Idioms: What Are Idioms? (Definition and Examples)

By Carly Forsaith, updated on June 22, 2023

Are you curious about idioms? Would you like to know what they are and how you can use them in your writing? If so, you've come to the right place. This article will teach you everything you need to know.

  • Idioms are groups of words used to express a concept that only makes sense as a whole; the meaning can't be deciphered by looking at the terms separately. 

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Idioms?

Idioms are groups of words that only have meaning when interpreted as a whole. The individual words have nothing to do with the idiom's meaning.

  • For example, when people say, "It's a piece of cake," they aren't actually referring to the delicious sweet treat; they mean that something is easy.

But why do we say that something is a piece of cake to mean that it's easy? How did idioms come about, and why do they mean what they do? The answer is that it depends. We've lost trace of the source of many idioms, but the ones we know seem to come from everyday cultural experiences, albeit ones that are a little outdated. Here are some common idioms and their sources.

Note that these are all theories, and nobody knows for sure since most idioms were created decades, maybe even centuries, ago:

  • 'It's raining cats and dogs' (it's raining heavily): this idiom is believed to originate from when animals would seek shelter in the rooves of thatched houses and would fall onto the street during heavy rains.
  • 'Spill the beans' (reveal information): in ancient Greece, the voting system used beans. To reveal the outcome of the vote, the jar of beans was tipped over, and the bean color with the most votes won.
  • 'Bite the bullet' (endure a painful experience): when soldiers were wounded in battle, and there were no anesthesia methods available, they were told to bite on something hard. This usually tended to be a leather strap or a bullet.

So why use idioms? Well, there are many reasons. They brighten up your writing, for starters. You can think of them as a splash of color on a black-and-white painting. They're also great ways to illustrate your meaning, express yourself in original ways, engage your readers with humor, and avoid repetition.

Types of Idioms

There are four types of idioms in English grammar.

Those are:

  • pure idioms
  • binomial idioms
  • partial idioms
  • prepositional idioms

Let's take a look at each of these types of idioms one by one.

Pure Idioms

Pure idioms are complete sentences with no connection between the meaning of individual words and the sentence's meaning as a whole. They're what you think of when someone says the word 'idiom.' 

Here are some examples of pure idioms and their meaning:

Run like the wind. - run as fast as you can.

That ship has sailed - it's too late.

They're like two peas in a podthey're well suited.

It takes two to tango - both parties are at fault.

They're a dime a dozen - they're worthless.

Binomial Idioms

As the name suggests, binomial idioms contain two words and denote a symbiotic or opposed relationship.

Here are some examples:

Give and take - make compromises

Heart-to-heart - talk honestly about feelings

Wine and dine - entertain someone at a restaurant

Dos and don'tsgeneral rules or conventions

Night and day - two things that are opposite

Partial Idioms

When idioms become so well-known, they often get shortened so that people only say part of it. That's when you get partial idioms. Here are some common ones; I've followed them up with the full version—in case you're unfamiliar with them—and their meaning.

When in Rome - When in Rome, do as the Romans do - adapt to the circumstances

If she shoe fits - If the shoe fits, wear it - accept criticism directed at you

Great minds - Great minds think alike - we both had a great idea

If wishes were horses - If wishes were horses, beggars would ride - you can't just wish for things to be different; you must take action

Birds of a feather - Birds of a feather flock together - people who are alike attract each other

Prepositional Idioms

Prepositional Idioms are like phrasal verbs in that they consist of a verb and a preposition, and the phrase's meaning can't be deducted from the individual words—they must be understood as a whole. The preposition changes the meaning of the verb.

Here are some examples:

Put up with - accept an unpleasant experience

Agree on - accept a suggestion

Stand by - support someone/be in their corner

Look after - take care of

In favor of - to support or approve of something

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this blog on idioms and how to use them in your writing. Our blog has many more examples of idioms, so don't hesitate to check those out.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Idioms are sentences in which the meaning can't be deduced from the original words.
  • There are four types of idioms: pure, binomial, partial, and propositional.
  • Idioms make your writing more exciting and colorful and help you connect with your readers.

If you liked this article, I recommend you check out our Grammar Book, a free online database of grammar articles just like this one.

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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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