How to use idioms and phrases in the IELTS speaking test

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How to use idioms/phrases in IELTS speaking test

How to use idioms and phrases in the IELTS Speaking test? It is a question that many IELTS test takers have in their mind. Every language has a different way to describe things, ideas or feelings. We use a combination of words that have a meaning that is not always clear to someone who is learning that language. Each culture has a different set of phrases that have special meaning in their country. In English, the native speakers use idioms and phrasal verbs to express ourselves. This idiomatic language is used frequently in our everyday communication so, it’s very important that we understand what idioms are and how to use them.

The IELTS Speaking assessment criteria focuses on how well you can use idiomatic language from bands 7 and upwards. The band descriptor in the seven bands score explains the requirement of idioms an phrases as follows: Candidate ‘uses some less common and idiomatic vocabulary and shows some awareness of style and collocation, with some inappropriate choices‘.

What’s an idiom?

An idiom is a phrase or expression that generally has non-literal meaning. which means that the meaning cannot be directly understood by reading each word. For example, if you are very happy because you got a band 8 in your Speaking test, you might say: “I was over the moon when I saw my results”. If we look at the literal meaning of these words, we think about looking over the moon up in the sky beyond the stars! However, the idiomatic meaning of this phrase is to do with happiness – “I was very happy when I saw my result.”

Idioms are used so often in a natural way by native speakers that they often go unnoticed, we are not even aware that we are using them because we have grown up listening to these phrases and expressions. However, when you are a language learner, you have to learn how to use them correctly, so they don’t sound unnatural. You might have heard the term collocation, which is also assessed in the IELTS Speaking test. Collocation refers to words that often go together naturally and are generally used in that order when speaking. For example, you would never say food fast as the order is incorrect, you would always say fast food. Collocation is very important when using idiomatic language as the words you choose are just as important as the order they are spoken in.

What’s a phrasal verb?

A phrasal verb is a compound verb where a verb is combined with an adverb or a preposition. When these phrasal verbs are made, they often have idiomatic meaning, and you cannot understand the meaning by reading what each word means. For example, the combination of the verb pick plus the preposition up – pick up – means lift. We can use this phrasal verb to ask someone to pick up something we dropped on the ground, or we can also use this expression to ask for a lift in a car – “I need a lift, can you please pick me up on the way to school?”

So, as you can see, we use idiomatic language all the time to express ourselves in a more colourful way where the combination of words we use have idiomatic meaning.

Let’s look at some common idioms and phrasal verbs that are used in everyday communication.

These English idioms are extremely common in everyday conversation in the United States. You will hear them in movies and TV shows and can use them to make your English sound more like that of a native speaker. 

A blessing in disguisea good thing that seemed bad at firstas part of a sentence
Beat around the bushAvoid saying what you mean, usually because it is uncomfortableas part of a sentence
Better late than neverBetter to arrive late than not to come at allby itself
Bite the bulletTo get something over with because it is inevitableas part of a sentence
Cut somebody some slackDon’t be so criticalas part of a sentence
Get out of handGet out of controlas part of a sentence
Get something out of your systemDo the thing you’ve been wanting to do so you can move onas part of a sentence
Get your act togetherWork better or leaveby itself
Give someone the benefit of the doubtTrust what someone saysas part of a sentence
Go back to the drawing boardStart overas part of a sentence
Hang in thereDon’t give upby itself
It’s not rocket scienceIt’s not complicatedby itself
Let someone off the hookTo not hold someone responsible for somethingas part of a sentence
Make a long story shortTell something brieflyas part of a sentence
Miss the boatIt’s too lateas part of a sentence
No pain, no gainYou have to work for what you wantby itself
On the ballDoing a good jobas part of a sentence
Pull yourself togetherCalm downby itself
So far so goodThings are going well so farby itself
That’s the last strawMy patience has run outby itself
Time flies when you’re having funYou don’t notice how long something lasts when it’s funby itself
To make matters worseMake a problem worseas part of a sentence
We’ll cross that bridge when we come to itLet’s not talk about that problem right nowby itself
Wrap your head around somethingUnderstand something complicatedas part of a sentence
Your guess is as good as mineI have no ideaby itself

