Confused by English idioms? Don’t worry, they’re a piece of cake

That’s the thing about English – just when you’re feeling confident about it, a native speaker says something that turns your brain to spaghetti. But don’t worry – Chip Pham, from our INTO Colorado State University team, is here to talk you through some weird and wonderful English idioms…

Chip says: Does it “freak you out” when English speakers use phrases you don’t understand?  That’s OK – it’ll soon be a “piece of cake” and you’ll only struggle “once in a blue moon”.

No idea what any of that meant? We’re here to help! Here’s a guide to 10 popular English idioms:

1. “A piece of cake”
Scenario: You just finished a course in elephant riding.
They say: How was the elephant riding course?
You say: It was a piece of cake.
You mean: It was very easy for me.

2. “It freaks me out”
Scenario: You’re talking about how you hate flying in airplanes.
They say: Why don’t you like flying in airplanes?
You say: It freaks me out!
You mean: It makes me nervous or scared.

3. “Talk the hind legs off a donkey”
Scenario: You and your friend are discussing your new pet parrot.
They say: So, what’s your new pet parrot like?
You Say: That parrot could talk the hind legs off a donkey!
You mean: The parrot is very talkative.

4. “I heard it on the grapevine”
Scenario: You tell your classmates that your teacher is also a champion tango dancer.
They say: How did you find out about that?
You say: I heard it on the grapevine.
You mean: I heard it in an informal conversation.

5. “How time flies”
Scenario: Your INTO course is ending in a few days.
They say: I can’t believe our course is almost over – I’m so sad.
You say: How time flies!
You mean: I’m surprised at how quickly time has passed.


6. “Thanks a million”
Scenario: You ask your friend if you can borrow their helicopter.
They say: Of course you can borrow my helicopter!
You say: Thanks a million!
You mean: Thank you very much.

7. “Once in a blue moon”
Scenario: You and your friend are discussing British weather.
They say: Does it ever snow on Christmas day in the UK?
You say: Once in a blue moon.
You mean: It only happens rarely.

8. “It’s a small world”
Scenario: Your friend tells you that they met a mutual acquaintance in an unexpected place.
They say: We bumped into Kate’s teacher at Disneyland!
You say: It’s a small world.
You mean: I’m surprised by the coincidence of seeing someone unexpectedly or discovering mutual friends.

9. “Straight from the horse’s mouth”
Scenario: You tell someone that a mutual friend has joined the circus.
They say: I don’t believe it! How do you know it’s true?
You say: I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth.
You mean: I heard the information from someone directly involved.

10. “No sweat”
Scenario: You just saved your friend from a shark attack.
They say: Thank you SO much – you’re a hero!
You say: No sweat.
You mean: It wasn’t a problem.

Remember, if you’re faced with a phrase that you don’t understand, then don’t panic – take a deep breath, think about the context and don’t be shy about asking the person to explain.  Soon you’ll find that it’s “no sweat”!

Want to practise your idioms with native speakers? Find out how you can study abroad at INTO Colorado State University.

Find out more about studying in the UK, US or China with INTO.

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