Expressions: Understanding English Expressions: Definition and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on June 28, 2023

Would you like to learn about expressions? Then you've come to the right place. This article will teach you everything you need to know about what expressions are and how to use them in your writing.

In short:

  • An expression is a way of saying what you think or feel. You can pick from a wide variety of styles to express yourself. 

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Expressions?

It's a little complicated to narrow down what an English expression is because it has such a broad meaning. If you were to look up the definition of the word 'expression,' you'd find that it's the act of using words to show what you mean.

So in that sense, it appears that any group of words is an expression, right?

  • And to complicate things further, an expression can be non-verbal, too.
  • Art is an expression, as is music or dance.
  • And there are maths expressions, too.

For the purpose of this article, though, we're going to stick with expressions that use words. I like this definition from the Cambridge Dictionary:

a word or group of words having a particular meaning or used in a particular way. 

And yes, you'd be correct in assuming that any group of words is an expression. So for this article, I wanted to organize groups of words into different categories. Read on to find out what they are.

Types of Expression

There are many types of expression in the English language, and depending on the context, you can choose the most appropriate.

  • Some are literal, while others are metaphorical
  • Some are great for formal situations
  • While others are best suited for casual settings
  • Others can be used in either

Let's dive in.


Phrases are the first category of expressions. In this context, the word 'phrase' has a slightly different meaning than the grammatical concept of phrases, although they do have in common the fact they aren't complete sentences.

  • These are the kinds of sentences that are great for everyday use.
  • They aren't usually entire sentences, but they're still accepted as complete thoughts because they're so commonly used that their meaning is understood.

Here are some examples of popular phrases, along with real-life sentences showing how these phrases can be used:

  • Pleased to meet you
    This is my dad, Kevin.
    Pleased to meet you, Kevin.
  • Hey there
    Hey there, Claire, how are you doing?
  • Long time no see
    Hi David, wow, long time no see. Must be what, 6 months since I last saw you?
  • That’s a good one
    Haha, very funny joke Susan, that's a good one.
  • What’s up
    What's up Joel? Good to see ya.
  • My apologies
    My apologies for my son's behavior.
  • Don't mention it
    Thanks for introducing me to the boss, Carol.
    Don't mention it, it was my pleasure.
  • Sorry
    Sorry do you have the time?


Idioms - also known as idiomatic expressions - can only be understood as a whole. If you were to only look at the individual words, it wouldn't make sense, and you would think these are just random words joined together. But actually, when put together, they mean something.

Here are some idioms that are often used in English, along with example sentences that use them:

  • Add insult to injury
    To add insult to injury, he broke up with me and flirted with my best friend!
  • The elephant in the room
    Shall we talk about the elephant in the room—the fact that you all disagree with me?
  • On thin ice
    My daughter's on thin ice at school. They're this close to expelling her.
  • Speak of the devil
    I was speaking with Tom this morning. Oh, speak of the devil—here he is.
  • Piece of cake
    My new video game was so easy I finished it in a week. What a piece of cake!

Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are similar to idioms in that looking at the individual words won't help you understand the overall meaning.

But together, as a unit, they mean something very specific.

Let's take a look at some examples.

  • Run out of
    We've run out of salt; can you go borrow some from the neighbor?
  • Get over
    It happened three weeks ago; you need to get over it.
  • Break down
    My car broke down again! Can you believe it?
  • Come down with
    I'm not feeling great; I think I'm coming down with the flu.
  • Make it up to
    I'm so sorry for letting you down, and want to make it up to you. 


Slang is an informal way of talking that's usually specific to an age group and often to a geographical location. Apart from a few slang expressions that stick around, slang is ever-changing, so there are always new words to learn.

  • Slang is much more common in speech than writing, but you can use it in informal writing such as social media, texts, and even emails with friends. 

Here are some common slang words and phrases, along with examples of how to use them in a sentence:

  • dry snitching
    Dry snitching on me wasn't cool; if you had a problem, you should have told me to my face.
  • dying
    She was telling this joke, and I was dying with laughter.
  • epic
    The concert was epic!
  • spill the tea
    So what happened between them last night? Come on, spill the tea!
  • salty
    I don't know why he's being so salty these days; he needs to chill.


You've probably heard of proverbs; there are many famous ones from all over the world, and they are used to spread wisdom. The English language has some pretty good ones, too.

  • Proverbs are short sentences that are meant to inspire, give advice or state something that is true in a metaphorical way.

Here are some examples of well-known proverbs and their meaning:

  • No man is an island: humans need each other
  • Actions speak louder than words: making promises is excellent as long as you make good on them
  • Every cloud has a silver lining: in every tragedy, you can find a positive aspect
  • A picture is worth a thousand words: sometimes it's hard to describe something, but a picture tells it all
  • Better late than never: it's better to do something later than planned than never do it at all.


Jargon refers to technical terminology that's specific to a particular industry. In theory, only those working in that industry can understand the jargon unless you're particularly knowledgeable for whatever reason.

You can find jargon in almost every industry:

  • business
  • academia
  • law
  • military
  • computing
  • journalism... the list goes on.

Here are some examples of computing jargon:

  • Cache: a place for short-term memory storage
  • Phishing: email scams to obtain your personal information.
  • Cookies: data stored on your computer about internet sites you have visited
  • SaaS: Software as a Service, delivering apps and software via the internet
  • OS: Operating Systems (Linux, Apple Mac, Microsoft Windows)

Using Collocations in Expressions

'Collocation' is a term used to refer to pairs of groups of words that often go together. It's not that there's a rule they must always go together, like with phrasal verbs, but they just like each other's company, I guess you could say.

For example, if you want an adjective to say it's raining a lot, you would use 'heavy.' Not 'strong,' not 'fast.' 'Heavy rain.' This adjective and noun go together like salt and vinegar.

So why are collocations relevant to this article on expressions?

  • Simply put, an expression is pretty much the art of grouping words together.
  • So if you think about it, expressions use collocations all the time.

Let's look at some more examples of collocations. Notice that they don't have to be adjective and noun combinations. They can also be verb and noun combinations and sometimes have prepositions and determiners thrown in there, too.

  • make a wish
  • whisk an egg
  • come to an agreement
  • hard-earned money
  • deeply regret
  • smooth progress
  • fast train
  • take a photo

Concluding Thoughts on Expressions

That concludes this article on expressions. I hope you feel confident about the different categories of expressions and how to use them in your writing.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Expressions are creative ways to express what you mean.
  • There are seven types of expressions: phrases, idioms, phrasal verbs, slang, proverbs, and jargon.
  • Collocations are an essential part of forming expressions. 

If you liked this article and found it helpful, you should definitely check out our Grammar Book. It's a free online database of grammar articles just like this one. Check it out!

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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