Common English idioms & expressions

These English idioms are used quite regularly in the United States. You may not hear them every day, but they will be very familiar to any native English speaker. You can be confident using any of them when the context is appropriate.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bushWhat you have is worth more than what you might have laterby itself
A penny for your thoughtsTell me what you’re thinkingby itself
A penny saved is a penny earnedMoney you save today you can spend laterby itself
A perfect stormthe worst possible situationas part of a sentence
A picture is worth 1000 wordsBetter to show than tellby itself
Actions speak louder than wordsBelieve what people do and not what they sayby itself
Birds of a feather flock togetherPeople who are alike are often friends (usually used negatively)by itself
Comparing apples to orangesComparing two things that cannot be comparedas part of a sentence
Costs an arm and a legVery expensiveas part of a sentence
Do unto others as you would have them do unto youTreat people fairly. Also known as “The Golden Rule”by itself
Don’t count your chickens before they hatchDon’t count on something good happening until it’s itself
Don’t cry over spilt milkThere’s no reason to complain about something that can’t be fixedby itself
Don’t put all your eggs in one basketWhat you’re doing is too riskyby itself
Every cloud has a silver liningGood things come after bad thingsby itself
Get a taste of your own medicineGet treated the way you’ve been treating others (negative)as part of a sentence
Give someone the cold shoulderIgnore someoneas part of a sentence
He has bigger fish to fryHe has bigger things to take care of than what we are talking about nowby itself
He’s a chip off the old blockThe son is like the fatherby itself
Ignorance is blissYou’re better off not knowingby itself
It’s a piece of cakeIt’s easyby itself
It’s raining cats and dogsIt’s raining hardby itself
Kill two birds with one stoneGet two things done with a single actionby itself
Live and learnI made a mistakeby itself
Look before you leapTake only calculated risksby itself
Once in a blue moonRarelyas part of a sentence
Play devil’s advocateTo argue the opposite, just for the sake of argumentas part of a sentence
Rain on someone’s paradeTo spoil somethingas part of a sentence
Saving for a rainy daySaving money for lateras part of a sentence
Slow and steady wins the raceReliability is more important than speedby itself
Spill the beansGive away a secretas part of a sentence
The ball is in your courtIt’s your decisionby itself
The best thing since sliced breadA really good inventionas part of a sentence
The devil is in the detailsIt looks good from a distance, but when you look closer, there are problemsby itself
The early bird gets the wormThe first people who arrive will get the best stuffby itself
The whole nine yardsEverything, all the part of a sentence
There are other fish in the seaIt’s ok to miss this opportunity. Others will itself
There’s a method to his madnessHe seems crazy but actually he’s cleverby itself
There’s no such thing as a free lunchNothing is entirely freeby itself
You can’t have your cake and eat it tooYou can’t have everythingby itself
You can’t judge a book by its coverThis person or thing may look bad, but it’s good insideby itself

Familiar English idioms & proverbs

These English idioms and proverbs are familiar and easily understood by native English speakers, but they are not usually used in everyday conversation. If you haven’t mastered the more frequent idioms yet, they are a better place to start, but if you’re already familiar with those expressions, the idioms below will further spice up your English.

A little learning is a dangerous thingPeople who don’t understand something fully are dangerousby itself
A snowball effectEvents have momentum and build upon each otheras part of a sentence
A storm in a teacupA big fuss about a small problemas part of a sentence
An apple a day keeps the doctor awayApples are good for youby itself
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cureYou can prevent a problem with little effort. Fixing it later is itself
As right as rainPerfectas part of a sentence
Bolt from the blueSomething that happened without warningas part of a sentence
Burn bridgesDestroy relationshipsas part of a sentence
Calm before the stormSomething bad is coming, but right now it’s calmas part of a sentence
Come rain or shineNo matter whatas part of a sentence
Cut the mustardDo a good jobas part of a sentence
Don’t beat a dead horseMove on, this subject is overby itself
Every dog has his dayEveryone gets a chance at least onceby itself
Familiarity breeds contemptThe better you know someone the less you like himby itself
Fit as a fiddleIn good healthas part of a sentence
Fortune favours the boldTake risksby itself
Get a second windHave more energy after having been tiredas part of a sentence
Get wind of somethingHear news of something secretas part of a sentence
Go down in flamesFail spectacularlyas part of a sentence
Haste makes wasteYou’ll make mistakes if you rush through somethingby itself
He who laughs last laughs loudestI’ll get you back for what you didby itself
Hear something straight from the horse’s mouthHear something from the person involvedas part of a sentence
He’s off his rockerHe’s crazyby itself
He’s sitting on the fenceHe can’t make up his mindby itself
It is a poor workman who blames his toolsIf you can’t do the job, don’t blame it on othersby itself
It is always darkest before the dawnThings are going to get betterby itself
It takes two to tangoOne person alone isn’t responsible. Both people are itself
Jump on the bandwagonFollow a trend, do what everyone else is doingas part of a sentence
Know which way the wind is blowingUnderstand the situation (usually negative)as part of a sentence
Leave no stone unturnedLook everywhereas part of a sentence
Like riding a bicycleSomething you never forget how to doas part of a sentence
Make hay while the sun shinesTake advantage of a good situationas part of a sentence
On cloud nineVery happyas part of a sentence
Once bitten, twice shyYou’re more cautious when you’ve been hurt beforeby itself
Out of the frying pan and into the fireThings are going from bad to worseby itself
Run like the windRun fastas part of a sentence
That ship has sailedIt’s too lateby itself
The pot calling the kettle blackSomeone criticizing someone else he is just as badas part of a sentence
There are clouds on the horizonTrouble is comingby itself
Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stonesPeople who are morally questionable shouldn’t criticize othersby itself
Through thick and thinIn good times and in bad timesas part of a sentence
Time is moneyWork quicklyby itself
Waste not, want notDon’t waste things and you’ll always have enoughby itself
We see eye to eyeWe agreeby itself
Weather the stormGo through something difficultas part of a sentence
Well begun is half doneGetting a good start is importantby itself
When it rains it poursEverything is going wrong at onceby itself
You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegarYou’ll get what you want by being niceby itself
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drinkYou can’t force someone to make the right decisionby itself
You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggsThere’s always a cost to doing somethingby itself