Idiomatic language are sometimes misunderstood. People can perceive them as being lazy or too informal, or suggest a lack of otherwise vocabulary. But this isn't true.
Idioms are a great way to connect to someone who may not share the same language. Idioms show that you actually have a broad understanding of English. Idioms tell us that you understand the nuances of the English language. Idioms showcase your ability to use a more figurative meaning in English. Idioms add colour to your language repertoire.
What is an idiom?
An idiom is a phrase or expression with a non-literal meaning. The idiom represents something else, so if you were to try and break it down by lexis, it wouldn't make sense. Let's say you get an 8 in your IELTS exam, you might then use the idiom, 'I feel on top of the world!'. This idiom represents a feeling of joy and happiness, strongly expressed in 'on top', where the positive emotions are running high and you are figuratively 'on top of the world'.
Why would an examiner be impressed by idiom usage?
Idioms show a naturalness of speech. And this is what the IELTS speaking exam is largely about; sounding fluent and natural. There are many idioms across different cultures and many people grow up with these, and so they sound natural when used in speech. This is why practicing them in context is important so you use them correctly. Let's say you are describing yourself or your friend as someone who reads a lot. The correct idiom to use would be a 'bookworm'. Using this incorrectly as a 'bookbug' or 'bookworms' would be incorrect. And if you used 'bookie', this means something else entirely.
What idioms should I use?
Let's look at some useful idioms. There are hundreds of idioms and by no means should you know that many. But it is useful to have some up your sleeve (can you make out the meaning of this idiom given the context?) So let's look at some together. When practicing, see how well they worked when you listen back to your recording. Was it the right idiom? Did it compliment what you were trying to express? Did it add to or round off an idea?
- Learn by heart- to memorise something. 'I learned all my prepositions by heart.'
- Pass with flying colours- to score highly on a test. 'I passed my IELTS with flying colours.'
- To draw a blank- to not remember something. 'I drew a blank during my speaking exam.'
- To put your thinking cap on- to think hard about something. 'It was difficult, so I really had to put my thinking cap on.'
- Rack one's brain- to think long and hard on something. 'Sam racked his brain, but he couldn't think of a topic for his speech.'
- Daydream- to fantasise instead of paying attention. 'Ana isn't a bad student, but she has a tendency to daydream.'
- Bomb a test- to do very badly on a test. 'I got 10% on my Chemistry test, i really bombed that.' ['to bomb' is more of an Americanism, this isn't something someone from England would typically say]
- A piece of cake/a walk in the park- when something is very easy, typically when referring to a test or exam. 'The exam was a piece of cake', 'Did anyone else find that a walk in the park?'.
- Hit the books- to study. 'The test is next week and I've barely started. I really need to hit the books.'
- To pull an all-nighter- to stay up all night working or studying. 'I don't recommend pulling an all-nighter, it's not good for your physical and mental health.'
- To catch on- to understand something after initially not being able to comprehend it. 'Collocations used to be hard for me, it took me a while to catch on.' [If using it in the past tense, you would say 'caught on'.]
- To burn the midnight oil- to study or work late at night. 'You can't burn the midnight oil every night.'
- Sail through- to easily succeed at something. 'I don't think you'll be able to breeze through your exam without studying hard.' [Sometimes, people use 'it was a breeze' to mean they found it easy.]
- Practice makes perfect- to continuously improve by practicing. 'My teacher said that practice makes perfect, so I'll continue practicing.'
- In the grand scheme of things: When considering the overall perspective or long-term impact. 'In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't as important as I made it out to be'.
- A matter of utmost importance: Signifying something of great significance. 'The lawyer made it clear it was of the utmost importance to have everything documented'.
- To be on the same wavelength: An understanding and agreement between individuals. 'Luckily, we were on the same wavelength and could get the project done in good time'.
- A golden opportunity: Referring to a chance that's especially valuable. 'The job offer was a golden opportunity'.
- To be in the limelight: Being the focus of attention or scrutiny. 'The actress was in the limelight for decades; she had a long spanning career'.
- To play a pivotal role: Indicating a crucial and central contribution. 'The co-producer played a pivotal role in the success of the opening night'.
- To bear in mind: Reminding oneself to consider something important. 'You should bear in mind that the hotel is a significant distance away from the station'.
- A catalyst for change: Something that initiates significant transformation. 'In actual fact, the loss of her job was a catalyst for change that she needed'.
- To hold in high regard: To highly value or respect. 'Her opinion was highly valued and she was held in high regard by many.'
- To draw a parallel: Comparing two similar situations for illustrative purposes. 'It was easy to draw a parallel between the designs and see where their influences came from.'
- To be under scrutiny: To be closely examined or observed. 'The story leaked in the press, and he was held under severe scrutiny.'
- To tread carefully: To proceed cautiously and thoughtfully. 'They didn't get along very well, and he had to tread carefully around her.'
- To be of paramount importance: Highlighting the highest level of significance. 'Attendance on the first day of the conference was of paramount importance.'
- To walk the fine line: Balancing between two delicate positions or decisions. 'The furniture style had to walk the line between child and adult.'
- To see the bigger picture: Understanding the larger context beyond immediate details. 'It was all to easy to miss the bigger picture.'
- To put things into perspective: Providing a broader understanding of a situation. 'He was conflicted with his decision and took some time off to put things into perspective.'
- To grasp the essence: To comprehend the core or fundamental aspects. 'It was important to grasp the essence of the time in which the painter painted his masterpiece'.
- To stand the test of time: Demonstrating durability or lasting relevance. 'They are some of the best loved designs, because they stand the test of time'.
- To bridge the gap: Connecting or reconciling differences between two things. 'She must somehow bridge the gap between the two conflicting ideas'.
- To have a far-reaching impact: Affecting a wide range of situations or contexts. 'The teacher wanted to have a far reaching impact on her students for a long time to come'.
Remember to use these idioms appropriately and naturally within the context of your speaking responses during the IELTS exam.
Depending on what you might be discussing in your IELTS speaking exam, you can research other idioms that relate to the topic. If for example travel or family come up, you can research more idioms to put to use when it comes to your exam. Read through this article to find out what the IELTS speaking topics are.