, but I’m feeling much better now.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: You missed the meeting yesterday. Are you okay?
  • A: Yes, I was a bit under the weather, but I’m fine now. Last week, I caught a cold and felt quite miserable with a sore throat and a headache. I spent most of my time resting and taking medication to recover. Fortunately, after a few days of rest and plenty of fluids, I’m feeling much better and ready to get back to work.

Bite the Bullet

Meaning: To face a difficult or unpleasant situation with courage. Origin: In the past, soldiers would bite on a bullet during surgery to endure the pain without anesthesia. Example: “I had to bite the bullet and take the difficult exam.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: How did you handle the challenging project at work?
  • A: I had to bite the bullet and tackle it head-on despite the difficulties. For example, the project involved tight deadlines and a high level of complexity that made it quite stressful. However, I knew that avoiding it would only make things worse, so I gathered all my resources, made a detailed plan, and started working on it systematically. By staying focused and determined, I managed to complete the project successfully, and the experience helped me grow professionally.

Spill the Beans

Meaning: To reveal secret information unintentionally. Origin: One theory is that it comes from an ancient Greek method of voting using beans, where spilling them would reveal the results. Example: “Who spilled the beans about our surprise trip?”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: How did everyone find out about the surprise trip?
  • A: Someone spilled the beans, and now everyone knows. We had planned a surprise trip for a friend’s birthday, but during a casual conversation, another friend accidentally mentioned the trip. This revelation spread quickly, and soon enough, the birthday friend found out about our plans. Although it was disappointing to lose the element of surprise, we still enjoyed the trip and made great memories together.

The Ball is in Your Court

Meaning: It’s your turn to take action or make a decision. Origin: This idiom comes from tennis, where the ball being in your court signifies it’s your turn to play. Example: “I’ve given you all the information you need. Now the ball is in your court.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: What’s the next step in our project?
  • A: I’ve completed my part. Now the ball is in your court to finalize the details. For example, I have finished the initial research and compiled all the necessary data. It’s now up to you to review the information, make any necessary adjustments, and prepare the final presentation. This way, we can ensure that everything is ready for our upcoming meeting with the stakeholders.

Burn the Midnight Oil

Meaning: To work late into the night. Origin: Before electric lighting, oil lamps were used for illumination, so working late required burning oil. Example: “I had to burn the midnight oil to finish my report.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: How did you manage to complete the assignment on time?
  • A: I burned the midnight oil for several nights to get it done. For example, I stayed up late working on the assignment, often until the early hours of the morning. This involved a lot of research, writing, and revising to ensure that the final report was of high quality. Although it was exhausting, the hard work paid off when I submitted the assignment on time and received positive feedback from my professor.

Once in a Blue Moon

Meaning: Very rarely. Origin: A blue moon refers to the rare occurrence of a second full moon within a calendar month. Example: “We only get together once in a blue moon.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: How often do you see your old friends?
  • A: We meet up once in a blue moon since everyone is so busy. For instance, with everyone’s hectic schedules and different locations, it’s challenging to find time when we can all be free. However, we make a special effort to get together during holidays or special occasions. These rare meetups are always cherished and filled with joy as we catch up on each other’s lives and reminisce about old times.

Hit the Books

Meaning: To study hard. Origin: This idiom conjures the image of someone diligently reading and studying textbooks. Example: “I need to hit the books this weekend to prepare for the exam.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: What are your plans for the weekend?
  • A: I need to hit the books and study for my upcoming exams. For example, I’ll be spending most of my weekend reviewing lecture notes, reading textbooks, and completing practice problems to ensure I’m fully prepared. I’ve also planned to join a study group session where we can discuss difficult concepts and test each other’s understanding. This intensive study routine will help me feel more confident and ready for the exams.

Pull Someone’s Leg

Meaning: To joke or tease someone playfully. Origin: The origin is unclear, but it’s widely used to describe light-hearted teasing. Example: “Don’t take him seriously, he’s just pulling your leg.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: Did you really win the lottery?
  • A: No, I was just pulling your leg. For example, I told you that I had won the lottery just to see your reaction and have a bit of fun. I enjoy making playful jokes like this, but it’s important to ensure that the other person understands it’s all in good humor and not meant to be taken seriously. It’s a great way to lighten the mood and share a laugh.

