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Understanding American English Phrases

Understanding American English Phrases

Date: Sep 27 2011

Topic: Idioms and Slang

Author: englishteacher24/7


If you desire to learn Fluent American English, it is necessary to understand the many idioms, phrases, slang etc.  It's possible to increase your vocabulary of phrases to add to your formal study of English.

I've been publishing these mini lessons in the Teacher's Forum and this actually is Mini Lesson No. 20 there.  However, they will be published here also as lessons accessible from my profile page. 

Mini Lesson No. 1

Weigh in / A leg up / You nailed it

A. Weigh in= To offer your opinion or judgement in a discussion, argument or a certain matter.

Origin/Background of the phrase:

To determine the weight class of a fighter such as boxers or wrestlers, they must prove they are eligible for their weight class. Once their weight has been confirmed, they can proceed with the fighting match.

When used as a phrase, you are making your opinion known. Here are some examples:

1. With the campaign season starting, the public is waiting for the Republican candidates to "weigh in."

2. Everyone was waiting for the president to "weigh in" concerning his plan to improve the economy.

3. Until the referee "weighs in," we won't know if the basketball shot made when the clock ran out will count!

B. A leg up= To gain an advantage or receive a helping hand.

Origin/Background of the phrase:

The first known use of this phrase was in 1837.

This phrase is from the act of an equestrian receiving assistance in mounting a horse. The person helping the rider would cup his hands (put them together with the inside facing up) tp allow the rider to use the cupped hands as a step while the other person lifted him up and over onto the horse.

Can you imagine how this phrase can be used to indicate someone received help or has an advantage? Here are some examples:

1. The runner sacrificed going to a celebration party to get "a leg up" on the competition by receiving a good nights rest.

2. College students are always trying to get "a leg up" to be accepted by a college!

3. To get "a leg up" for a job interview, it helps if you can meet someone from the company.

C. You nailed it= To get something absolutely right (correct) or you were successful at doing something.

Origin/Background of the phrase:

I could not determine the origin of this phrase, however, my guess concerning the logic of the phrase may be that when you nail something, you attach something to a definite point. When using the phrase, you're correct on a certain point. Here are some sample statements:

1. Jane "nailed it" when she predicted the winning team.

2. "Daughter, "you nailed it" when you got all "A's" on your report card!"

3. The Defense Attorney "nailed it" when he proved the defendant was in another place, thus, vindicating his client of all criminal charges.

English lessons from within:

Determining the mood of the speaker/writer:

It is important to understand the mood of the speaker/writer, this is the foundation of the words that will follow. As you gain experience learning English, you will learn not to take everything in a literal sense. Your goal will be to discern the mood of the speaker/writer.

I've started a new lesson entitled: "Inside the language" which I invite you to read on my profile page.

Well, that's all I have for you in this session, here are the phrases for

Mini Lesson No. 21

A shoe-in / Waiting for the other shoe to drop / Caved and Caved-in

Until next time, use English as much as you can!


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United States

Mini Lesson No. 11 – In dire straits / Right off the bat / Left hanging

A. In dire straits  To be in an extreme state of distress.

Origin/background of the phrase:

This phrase originated during the 15th century from sailors piloting ships through narrow water passages (straits) that required skill and good fortune not to wreak the ship.

The word “dire” means something that is dreadful or terrible to experience. The phrase “in dire straits” came to mean being in a bad condition or situation that you regret being in.  Here are some examples:

1. We were traveling to another city when the car tire went flat.  We were in“dire straits” because the next city was very far away and the spare tire had low tire pressure.

2. If you do not study, you may be in “dire straits” when you take the exam!

3. You will be in “dire straits” if you lose your passport when traveling to another country.

B. Right off the bat  Something that happens immediately.

Origin/background of the phrase- 

This is a phrase taken for the game of baseball and goes back to the late 1800’s.  The meaning is this: when the batter hits the ball, they have to run to first base.  This is an immediate action, therefore when used as a phrase, the speaker is saying something happens immediately or is the next thing to happen.  Here are some examples:

1. When a company does extensive market research, their new product may be successful “right off the bat.”

2. Entering college can be an exciting experience but the school work will start“right off the bat.”

3. If you mention his name, “right off the bat” I’ll know who you’re talking about.

C. Left hanging - Not completing something or hesitating to provide vital information.

Origin/background of the phrase:

This phrase is likened to farm workers leaving fruit on a tree during the harvest season.  The job was not complete because fruit was remaining.  When used as a phrase, it means the speaker is withholding vital information that the listener is waiting for or a person is kept in a state of suspense.  Here are some examples:

1. The new budget was “left hanging” therefore, the company ran out of money to operate.

2. The work that was done is good, however, the paperwork was “left hanging.”

3. If good preparation is “left hanging,” the results may not be good.

Well, there you have it, commonly used phrases in everyday American English.

Here are the next phrases for Mini Lesson No. 12:

Preaching to the choir / Go to town / Frankly speaking

11:22 AM May 13 2013 |

1 person likes this


United States

Mini Lesson No. 11 is on the cooker!

