Literary Terms



An idiom is a common expression whose meaning cannot be understood from the individual words.

Idioms are the kind of thing that drive English learners crazy. Imagine, for example, that you've just arrived in the United States after growing up in a foreign country. You have studied English for many years, so you're pretty confident about your ability to understand basic English.

But one day, your friend says to you: "Don't worry, I've got your back."

The computer in your brain starts whirring. You know the meaning of each individual word, so you should be able to understand the meaning of the sentence, right? But how does that even make sense? How can your friend possess or hold onto your back? Why would he want to? What does that even mean?

Of course, it doesn't make sense—at least not literally. That's because "I've got your back" is an idiom, a common expression that means: "I will defend you or assist you."

But how could you possibly have known that? If you haven't grown up in an English-speaking country, many idioms probably "fly over your head". (That's another idiom that means that something escaped your understanding). What may seem like "easy English" to a native speaker may be quite confusing to you.

Many idioms are made from other figurative language techniques (like simile, metaphor, or hyperbole). For example, let’s look at the idiom “He’s running out of steam.” This is a metaphor that compares “him” to a steam engine, but it’s also an idiom. What separates idioms from other figurative language techniques is that people use idioms a lot. In other words, idioms are just figurative expressions that have become so common that people no longer have to "figure them out."

Key Point:

Instructions for the Quiz

Determine the meaning of the bolded expression. Choose the best answer. You can use Google to look up any idiom that you don't know.