English Idioms and Quizzes

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What is an idiom?

An idiom is a combination of words with a meaning that is different from the meanings of the individual words. It can have a literal meaning (the basic meaning of the words) or an idiomatic meaning (a different meaning than the exact meaning of the words). An idiom does not always follow the normal rules of meaning and grammar.
To sit on the fence can literally mean that one is sitting on a fence.
I sat on the fence and watched the game.
However, the idiomatic meaning of to sit on the fence is to not choose a side regarding some issue.
The politician sat on the fence and would not clearly state his opinion about the issue.

Many English idioms are similar to expressions in other languages. Other idioms come from older phrases which have changed over time.
To hold one's horses means to stop and wait patiently for someone or something. It comes from a time when people rode horses and would have to hold their horses while waiting for someone or something.
"Hold your horses," the man said when his friend started to leave the store.

Other idioms come from such things as sports and may require some special cultural knowledge to understand them.
To cover all of one's bases means to thoroughly prepare for or deal with a situation. It comes from the American game of baseball where you must cover or protect the bases.
I tried to cover all of my bases as I prepared for the job interview.

Structure of Idioms

Most idioms are fixed in their grammatical structure. The expression to sit on the fence cannot become to sit on a fence or to sit on the fences.

Other idioms are the result of a change in grammatical structure and would generally be considered to be incorrect.
To be broken literally means that something is broken.
The lamp is broken so I cannot read my book.
To be broke is grammatically incorrect but it has the idiomatic meaning of to have no money.
I am broke and I cannot go to a movie tonight.

There can also be changes in nouns, pronouns or in the verb tenses.
I sat on the fence and did not give my opinion.
Many people are sitting on the fence and have not made a decision.

Adjectives and adverbs can also be added to an idiomatic phrase.
The politician has been sitting squarely in the middle of the fence since the election.

That is why it is sometimes difficult to find the actual idiomatic expression and then find it in a dictionary of idioms.

What is a phrasal verb?

A phrasal verb is a two-part or three-part verb that consists of a verb plus a particle (adverb or preposition). It can be a combination of a verb and an adverb, a verb and a preposition, or a verb and an adverb and a preposition.

Verb and Adverb (run + around)

to run around (something) - to run in a circle around something
The dog ran around the tree.

Verb and Preposition (run + into)

to run into (someone or something) - to hit or crash into someone or something
The car ran into the truck on the busy street.

Verb and Adverb and Preposition (run + around + with)

to run around with (someone) - to be friends and do things with someone or with a group of people
The boy is running around with a bad group of people.

Transitive Phrasal Verbs

Transitive phrasal verbs need an object.

to look into (something) - to investigate the facts about something
The teacher will look into the problem.

Separable/Inseparable Phrasal Verbs

If the phrasal verb has an object, sometimes you can separate the phrasal verb and put the object between the verb and the particle.

to pick up (something) or to pick (something) up - to take something that has fallen on the floor or the ground and put it someplace
This is a separable phrasal verb.

Some phrasal verbs with an object cannot be separated. These are inseparable phrasal verbs. You can look into (something) but you cannot look (something) into

Intransitive Phrasal Verbs

Intransitive phrasal verbs do not need an object.

to come up - to rise (used for the sun)
I like to watch the sun come up in the morning.
You cannot come up the sun

Phrasal Nouns

Phrasal nouns are nouns that are made from phrasal verbs.

to hand out (something) or to hand (something) out - to give something of the same kind to several people
The teacher will hand out the papers soon.
We received a handout in our class today.

The phrasal verb is to hand out and the phrasal noun is a handout

Phrasal Adjectives

Phrasal adjectives are adjectives that are made from phrasal verbs.

to go on - to continue
The problem has been going on for many months.
It is an ongoing problem.

The phrasal verb is to go on and the phrasal adjective is ongoing

What is a proverb?

A proverb is a short saying or sentence that is generally known by many people. The saying usually contains words of wisdom, truth or morality that are based on common sense or practical experience. It is often a description of a basic rule of conduct that all people generally follow or should follow. Proverbs can be found in all languages.

money doesn't grow on trees - money is not easy to get and you must work hard for it
The girl's father says that money doesn't grow on trees when the girl asks him for money.

the early bird catches the worm - arriving early gives one an advantage
My boss always comes to work early because he believes that the early bird catches the worm.

the pen is mightier than the sword - writing and ideas are more powerful than the use of force
The pen is mightier than the sword and a good idea will defeat the strongest army.