Skip To Content

Athabasca University


An idiom is defined as a group of words whose meaning must be known as a whole because it cannot be learned from the meaning of the same words used separately.

Obviously, there is a problem when you cannot look up individual words in a dictionary and find the meaning, the usual strategy we all employ when we come across a word or words that are unfamiliar. With idioms, however, we must learn the group of words. It is particularly important to recognize idioms when you hear them or read them; when you are able to use them comfortably in your own speech and writing, then you have achieved a higher level of mastery and fluency in the language.

In everyday English, idioms are in common use. In fact, idioms are so common that most native speakers do not even realize that they are using idioms. Also, there are a great number and vast variety of idioms in everyday use. The story “All Washed Up At Eighteen?” shows both the advantages and disadvantages of using idioms. In this story, the idioms, underlined, all include the word “up”. While some idioms used judiciously can add to the flavour or atmosphere of your writing and provide briefer or more interesting descriptions, too many will detract from it, as is the case here. If you use too many idioms, or use them incorrectly, then you create the wrong impression, so be careful.

Washed Up at Eighteen?

It was the morning of the final exam. I had stayed up very late the night before reading up on my English. I woke up late that morning; I was tired, nervous and had to hurry up. I had really got up on the wrong side of the bed. My sister was kicking up a fuss at breakfast so I told her to shut up because if she kept it up she would really get my back up and I wouldn’t put up with it.

Mom knew I was fed up with things and not feeling up to par, but let me borrow the car so I wouldn’t be late for the exam. I backed up the car but forgot to buckle up. There was no let up in the traffic and the car was acting up, making strange noises. A cop pulled up next to me and signalled me to stop. I was up in arms when he gave me a ticket for not wearing my seat belt. Then a hose blew up in the car and I had to push it to the curb.

I had to face up to the fact that I was getting even later. I dug up some money from my pocket. I called up my Mom and owned up to the problem with the car. I used up the remaining change to take the bus. While sitting there I tried to bone up on my English some more, but I had to put up with the noise from my fellow passengers.

By the time I got to school I did not feel up to snuff. The teacher asked me, “What’s up?” I decided to play it up and try for some sympathy, but the teacher told me to shape up and pull up my socks. I prayed for some questions that would be up my alley, but I had no such luck. When I saw the questions, I knew I was up the creek. I had to face up to the fact that I could not measure up on that exam.

I gave up and pulled up stakes. Maybe I should just forget about school and join up. I feel all washed up and I’m only eighteen.

A good dictionary can help you to understand and learn idioms and so can special idiom books. Some idiom books can be used in a similar way to a dictionary, others provide exercises to help you learn how to use them. In many cases you will know that you are dealing with an idiom when translation does not make any sense. Often there are context clues that provide hints to the meaning. Also, don’t be afraid to ask. Many native English speakers could, and should, be more aware of the fact that they are using idiomatic English and that it is difficult for non-native speakers to understand. In fact, idiomatic English is the source of many jokes because of the possible misunderstandings.

It is useful to invest in your own copy of an idiom book. As you hear or read idioms and understand what they mean, try to use them yourself. Don’t use too many of them, however, as that can sound strange or even amusing to native speakers of English.

Updated April 10 2017 by Student & Academic Services

AU, CANADA'S OPEN UNIVERSITY, is an internationally recognized leader in online and distance learning.