Using Idioms Like a Native

Idioms are commonly used in spoken and written English. They add colour and interest to what we are saying. But how often do we actually find idioms in their original and full form? In today’s blog, we are going to be showing you how to use idioms like a Native English speaker!

1. Shorten the Idiom

Native English speakers are usually confident that their readers or listeners will recognise the idiom, so well-known phrases rarely need to be given in full. You may hear someone being warned not to count their chickens (don’t count your chickens before they are hatched) when they assume a future plan will be successful, or a friend may hint that her colleagues took advantage of the boss’s absence with when the cat’s away! (when the cat’s away, the mice will play).

Some idioms can be shortened in other ways such as long story short (to cut a long story short).

“Anyway, long story short, it turns out Drake isn’t really his father.”

Sometimes only a fragment of the original idiom remains. It is common to see restaurants offering early bird menus or prices (the early bird catches the worm). Someone may describe a terrible idea as a lead balloon (go down like a lead balloon). I recently heard someone talking about a baby and bathwater situation (don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater) when the whole of a plan was rejected because of a problem with only part of it.

2. Reverse the idiom

Another common way of changing an idiom is to reverse its meaning. For example, if you don’t want to deal with a problem straight away, you may put it on the back burner, but if something needs immediate attention, you can put it on the front burner. In your home village, you might be a big fish in a small pond but if you move to a large city you could end up a small fish in a very big pond.

Many idioms are very versatile and can be changed in a variety of ways. A carrot and stick approach involves offering rewards and making threats to persuade someone to do something. However, you may come across examples like the following:

“Why use a stick when a carrot will work better?”

“Their approach is all stick and no carrot.”

“They are using every carrot and stick at their disposal.”

3. Adapt the idiom

One of the most attractive aspects of idioms is their adaptability. It is often possible to substitute one or more of the words in them to adapt to a particular situation. When two people have opposite tastes, you can say one man’s meat is another man’s poison. But how about one man’s junk is another man’s treasure or one man’s madness is another man’s genius? The possibilities are endless.

Substitutions can also be used to alter the meaning of an idiom. For example, a plain-talking person will call a spade a spade, but someone who is more frank than necessary may call a spade a shovel. On the other hand, someone who is reluctant to speak plainly may call a spade a gardening implement.

So, why not have a go at adapting some idioms yourself? After all, when in Rome…

For more idioms, check out the Oxford Idioms Dictionary for learners of English.


Miranda Steel is a freelance ELT lexicographer and editor. She has worked as a Senior Editor for dictionaries for learners at OUP and has also worked for COBUILD. In this post, she looks at some of the weird and wonderful idioms in the English language.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and learners top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help people around the world to learn English.

2 thoughts

Leave a Reply