Top Tips for IELTS

Getting your head around idioms

I’m exceptionally happy to feature this guest contribution by Peter Travis of Splendid Speaking and IELTS speaking. What you will find here are two things:

  • an introduction to all things idiomatic in a brief question and answer session I had with Peter
  • a series of exercises on some useful idioms, where you can read and listen at the same time
The idea is that idioms are an extremely important part of the English language and if you want to improve your spoken (and written) language you want to focus a little on idioms. And this I hope will be the first of a series of guest articles where I get some language teachers to share some idioms.

All about idioms

What idioms are

Dominic: The first question has to be what is an idiom?

Peter: Let’s try to explain with an example or two. I bet everyone reading this will know the meaning of most if not all of the following words: pay/through/nose put/eggs/basket But how about in these sentences? ‘You’ll probably have to pay through the nose for a hotel room as it’s the busiest time of the year.’ ‘A good tip for all new businesses is not to put all your eggs all in one basket.’ All of a sudden, this combination of words have taken on a new, rather odd meaning. These two phrases are examples of idioms: set expressions that have no obvious, literal meaning but which native speakers will share and understand effortlessly. And what do these two idioms mean? Well, sometimes the context can help you make a calculated guess. In the first sentence above the message seems to be that hotel rooms will be expensive. So you might be able to work out that ‘to pay through the nose’ means to pay too much money for something. And sentence two? Well, eggs are very fragile things and carrying them all in one basket might be risky. And that’s the meaning of ‘to put all your eggs all in one basket’ – to make success dependent on a single item.

Different types of idiom

Dominic: Are all idioms the same? Or are there different types of idioms?

Peter: There are all sorts. For example, phrasal verbs can have literal and idiomatic meanings. Take ‘put up’. We can ‘put up some shelves’ or ‘put up a picture’ – no problem there. But we can also ‘put someone up’ (give them a bed for the night) ‘put up a fight’ or ‘put up with something we don’t really like’ (tolerate it). There are idioms that consist of pairs of words such as ‘short and sweet’, (brief) ‘make or break’ (succeed or fail) or ‘to and fro’ (moving from one direction to another). There are idioms that act as similes, describing one thing as being like another thing, for example, ‘as cool as a cucumber’ or ‘as good as gold’. You’ll find many idioms used as a verb such as ‘to put the cat among the pigeons’ (to say or do something that causes trouble or makes people angry) and ‘to turn over a new leaf’ (to decide to behave in a different way). Many idioms are a compound of two words together such as ‘the black market’ (the illegal trading of goods) or ‘daylight robbery’ (to be charged too much for something). And there are lots of idioms that begin with a preposition such as ‘under the weather’ (feeling unwell), ‘in a pickle’ (in a difficult situation) or ‘over the moon’ (very happy).

Writing and speaking idioms

Dominic: Do we only use idioms when we speak? Or are there times when we use idioms in written language too?

Peter: It’s often said that idioms are restricted to informal, conversational spoken English or to informal written texts such letters or emails to friends. It’s certainly true that idioms add a degree of informality but this doesn’t mean you won’t find them in more formal contexts. Good writers choose words thoughtfully in order to have the desired effect on the reader and this also applies to idioms. We might use an idiom to convey humour, to show irritation or to emphasise a point. To this end you’ll certainly find them in magazine articles and less formal newspaper reports, horoscopes and other pieces of writing which are designed to engage the reader. Idioms are less common in formal texts like reports simply because the focus is factual. But even here you’ll often find idiomatic expressions of a less colloquial kind. ) See below where I talk about using idioms in the Writing paper.)

Idioms and IELTS

Dominic: What about IELTS and idioms? Would you recommend IELTS candidates use idioms in the test?

Peter; Idioms can be difficult to understand, and even more of a challenge to use correctly. Not surprisingly, the examiner won’t be expecting to see much evidence of idiomatic English until advanced level. A general tip if you’re preparing for the exam is to make every effort to learn topic-based vocabulary on subjects that often come up. And it’s a good idea to sprinkle these with one or two idioms that you’re absolutely confident you can use appropriately.

One of the best ways to prepare for the Writing Paper is to become familiar with the kind of texts you’re expected to write. As you read these examples look out for the use of idiomatic language. This will give you an idea of which phrases are less colloquial and more appropriate for semi-formal/formal use. For example, you probably wouldn’t find someone complaining that they are ‘cheesed off’ (angry) in a letter of complaint but possibly might read that they want to ‘get something off their chest’ (to tell someone about something that has been a concern for some time) and it wouldn’t raise eyebrows (cause surprise or shock) to find the writer claiming that they had been sold something ‘under false pretences’ (dishonestly).

Learning idioms

Dominic: The big question must be what the best way to learn idioms is. Do you have any particular suggestions? How many should a learner try to learn at any one time?

Peter: Read, read and then read some more. The more you read, and the more widely you read, the more language you’ll be exposed to. You’ll meet idioms in realistic contexts and will therefore have a better chance of understanding them. There are lots of books on the market and freely available exercises on the Internet to help you learn idiomatic English. Our own Splendid Expressions gives you the chance to practice 3 new idioms everyday. If you’re the kind or person that likes to keep vocabulary records – a good idea – try categorizing new vocabulary under topics such as ‘family’, ‘work’, ‘education’ and include any new idioms you come across within these categories.Alternatively, you could record them by key word, for example idioms using the word ‘under’ or ‘get’ or by theme such as ‘health’ ‘money’ or ‘business’.

