This page explains the difficulty of idioms for English language learners.


The German equivalent for idiom is Spracheigentümlichkeit, a typically long word which translated back into English means a peculiarity or distinctiveness of language.

This is a good definition of idiom and helps us to understand why can idioms cause problems for language learners. @@ There is very often no way of guessing the meaning of an idiom simply by looking at the individual words it contains. ~~

The problem of understanding idioms

If the English learner reads a word she doesn't understand, then she can look it up in the dictionary. But what if she reads the sentence He gets my goat! She knows all the words, so there is nothing to look up. But she has little chance of guessing, out of context, that it means He irritates me!

Similarly, the words in the idiom Keep your hair on! are no problem. But it doesn't mean, as might be inferred, that someone is telling you not to have your hair cut or to hold on to your wig. It simply means Keep calm! or Don't get excited! The problem in this case is that the learner may not even realise that she is dealing with an idiom.

The problem in using idioms: appropriateness

Advanced learners, of course, not only want to understand the idioms they hear or read, but they also want to use them themselves. And this is where it gets really difficult!

@@@ To use idioms correctly and appropriately takes many years of experience with the language. ~~~ @An inappropriately-used or incorrectly-used idiom will simply draw attention to the fact that the speaker is not a native speaker.~

This is unfortunate since the ultimate goal of most learners of English to reach a level of language indistinguishable from that of the native speaker.

As an example of what I mean, consider the idiom It's raining cats and dogs (it's raining very heavily), which many learners encounter early on in their exposure to English. What they don't learn, however, is that the expression seems to have disappeared from everyday language. In fact, I don't recall ever hearing anyone except a non-native speaker use the expression.

Furthermore, many idioms are very informal. So while it might be appropriate to console a colleague with the idiom I'm sorry to hear that your dog has passed away, it would definitely be a faux pas to say I'm sorry to hear that your dog has kicked the bucket - or many of the numerous other idioms that mean to die.

The problem in using idioms: correctness

The other problem is the correctness of usage. In many idioms, changing a single word can produce a comic effect to the native-speaking listener. Telling your conversation partner that It's raining dogs and cats or It's raining cats and pigs would certainly cause a smile.

The idiom Give me a hand (help me) requires the indefinite article. Give me your hand would be interpreted literally, and Give me the hand sounds ridiculous.

Conversely, the idiom He needs taking in hand (somebody needs to control his behaviour) must not be used with an article. He needs taking in the hand and He needs taking in a hand would simply expose the speaker's lack of full command of English.

A related problem is the fact that some idioms are fixed in one tense or form, while others allow much more variation. For example, the idiom It's raining cats and dogs seems to be relatively fixed. To try and change the tense produces language that seems very strange indeed. The following variations sound odd:

  • It rained cats and dogs for hours this morning.
  • I hope it doesn't rain cats and dogs tomorrow.
  • It rains cats and dogs every day in the monsoon season.

Similarly, the idiom You get my goat seems to be fixed. The following variations may simply cause amusement in the listener, not admiration for the speaker's command of English!

  • You get my goat every day.
  • You're always getting my goat.
  • The next time you get my goat, I'm going to punch you on the nose.
  • She gets his goat.

Other idioms do allow a certain amount of change. The idiom with cats and bags, for example, allows the following variations:

  • Please don't let the cat out of the bag.
  • No, I'm not going to let the cat out of the bag.
  • I'm glad you didn't let the cat out of the bag.
  • If you do that, I'll let the cat out of the bag.


1. Many English idioms contain animal words or words for a part of the body. A selection of them is below. If you don't know them already, take a guess at their meanings and then check to see how close you were.

  • He's going to the dogs.
  • I got it straight from the horse's mouth.
  • I smell a rat.
  • That sounds fishy to me.
  • Don't let the cat out of the bag.
  • What's up? Has the cat got your tongue?
  • He said it tongue in cheek.
  • Don't try to pull my leg.
  • You get up my nose.
  • He's always jumping down my throat.
  • She's getting out of hand.
  • I couldn't keep a straight face.
  • I'm always putting my foot in it.
  • He's going to the dogs. - His life is going downhill. His physical and mental state is deteriorating.
  • I got it straight from the horse's mouth. - I got the information from the person in the best position to know.
  • I smell a rat. - I am suspicious. I think someone may be trying to trick me.
  • That sounds fishy to me. - I am suspicious about what someone has told me.
  • Don't let the cat out of the bag. - Don't tell anyone my secret.
  • What's up? Has the cat got your tongue? - Why don't you say anything? (I'm annoyed that you haven't answered my question.)
  • He said it tongue in cheek. - He did not mean what he said to be taken seriously.
  • Don't try to pull my leg. - Don't try to deceive me.
  • You get up my nose. - You annoy me.
  • He's always jumping down my throat. - He's always getting angry with me for no good reason.
  • She's getting out of hand. - Her behaviour is getting out of control.
  • I couldn't keep a straight face. - I couldn't stop myself laughing even though the situation was a serious one.
  • I'm always putting my foot in it. - I'm always saying or doing something to embarrass myself.

2. Are the idioms Keep your hair on! and Don't try to pull my leg! fixed or do they allow any variation?

Keep your hair on! seems to be a fixed idiom that can only be said at the time that the person you are speaking to is starting to get excited or agitated. It sound strange, for example, to say:

  • There wasn't a problem. He kept his hair on.
  • Don't worry about her. She always keeps her hair on.
  • You're going to get into big trouble one day if you don't keep your hair on!

The idiom with legs being pulled, on the other hand, seems relatively flexible. All of the following are perfectly acceptable in everyday English:

  • He's always trying to pull my leg.
  • No, I'm not going to let you pull my leg again.
  • If you pull his leg like that again, he'll leave you.
  • It wasn't very nice to pull her leg like that.

Note also: If you suspect that someone is trying to deceive you or play a joke on you, you can say Pull the other one! i.e. Pull the other leg! (I know what you are up to!)


Despite all the problems discussed above, there is one thing that makes idioms a little easier to deal with. Namely the fact that they usually only have one meaning. You don't have to worry, for example, that to get someone's goat (to irritate) or to kick the bucket (to die) have other meanings.

Phrasal verbs are another kettle of fish (an idiom that simply means 'different'). Phrasal verbs can have several alternative senses which in some ways makes them more difficult.

There is more about idioms, including several interactive quizzes, on the idioms index.