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A phrase is a small group of words that communicates a concept but isn’t a full sentence. Phrases and idioms constitute the most important aspects of any language. There are different kinds of phrases, some of which play a technical role in writing and others that play a more illustrative role. Phrases make the sentences richer by giving the words context, detail, and clarity.

    1. Phrases are just a part of the sentence and cannot stand alone.
    2. They do not give complete meaning if taken out of context.
    3. They are mostly used to provide extra information about the subject, object or other components in a sentence.
    4. There can be more than one phrase in a sentence.

Even though phrases are spoken and written every single day, truly understanding their mechanics can be tricky. The meaning of a phrase is often not obvious from the meaning of the individual words in it. Their correct usage needs to be studied with examples.

To bank on someone/something: To guess that something is probable.

I am banking on them to save the match.

Bring to the table: Providing someone with expertise or benefits.

Owing to her experience in the Finance sector, Sudha can bring a lot to the table for our company.

To be out of your mind: To be upset about something or the inability to concentrate on anything.

Rathin has been acting weird lately. I think he is out of his mind!

Drives me up the wall: To be extremely annoyed.

It drives me up the wall when I see people littering on the ground.

Hit the ceiling: To explode with anger.

Dad will definitely hit the ceiling when he’ll go through my report card.

Zero in on: To focus or aim precisely on something.

With exams nearing, I need to zero in on my studies so as to improve my grades.

Calling the shots: To have control over progress or to give directions to others.

Though Jennifer is the head of the Content Marketing team, Adam is the one who generally calls the shots.

Got my mojo working: When someone’s luck is working to a great extent

Even though my science examination went terribly, still I got my mojo working and topped my class with flying colours.

Speak of the Devil: When someone appears just when you have mentioned them.

Did you know that Shashank scored really well on the ACT exam? Oh, speak of the devil, here he comes!

To think outside the box: Think in a creative and original way.

We stood second in the inter-college debate competition. Had we thought something out of the box, we would have bagged first place.

To get the ball rolling: To start something

Now that we have all the team members on board, let’s get the ball rolling on this project!

Hit the sack: Go to bed/sleep

I have been working hard all day long. It is now time for me to hit the sack.

A chink in the armour: Having a problem/flaw that is responsible for delaying success.

The injury of one of our star players in the Basketball match became a chink in the armour of losing the match.

To be on cloud 9: To be in a great state of happiness due to an accomplishment.

Neha just received her admission letter from Harvard University. She’s on cloud 9!

Drop someone a line: To contact someone through an email, letter or phone call.

Remember to drop me a line as soon as you reach France so that I know you are safe!

Off the cuff: Something that is impulsive or spontaneous.

During the chemistry lecture, the professor started asking questions off the cuff but I answered all correctly.

Boon companion: The closest friend whose company one enjoys.

Lara and Danny named their firstborn child after Danny’s boon companion, Steve Adams.

Economical with the truth: conveying untrue events and facts

The panel of judges punished an eyewitness for economizing with the truth.

Twenty-four/seven: Something that continues throughout the day.

The news channels work twenty-four/seven to provide us with information on the latest happenings around the world.

On pins and needles: Anxious/Nervous/ in a state of suspense.

I was on pins and needles the whole day when the result of the civil service exam had to be announced.

Find the pony: To find something good even when the situation is bad.

Even during the financial crisis, Amanda managed to find a pony in this mess.

Badger to Death: To poke, nag and pester relentlessly.

My younger sister asks me a thousand questions a day. However, if I do not answer all her questions, she can badger me to death.

Out of the jaws of death: To be saved from a fatal situation.

Anil was lucky enough to be out of the jaws of death after his bike met an accident.

One-stop-shop: A single establishment where all the products and services are offered.

The job centre has merged into a one-stop shop with the unemployment benefit office to bring both services under one roof.

Sleep like a top: Sound sleep.

After working hard the whole week, I slept like a top on Sunday.

Pardon my French: Seek an apology for using rude or offensive language.

He is a bloody fool! Oops, pardon my french.

Kettle of fish: A difficult or awkward situation.

Sitting on the first bench of a classroom is like a kettle of fish for some students.

Kicking one’s heels: Wasting one’s time while waiting for something/someone.