And to practise using them? I always say the best way to ‘get your head around’ (understand) idiomatic language is to use new phrases in a personal context. Writing meaningless sentences like ‘The child cried her eyes out’, doesn’t really help you connect with this new language.But thinking of a time in your life when you cried your eyes out and writing a sentence about it will enable you to ‘get’ the new phrase both intellectually and emotionally, making it far more likely that you’ll remember it in the future.

An exercise using idioms

Dominic: Finally, can you share some of your favourite idioms with us?

Peter: Well, having just recommended personalising new vocabulary I’ll try to offer some idioms in a personal context. I’ve recorded a short talk about the first hour of a typical day in my life. The idioms I’ve used aren’t necessarily my favourite ones but are expressions that I use and hear quite often.

Some questions before you listen

You’ll see 10 questions about the recording below.

a) Can you spot the idiom in each question?

b) Can you guess the meaning of each idiom?

  1. Do I regularly get up at the crack of dawn?
  2. When was the last time I had a lie in?
  3. Does Peter wake up like a bear with a sore head or feeling cheerful?
  4. What happens as soon as I set foot in the kitchen?
  5. Who is as happy as Larry?
  6. More or less how long am I out in the morning?
  7. When do I grab a bite to eat?
  8. Who takes a packed lunch to school?
  9. What bits and bobs go in the packed lunch?
  10. When am I on the home straight?

Listen and answer the questions

[audio:|titles=Peter Travis of Splendid Speaking – Idioms]

Listening and reading can be a useful exercise, so you might want to read along as you listen.

Read the transcript


I get up at the crack of dawn every morning … or at least it feels like that … about 6.30 … to take our dog Bonnie for an early-morning walk … in fact now I think about it I’ve not had a lie in since we got the dog 6 months ago … still … I’m not complaining … I’m usually a bit like a bear with a sore head first thing in the morning and getting out for a some exercise is a good way of putting myself in a good mood … as soon as I set foot in the kitchen the dog runs around as happy as Larry … she really looks forward to her morning walk … I suppose we’re out for about half-an hour more or less … when we get back I grab a bite to eat … usually porridge or a slice of toast … the next job is to get my youngest daughter’s sandwiches ready for school … she takes a packed lunch … a sandwich and a few other bits and bobs like fruit or a piece of cheese and a cold drink … by about 7.30 I’m on the home straight … the kids get ready for school and I settle down to work for the day.

(This recording by Peter Travis of Splendid Speaking) should be used in conjunction with the blog post ‘Getting Your Head Around Idioms ’on Dominic Cole’s DCIELTS blog)

Match the definitions

Now you’ve heard the idioms in context match each one to its definition:

1) at the crack of dawn

2) to have a lie in

3) like a bear with a sore head

4) to set foot in

5) as happy as Larry

6) more or less

7) to grab a bite to eat

8. packed lunch

9) bits and bobs

10) to be on the home stretch

a) approximately

b) to enter

c) early

d) the final stages of a job

e) things

f) stay in bed for longer than usual

g) to be very contented

h) to quickly eat something

i) a meal prepared at home to be eaten later elsewhere

j) to be in a bad mood

Peter Travis Splendid Speaking


See the answers

1) at the crack of dawn = c) early

2) to have a lie in  = f) stay in bed for longer than usual

3) like a bear with a sore head = j) to be in a bad mood

4) to set foot in = b) to enter

5) as happy as Larry = g) to be very contented

6) more or less = a) approximately

7) to grab a bite to eat = h) to quickly eat something

8. packed lunch = i) a meal prepared at home to be eaten later elsewhere

9) bits and bobs = e) things

10) to be on the home stretch = d) the final stages of a job



A little about Peter and Splendid Speaking

This is a little blurb provided by Peter to explain who he is. I would simply add my recommendation that you visit his site and sign up for his English speaking skills podcasts. Do not be put off by the fact that the site isn’t branded “IELTS”: it contains some of the best high level spoken language tuition for exam English you will find on the net and Peter is a podcast king.

Peter Travis runs the Splendid Speaking website. Splendid Speaking supports advanced learners of English who want to develop their top-level speaking skills and communication strategies. For students preparing for IELTS visit our IELTS page for hints and tips on preparing for the Speaking exam:

A bit more

Since I first published this article Peter has branched out (an idiom meaning that the tree of his activity has got that little bit bigger) and started a new and highly successful website IELTS speaking. I’m pretty sure that that’s the site he really wants you to visit nowadays.

Do you want more help with idioms?

I have many lessons on vocabulary – many of which you can find on my IELTS vocabulary page. I do suggest you also check out first

My tips on learning vocabulary

And here is a link to just one great site for idioms:

Idioms and Slang also has a huge range of idioms to explore and comes highly recommended.


Get more help with IELTS preparation on the main pages of my site

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Essay writing guide

Academic task 1 guide

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