A Blessing in Disguise

Meaning: Something that seems bad but turns out to be good. Origin: This idiom highlights how a seemingly negative situation can have a positive outcome. Example: “Losing that job was a blessing in disguise.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: How did you cope with losing your job?
  • A: It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I found a better opportunity. For instance, after being laid off, I had the chance to reassess my career goals and explore new possibilities. This led me to pursue a job in a different industry that I am passionate about. The new role not only offered better pay and benefits but also provided more opportunities for growth and fulfillment.

In the Same Boat

Meaning: In the same situation, especially one involving shared difficulties. Origin: This idiom comes from the idea of people being in a boat together, facing the same conditions. Example: “We’re all in the same boat when it comes to final exams.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: How are you handling the stress of exams?
  • A: It’s tough, but we’re all in the same boat and supporting each other. For example, my classmates and I are all experiencing the same pressures and challenges as we prepare for our exams. We’ve formed study groups where we can share resources, help each other understand difficult concepts, and provide moral support. Knowing that we are not alone in this situation makes it easier to cope with the stress and stay motivated.

Throw in the Towel

Meaning: To admit defeat or give up. Origin: This idiom comes from boxing, where a trainer would throw a towel into the ring to signal that their fighter was giving up. Example: “After several unsuccessful attempts, I finally threw in the towel.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: Did you manage to solve the problem?
  • A: No, I had to throw in the towel after multiple tries. For example, despite trying different approaches and seeking advice from colleagues, I couldn’t find a solution to the problem. Eventually, I realized that it was more practical to admit defeat and move on to other tasks where I could be more productive. Although it was frustrating, it was a valuable learning experience that taught me the importance of knowing when to let go.

Cross That Bridge When You Come To It

Meaning: Deal with a problem or situation when it actually happens, rather than worrying about it beforehand. Origin: In the past, bridges were often dangerous to cross, so it was sensible to deal with the challenge only when necessary. Example: “We don’t need to worry about the presentation now. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: Aren’t you worried about the challenges we might face?
  • A: Not really. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For example, while it’s important to plan ahead, overthinking potential problems that haven’t occurred yet can lead to unnecessary stress. I prefer to focus on the present tasks and deal with issues as they arise. This approach helps me stay calm and more efficient, as I can address problems with a clear mind when they actually happen.

When in Rome

Meaning: Follow the customs and behavior of the people in the place where you are visiting or living. Origin: Attributed to Saint Ambrose, advising people to adapt to local customs when traveling. Example: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do. It’s best to respect and follow local customs.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: How do you adjust to different cultures when you travel?
  • A: I believe in the saying, ‘When in Rome,’ so I always try to follow local customs. For example, when I traveled to Japan, I made sure to learn about the local etiquette, such as bowing when greeting people, removing shoes before entering homes, and using chopsticks properly. This not only showed respect for the local culture but also helped me to connect with the people and experience the culture more authentically.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

Meaning: Important work takes time and should not be rushed. Origin: The construction of Rome, one of the greatest cities in history, took centuries. Example: “Learning a new language is a slow process. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: I feel like I’m not making any progress with my studies.
  • A: Don’t be discouraged. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Keep working at it. For example, mastering a new skill or subject takes time, and progress can sometimes be slow and incremental. It’s important to be patient and persistent, celebrating small victories along the way. By maintaining a consistent effort and staying dedicated, you will eventually see significant improvement and achieve your goals.

Take It with a Grain of Salt

Meaning: To view something with skepticism or not to take it too seriously. Origin: This phrase likely comes from the ancient Roman practice of adding a grain of salt to food for improved flavor, implying that what you hear might need a pinch of doubt. Example: “You should take his stories with a grain of salt.”

Question and Answer:

  • Q: Did you believe everything he said?
  • A: Not really. I took his claims with a grain of salt. For example, he tends to exaggerate when telling stories, so while his accounts might contain some truth, they are often embellished for dramatic effect. Therefore, I listen to his stories with a healthy dose of skepticism and don’t take everything at face value. This approach helps me to better discern the accuracy of the information and avoid being misled.


Understanding and using idioms effectively can significantly enhance your IELTS Speaking score. They showcase your ability to use English in a nuanced and native-like manner. Practice incorporating these top 20 common idioms in English into your everyday conversations and observe how native speakers use them in context. By doing so, you’ll not only improve your speaking skills but also gain confidence in using English more naturally and expressively. For an immersive and interactive learning experience, consider using the Best English Learning App for Learning English – EngVarta. This app provides personalized practice sessions and practical tips to help you master English fluently. Good luck with your IELTS preparation!

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