Sitting on the bench of a park, Antonio was kicking his heels while waiting for his friends to arrive.

Might and main: Doing something by putting in all the effort.

Mike was stuck in a building all night long. He shouted might and main from the window but no one came to his rescue.

Elvis has left the building: A punchline often used to disband the crowd after the culmination of an event.

The concert is over and Elvis has left the building. You can go home now.

Donkey’s years: Something which has been happening for quite a long time.

Anny has been a vegan for donkey’s years.

Draw a blank: An unsuccessful/failed attempt.

We have been looking for Ivan’s dog the whole day but we have drawn a blank.

Keep/hold someone’s feet to the fire: Pressurizing someone to approve and undertake something.

The press has been holding the actress’s feet to the fire to take her pictures for their national daily.

Living hand to mouth: Having only enough money to buy food and shelter; extremely poor.

Sneha was forced to live hand to mouth before she got a job at a leading MNC.

Keep a stiff upper lip: Show bravery or courage in adversity and pain.

After the death of his best friend, George has been keeping a stiff upper lip.

Take the bit between your teeth: Facing a hard task resolutely with a determined attitude.

Smith was having a hard time coping with his engineering studies. However, he took a bit between his teeth once he started understanding the concepts.

The crack of doom: Doomsday; the judgement day (according to the Christian religious belief).

Harry and Jones have been friends since the age of 2. Their friendship will continue until the crack of doom.

Twelve good men and true: A jury.

Ben was convicted by the court. We have to gather strong pieces of evidence to prove his innocence in front of the twelve good men and true.

Turn up trumps: To succeed even when success seemed unlikely.

When we thought our new project was going to fall apart, Richa turned up the trumps by hiring a manager.

Upset the apple cart: To spoil someone’s plan; cause trouble.

I have been making all the arrangements for a nice family vacation, but the weather upset the apple cart.

Four corners of the earth: From all directions.

People from all four corners of the earth came to Dubai for attending the famous Dubai Shopping Festival.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread: The times when foolish people do not hesitate to tackle a dangerous or difficult situation that even the wisest ones choose to avoid.

Even though he does not belong to the Finance department, Mike rushes like a fool and angels fear to tread when the company was facing a financial crunch.

Fifteen minutes of fame: Rising to fame for a brief period of time.

The fifteen minutes of fame Jean did not want.

It takes two fools to argue: A wise man never argues with a fool as he sees no sense in it.

It takes two fools to argue with my two-year-old niece over her favourite toy.

Kicking myself: Regretting something you should not have done.

I could just kick myself for not attending the family function.

Play Ducks and Drakes: To idly misuse or squander one’s wealth; reckless behaviour.

Noah was fired from his job for playing ducks and drakes with the funds he was allotted for a project by his company.

Down to the wire: Waiting for something/ to do something until the very last minute.

The cricket match between India and New Zealand went down the wire.

Between a rock and a hard place: Choosing between two equally untenable alternatives.

I want to quit my job but cannot do so due to my financial condition. I am stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Haul someone over the coals: To reprimand or scold someone for a mistake or an error.

The accountant didn’t file the returns on time so his senior hauled him over the coals for his mistake.

Chalk and Cheese: Two people or things that are completely different from each other.

While Jake is an easy-going person, his brother Oliver is short-tempered. Both of them are like chalk and cheese!

Bread and butter: Earnings of a person; indicate when a person earns for a living.

You must earn bread and butter for your family.

Draw a longbow: To exaggerate, to lie.

Stella is drawing a longbow. Do not believe her.

Easier said than done: Not as easy to do as it seems harder than you think.

It’s one of those things that are easier said than done.

Feeling under the weather: To feel ill, sick, or having a hangover.

I have my final exam tomorrow, but I’m feeling under the weather. I think I have a fever.

Forty winks: Sleep a while mainly during the day; take a nap.

My sister always likes to catch forty winks after lunch.

Go cold turkey: To suddenly stop or quit some bad or addictive behaviour.

He had been trying to quit drinking for a year but couldn’t, so he decided to go cold turkey.

Hold one’s peace: Be silent.

Just hold your peace if you don’t have anything smart to say.

Lose your marbles: To go crazy, insane.

I’ve been so bad lately that I thought I’m losing my marbles.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.