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Key Tips for IELTS Speaking: IDIOMS!

Key tips for that perfect IELTS Speaking score.

What are idioms?

Idioms are expressions (a group of words or a phrase) that contain hidden wisdom. They do not mean literally what they say, so we cannot understand them by translating each word separately. We must learn their meaning as a whole phrase.

Why should I use them?

Idioms are a cultural expression. They are a result of native speakers using their language creatively. Therefore, they are an indicator of how “native-like” your English is. By using a few idioms, you can really show off and impress your examiner!

What are the most common idioms?

Idioms are culturally specific. That is, different cultures have different idioms, just as different languages have different idioms (and they don’t always translate! So you can’t just use idioms from your own language). Having said that, there are some commonly used idioms that exist across the globe. There are so many idioms, though, so remember: this is not a complete list!

A piece of cake – A task or activity is very simple. For example, Cora said “The Speaking test was a piece of cake.” Cora meant that she found the test very easy.

It cost an arm and a leg – The meaning of this idiom is not that the purchaser had to sell parts of their body but rather that the item they bought was very expensive.

Break a leg – A phrase used to wish an actor or performer good luck before a show or dramatic performance.

Hit the books – A phrase which means to study. In the weeks before your IELTS exam you had better hit the books!

To let the cat out of the bag – A very common English phrase meaning to give away a secret. For example: Lucy told everyone about my mistake. She really let the cat out of the bag!

To hit the nail on the head – Like when you precisely hit a nail with a hammer. This idiom means to find exactly the right answer. It is similar to another phrase “You have nailed it” which means you have got something exactly right.

And pigs might fly – You say this when you are extremely doubtful or sceptical. That is, when you really believe something won’t happen. For example, if your friend says “I’m going to stop eating chocolate forever,” but you highly doubt it, you would say “and pigs might fly.”

You can’t judge a book by its cover – A phrase used to tell someone they can’t judge a person/thing/or experience by first impressions.

To bite off more than you can chew – When someone has taken on a task that is too difficult for them to handle. For example, “Gary has booked his IELTS test for tomorrow and he hasn’t done ANY preparation. He’s bitten off more than he can chew.”

You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours – A very strange sounding idiom, but very well-known. It means if you do a favor for someone, they will do a favor for you.

Don’t change a thing!

Be careful when you use an idiom: you often cannot change the words, the word order or anything else, or else the idiom will lose its meaning!

Sometimes you can change the subject or object.

e.g. To pull someone’s leg (meaning: to be joking)

I don’t believe him. He must be pulling my leg

Don’t worry, she’s just pulling your leg.

In this case, you can change the subject (he/she/I/you etc) or the possessive pronoun (my/your/her/his etc. – but only to other singular forms, not plural!). We also cannot say “legs” (plural), we must say “leg” (singular).

Another example:

e.g. Until the cows come home (meaning: for a very long time)

Wa can argue about this problem until the cows come home, but it won’t solve anything.

There is nothing we can change in this idiom. If we do, it will sound unnatural and incorrect! So don’t forget to say it with this word order, and don’t accidentally say “cow” (singular) instead of “cows” (plural) – there is always more than one cow on a farm!

What’s the best way to learn idioms?

The best way to learn idioms is from native speakers. Idioms are cultural, so native speakers know how and when to use them best.

Practice makes perfect! It may seem hard or impossible to use idioms in your exam, but there is a way! Practice idioms in your day-to-day life and you will find that you can remember them much more easily. As we say: use it or lose it!

Where can I learn more Speaking Tips?

Join an IELTS preparation course at English Key Melbourne and attend a specialty Speaking class. Our highly trained, highly experienced teachers have even more tips for your IELTS Academic or IELTS General Training exam. Let an IELTS coaching course guide you to your perfect score.

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