Top Tips for IELTS

Phrases and idioms about time

The cue card you receive in IELTS speaking very often asks you to talk about when something happened. This is you chance to do two things:

add interesting detail and use some precise vocabulary

use some natural speaking phrases

Put another way, you don’t want to say this, which is dull and uses almost no language:

The photo was taken two years ago

Rather you want to say something like the following, which is more interesting and uses lots of good and fairly simple idioms about time – the sort of language that will impress examiners.

I can’t remember the exact date the photo was taken but it was quite some time ago now. It was when we were on a big family holiday in the Lake District – perhaps 10 years ago. We don’t often now go on holidays as a family and that was almost the last time the whole family was there.

That’s what this lesson is about: showing you useful idioms about time that you can use in many different situations – that’s often the most effective type of vocabulary to learn.

Saying when

This first set of phrases is to help you when you get a cue card like this which asks you when you do/did/will do something

Talk you about a stressful situation. You should say

what it was

when it happened 

who else was involved in the situation

And explain what you did to deal with the stress

a little while ago

a little while is a beautiful idiom meaning

I visited the museum a little while ago, I think it may have been in December. There was certainly snow on the ground

some time back

back is a useful spoken idiom that works the same way as ago. The some time means surprisingly perhaps a long time. An even more idiomatic variation is quite some time back which means a very long time ago. Note in the example below that it allows you to talk about a general time and you can add more detail this way.

 This all happened some time back. I’m not quite sure when but I was still at university and ….

when I was around

The trick with this one is to remember an age and think what you were doing. That way you get to use a past continuous! Good for your grammar score.

We went there when I was around 23 and I was living in Egypt I think and working there as a teacher

I can’t remember the exact date but…

This one is less idiomatic but extremely useful. It is avery natural phrase as typically we do not remember exact dates and we talk more generally about periods of time. If you use this phrase you are able to make guesses about the time naturally and add detail:

I can’t remember the exact date but I suspect it was around the middle of October because that’s when my birthday is and I remember…..

It was around about 

This is a simple idiom meaning the same as about

It was around about Easter I think as all the family were there – which is slightly unusual 

sometime in

Another simple but effective idiom. Small words like sometime add a lot to your speech, don’t ignore them.

It was, as far as I can recall, sometime in July that I last went there.

just before/after

Just is another little word that adds meaning. One useful trick is to start the next sentence In fact and then give the exact time or more detail.

The last time we saw each other was just before Christmas. In fact I think it was Christmas Eve.

Now test yourself

How long

This next seat of phrases is slightly different as they help you with cue cards like this which asks you to talk about how long/duration. You should note a useful trick here is to do this

say how long

then say when it started/ended

Describe a older person you admire. You should say

Who she/he is

How long you have known them

What qualities he/she has

And why you admire them so much

for quite some time

This is just an idiomatic way of saying a long time. Note the use of quite.

I’ve known him for quite some time. In fact we first met 20 years ago when I was at university 

for over [20] years now

The now is very idiomatic – another small word that makes a difference.

I’ve been living in Cairo for over 20 years now. I first moved here when I was a student and then…..

for about [a week] or so

The key phrase here is the or so – it’s another example of inexact language that sounds natural and may help you extend your answer by saying something more exact later.

I’ve only been reading it for about a week or so and so I haven’t yet read that much but…

for a good long time

This is simply a more idiomatic version of  for a long time. The good makes all the difference.

I’ve been learning English for a good long time now. I first started to learn it …..

for ever and a day 

This is another idiom meaning a very long time.

We’ve known each other for ever and a day. We first met ….

ever since

Remember that you use for for times how long and since for points in time.  Ever since is simply a more emphatic version of since.

 I’ve known her ever since we were at primary school together.

Test yourself again

How often

This third set of phrases is for cue cards that ask you to say how often you do something.

Talk about a person who study with. You should say

Who the person is

What you study together

How often you study together

And explain why you chose this person to study with


on a pretty regular basis

One word to note in this phrase is the pretty. It means the same as fairly or quite and is used in spoken language.

We get together on a pretty regular basis – about once a month I suppose.

a couple of times a [week]

A couple is simply a more idiomatic way of saying two.

I suppose I play tennis a couple of times a week in the summer. Although in winter….

not that frequently/often

The interesting word to note here is that. It works in the same sort of way as so.

I don’t cook for myself that often.

more or less all the time

The more or less is another  phrase that is less precise. If you use it, then you have a chance to say something more afterwards.

I use my computer for reading more or less all the time but I do also like to read traditional books occasionally.

from time to time

Here is an idiom meaning sometimes or occasionally

I can’t say that I eat out that often, but from time to time it is nice to treat myself

Test yourself a final time

How to learn these words

Learning idioms and phrases can be great for your speaking but it does take time and practice to get right. Here is what I suggest.

  1. choose 2/3 phrases in each group that you like – you don’t need them all
  2. find some speaking topics where you need to speak about time
  3. try saying the same thing in different ways – find a way that seems natural to you – the idea is that these phrases should sound natural

Where to find more idioms and phrases

You’ll find more idioms and phrases just like these on my sample answers to IELTS speaking questions.


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17 Responses to Phrases and idioms about time

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  8. Alex November 13, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    Hello there.
    I was wondering if the phrase “quite some back” (mentioned here: “An even more idiomatic variation is quite some back which means a very long time ago.”) is correct or rather it should be “quite some time back”?

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