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Teacher Talk

Understanding American English Phrases


United States

Greetings everyone!  It is my pleasure to return to writing mini lessons on understanding American English phrases.

For those of you who have been following my mini-lessons, I want to apologize to you (especially to those who wrote comments) for my mistake in deleting the posts.  If anyone wants a copy of the last 9 mini-lessons, please send me an email with “Request Mini Lessons” on the subject line and I’ll send you a copy.

We left off on the following phrases:

Hand-over-fist / Between a rock and a hard place / Back in the day

Since I’m starting over, this will be Mini Lesson No. 1, so “on with the show!”

1. Hand-over-fist 

This phrase is used primarily when describing someone/something that is earning money in a fast profitable manner.  Please study the following examples:

1. Henry and his brother Jack had an idea to sell flavored bottle water to people on the island, and they were making money “hand over fist” in their  business endeavor!

2.  Money lenders can make money “hand-over-fist” by charging various transaction fees.

3.  You can make money “hand over fist” if you supply goods to a market with strong demand and no competition.

Background of the phrase:  The origin of this phrase appears to be nautical from sailors who would reel in rope by placing a hand on the rope and pulling and then placing and pulling with the other hand, thereby, using a hand-over-hand motion until the rope was completely in. This phrase is commonly used in everyday American English by someone who wants to quickly convey the message of somebody making money fast, there may be some sarcasm in their tone of voice.  The other person may reply, “yes and they were laughing all the way to the bank!” (phrase for another lesson, try to understand the context)

2.  Between a rock and a hard place

 This phrase indicates that a person is in an unfavorable position of having to make a decision which has choices that are undesirable.  In literal terms, it would express the thought of something caught between a rock and something else hard.  Whatever the hard place is, the result is the same, that is, entrapment.  Consider the examples:

1. Sally says to her mother: “Mom, I have 2 important tests to take for my final examination in school and I only have time to study for 1 of them, I’m really stuck “between a rock and a hard place,” help!”

Mom to Sally: Sally, why did you wait so late to study, you should have allowed yourself enough time!”  Sally to Mom: “Mom, that’s water under the bridge!” (another lesson, understand by the context)

2. The company’s policy was never to eliminate personnel due to financial reasons, however, the economy is so bad that they may have to go out of business unless they can reduce the budget.  Therefore, the company is “between a rock and a hard place” not to eliminate employees.

3. My parents are not in good health and need my help, however, I must work to be able to support them.  I am “between a rock and a hard place” to decide what to do?  

You can understand from the examples above that being “between a rock and a hard place” means having to make a difficult decision with either decision not being desirable.

Background of the phrase:  From Greek mythology of Odyssey.  This phrase is used commonly in everyday English.

3. Back in the day

This is a relatively new phrase that is being used to describe something that happened in the past.

1. “Back in the day” before computers, we relied on writing letters or sending telegrams instead of simply sending an email! 

2. “Back in the day” in high school, chess was a very popular game to play!

3. “Back in the day” during the 1950’s and 1960’s, love song lyrics were very romantic!

You can see from the use of this phrase that it is referring to something that happened during a time in the past that the speaker is causing the listener to refer to.

Background of the phrase:  This is a slang phrase that came from American urban life which has made it’s way into mainstream American English.  It’s used in informal conversation by young and old.

Well, it’s good to be back, thanks for all of the emails and friend requests I’ve received.  Some of you are really serious about learning English and I’ll do my best to help you understand authentic American English. 

Here is my suggestion for you to learn English: Read, Write, Speak and think in English!

Until the next time!

07:11 AM May 15 2010 |

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Saudi Arabia

awesome.. this is new to me.. except for back in the day thing. but overall.. great lesson.. thank you sir. 

10/10 :P

11:04 AM May 15 2010 |




thank you for this lesson! it is easy to understand!

12:10 PM May 15 2010 |


United States

I just learned something new! Thanks:o

09:09 PM May 15 2010 |


United States

Welcome aboard Jack!

I appreciate your comments and feedback.  "Back in the day" means once upon a time this or that happened.  "Back" means to go in reverse or something past, in this case it means something that was in the past, for example: When I was a child, it was the good old days (back in the day, was the good old days). It's just a different way of saying the same thing, only using a phrase to say it.  I hope this helps you and others.

Chem09, thanks for your feedback.

PinkButterfly, welcome back, your comments are "right on" to keep the board straight (cultivate understanding).

Everyone is encouraged to take this opportunity to write in response to reading and learning something in English.

01:25 AM May 16 2010 |



South Korea

thank u for mini lessons! its interesting and useful. i will try to use thoes expressions. Kiss

08:40 AM May 17 2010 |


United States

Suyoung and Chabowbo you have taken steps toward improving your English by expressing your thoughts in writing.  Continue to visit, my goal is to write a mini lesson at least once per week.  Thanks for your response!

01:33 AM May 18 2010 |




Welcome back mr.Alston,we miss you a lot :) I'm little lucky about previous phrases due to I've written them in my notebook xD Thank you for everything..Bye Bye..

10:05 AM May 18 2010 |


Iran, Islamic Republic Of

hi dear teacher , i am from Iran , i hope u like me and don't think that i am terourist !!!!

i am really interested in your language , i hope i can be your pupil

i ma an eng student in uneversity but as u know human being can never catch any thing from universities speacially in iran

 i was sold on your lovely lesson tell me more how i can improve my eng like native guys


05:35 PM May 18 2010 |




I really liked this english lesson…

It's my first time reading yours lessons… It's very useful with no doubt…

I liked mainly that phrase, Back in the day. It's easier than that others ones to learn.

But I think I will try thinking almost always about that other:

I am between a rock and a hard place….....

I am going to visit here more… tks…

06:24 PM May 18 2010 |




Hi teacher, your mini lessons are very useful because are about Real english.

Thanks a lot

09:16 PM May 18 2010 |