An idiom (also called idiomatic expression) is an expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning conventionally understood by native speakers. This meaning is different from the literal meaning of the idiom’s individual elements. In other words, idioms don’t mean exactly what the words say. They have, however, hidden meaning. 

For your IELTS Speaking test, idiomatic language can be important because it is one of the elements in this component of the test the examiner looks for. You can see the marking criteria for your Speaking test here.

The apple of one’s eye

Meaning 

Person or thing of whom one is extremely fond and proud. 

Origin 

Originally denoting the pupil of the eye, considered to be a globular solid body; hence extended as a symbol of something cherished and watched over. 

In a sentence 

Please don’t say anything negative about that painting as it’s the apple of Lisa’s eye.

Take someone aback

Meaning 

Shock, surprise or disconcert someone. 

Origin 

The frequently used passive form of the phrase (be taken aback) was adopted from nautical terminology, describing the situation of a ship with its sails pressed back against the mast by headwind, preventing forward movement. 

In a sentence 

When I first met him, I was taken aback by his rude behaviour.

Back to the drawing board

Meaning 

Start again to devise a new plan from the beginning because the present plan or course of action has been unsuccessful. 

Origin 

An architectural or engineering project is at its earliest phase when it exists only as a plan on a drawing board. 

In a sentence 

Our plans to acquire the new business fell through, so it’s back to the drawing board.

Better the devil you know

Meaning 

It’s wiser to deal with an undesirable but familiar person or situation than to risk a change that might lead to a situation with worse difficulties or a person whose faults you have yet to discover. 

Origin 

A shortened form of the mid-19th century proverbial saying better than the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. 

In a sentence 

I don’t think Matthew is the best choice for Class President but better the devil you know.

Have one’s cake and eat it

Meaning 

Enjoy the advantages of two mutually incompatible situations. 

Origin 

Proverbial saying 

In a sentence 

David can’t have his cake and eat it, he must decide if he wants the promotion or moves to another country.

Hold all the cards

Meaning 

Be in the strongest and most advantageous position. 

Origin 

The idea is of a winning hand in a card game. 

In a sentence 

In the current tough labour market conditions, employers hold all the cards.

Let the cat out of the bag

Meaning 

Reveal a secret, especially carelessly or by mistake. 

Origin 

In the mid-18th century, there was a similar metaphorical use of bag cf. vider le sac literally “empty the bag’ meaning to “tell the whole story” 

In a sentence 

Under intense pressure to explain her visits to the doctor, Delia let the cat out of the bag and announced that she is pregnant.

Take it on the chin

Meaning 

Endure or accept misfortune courageously. 

Origin 

A metaphor from boxing. 

In a sentence 

Melissa really took it on the chin today when she got reprimanded for missing her flight.

When the chips are down

Meaning 

When one is in a very serious and difficult situation. 

Origin 

Chips refer to gambling chips here. 

In a sentence 

Uncle Joe is someone you can depend on when the chips are down.

Bring down the curtain on

Meaning 

Bring to an end. 

Origin 

Referring to the screen that is lowered at the front of the stage in the theatre at the end of a performance. 

In a sentence 

Both leaders should be brought together to bring down the curtain on years of battling between the two countries. 

Source: Oxford Dictionary of Idiomsexternal iconThe Free Dictionaryexternal icon

Learn idiomatic expressions for IELTS

The Speaking test in IELTS is just like a conversation that you would have in everyday life. You may notice many native English speakers use idioms in everyday speech. If you want a higher score for your IELTS Speaking test, you should include some idioms (and use them correctly). In our next Idioms A-Z post, you can learn some more most common idioms in English.

Are you unsure if you use idioms correctly? With IELTS Speaking Coaching, you can practice your English speaking with an official IELTS expert and receive feedback on your performance. This is just one of the ways to study for IELTSexternal icon.