Practice makes perfect. This a commonly used idiom in the United States. It means that to become better at something you must practice. While this statement is absolutely true, the way it's stated can be confusing to non-English speakers, or for those that are new to the language.


Americans, like other nationalities, have a tendency to use slang and idioms quite frequently. This isn't a problem when we're communicating with another native English speaker, but when we're communicating with someone who doesn't speak the language, or someone's who's just learning, using these phrases can become an issue.


Personally, I try to steer clear of slang phrases and idioms when I'm tutoring, but your everyday English speaker will not. So, I would like to share a few of the most commonly used slang phrases and idioms. Hopefully explaining these terms will alleviate confusion when you hear them during practice conversations, and add new phrases to your vocabulary.


Commonly Used Slang Phrases and Idioms


Add fuel to the fire (v.): To make a bad problem even worse.


Add insult to injury (v.): To make a bad situation even worse.


A dime a dozen or to be a dime a dozen (adj.): Very common. Said of something that is so easy to find that it doesn't have much value.

Correct: Guys like him are a dime a dozen (there are lots of guys like him).


Bank on something (v.): To count or rely on something (especially used when talking about something that will bring you money).

Correct: The investors were banking on a good return on their investment (they were counting on/hoping to get a good return on their investment).


Bark up the wrong tree (v.): To ask the wrong person. To make the wrong choice.

Correct: I'm not the person you're looking for. You're barking up the wrong tree.


Beat around the bush (v.): To avoid getting to the point.

Correct: Stop beating around the bush and tell me what you really think.

Beg to differ (v.): A polite way of saying to disagree, most often heard in the phrase I beg to differ!


Bent out of shape (adj.): Upset/agitated.

Correct: Don't get all bent out of shape over that.


Big-shot (n./adj.): An important person.

Correct: The big-shots at my job make all the money.

Correct: A big-shot politician.


Bite one's tongue (v.): To struggle not to say something that you want to say.

Correct: I wanted to tell her how I really felt, but I had to bite my tongue because I didn't want to hurt her feelings.


Blast (n.): A great time. A fun time.

Correct: We had a blast at the party last night.


Blow (someone) away (v.): To really impress (someone).

Correct: We were all blown away by his talent.


Break even (v.): To neither win nor lose.

Correct: Sarah thought she would lose $500, but she broke even instead.


Broke (adj.): Having no money.

Correct: Sorry, I can't go to the movies. I'm broke.


Call it a day (v.): To stop some kind of activity, usually used when talking about work.

Correct: We've been working for eight hours. It's time to call it a day.


Chill out (v.): To relax.

Correct: Chill out! Why are you getting so upset?


Cool (adj.): Nice, great, impressive

Correct: A cool suit. A cool girl. A cool club.


Cut it out (v.): Command meaning Stop doing that! Stop it! Quit doing that! etc.


Dough (n.): Money; Cash.


Drag (n.): Disappointment.

Correct: What a drag! (That's very disappointing).


Drop the ball (v.): To make a mistake.


Person 1: Was it Mike's fault?

Person 2: Yes, Mike really dropped the ball.



When to use these phrases


Now, it's important that you always use discretion when using slang and idioms. Most of the phrases I've covered are usually used, and best used, in casual conversations, as seen by the examples I've provided to you. You wouldn't tell your boss to chill out or use the phrase barking up the wrong tree in a job interview. So be careful when and where you use these.


If there's any confusion on whether it's a good time to use one of these phrases, always err on the side of caution and leave it out. As you become more proficient in the English language, you'll also get a sense for when it's appropriate to use one of these phrases.




Maybe you're already familiar with these phrases, or maybe you've heard them before and weren't sure of their meaning. Either way, I hope this list helps you on your journey to becoming a fluent English speaker.


I'll be publishing parts 2 and 3 of this article in the upcoming weeks, but feel free to contact me if you have a question about any of the phrases included in this article, or if you have a phrase that you'd like me to explain in the next article.




The aforementioned slang phrases and idioms can be found at


Image Sources


Hero image by Giuseppe Milo (CC BY 2.0)