03:19 PM May 08 2013 |


United States

Mini Lesson No. 10 – Push-back / Everybody and their uncle / Everything but the kitchen sink:

A. Push-back= An opposing response.

Background of the phrase:

This phrase indicates that someone is resisting the proposal of his or her opponent.  The actions between President Obama and the Republicans are examples of “push-back” between both parties in not being able to agree on legislation.

Here are some examples:

1. The US Democratic Party’s position on balancing the budget is through increasing revenue from higher taxes, however, the Republican Party will “push-back” this type of proposal because they believe the budget should be balanced through reducing expenditures.

2. When a product is determined to be defective, the customer will “push-back” by refusing to purchase it.

3. “Push-back” may occur when there is intense disagreement between the parties.

B. Everybody and their uncle= This is a hyperbolic statement (using exaggeration to make a point) to express the idea of including many people to participate in something using humor or light sarcasm.

Background of the phrase: The person using this phrase will use light humor in describing the fact that many people may be present or involved in an event. The use of the term “uncle” adds one more person to “everybody” to exaggerate the meaning.


1. I have decided not to go to the free concert because “everybody and their uncle” is going to be there and we’ll be stuck in traffic for hours!

2. You can buy merchandise at a low price during a special sale, but“everybody and their uncle” will be there!

3. “Everybody and their uncle” are traveling on the highways during certain holidays.

C. Everything but the kitchen sink= Almost everything.

Background of the phrase: Used when the speaker wants to use light-humor in describing a scenario where almost everything was included or taken.


1. The car salesperson was including “everything but the kitchen sink” to close the deal (sell the car).

2. The construction company was throwing in “everything but the kitchen sink” to sell their houses.

3. Great hosts will provide “everything but the kitchen sink” to make you feel welcomed in their home.

You are likely to hear “push-back” on a news report, the other two you may hear in Conversational English.

The next phrases for Mini Lesson No. 11 are:

In dire straits / Right off the bat / Left hanging

05:59 AM Mar 26 2013 |

1 person likes this


United States

Realman, I owe you one!

04:23 PM Jan 21 2013 |

1 person likes this



Iran, Islamic Republic Of

that was awesome professor.


03:41 PM Jan 20 2013 |



Thx ur sharing :)

02:45 PM Jan 20 2013 |


United States

Please note: The mini lessons on “Understanding American English Phrases” are posted in two locations, this one and in the Teacher’s Forum, which explains why it’s listed twice on my ‘Recent Forum Posts’ section.

The one posted in the Teacher’s Forum has many more lessons, once there, just scroll back for previous lessons. Here is the link:


02:32 AM Jan 17 2013 |


United States

Mini lesson No. 9: Hangs in the balance / Tooth and Nail / Kicking the can down the road:

A. Hangs in the balance= To depend on something for success or continued existence.  To have the fate of something to be decided.

Background/origin of the phrase:

This expression comes from a weighing scale that has weight on one pan and weight is added until both pans are balanced.  The period was during the early 1400’s.


1. Sometimes, pay raises “hangs in the balance” pending approval.

2. The results of my employment application “hangs in the balance” until I hear from human resources.

3. The proposed budget “hangs in the balance” until the city council meets and votes on it.

B. Tooth and nail= This phrase is used to indicate using every available resource to relentlessly fight to accomplish your objective.  It is in a sense of fighting your opposition in something you strongly believe in.

Background/origin of the phrase:

This phrase comes from the mid-1500’s and possibly can be from the image of an animal fighting with their teeth and claws (nails).


1. During the championship basketball game, the leading team was fighting “tooth and nail” to maintain their lead.

2. The US Republican Party was fighting the president “tooth and nail” over the budget.

3. The big fish fought  the angler “tooth and nail” and lasted an hour.

C. Kicking the can down the road=

To procrastinate, to postpone or delay a decision or action and using a short-term solution.

Background/origin of the phrase:

From a game of kids kicking a can as far as they can and taking turns to do so.


1. If the US Congress continues, “kicking the can down the road” on the budget, it will be difficult to reach a compromise between the parties.

2. You can only “kick the can down the road” so long before the chickens come home to roost!

3. “Kicking the can down the road” instead of making a decision is not a good operating method.

People use these phrases frequently, currently “kicking the can down the road” is commonly used with politicians concerning the the 2013 US budget where there is disagreement.

The next mini lesson phrases are:

Push-back / Everybody and their uncle / Everything but the kitchen sink 

03:11 PM Jan 16 2013 |


yuminagaSuper Member!


thank you very much! hang on !!

12:43 PM Dec 30 2012 |


United States

Yuminaga, you get an “A” for your phrase usage!

04:58 AM Dec 30 2012 |


yuminagaSuper Member!


good ! very useful phrased, thank you Sir !you  nailed it. I am sure my English will be improviing  soon when I weigh in and get a leg up from you !

02:13 PM Dec 20 2012 |


United States

Yes Makpal, you nailed it, thanks!

09:51 PM Nov 14 2012 |




I hope I can get “a leg up” for improving my english by having you as a friend at “ebaby”))

did I nail it? (I mean did I use the idioms correctly)

11:17 AM Nov 14 2012 |


United States

If you would like to read more of these mini lessons, you can find them in the Teacher’s Forum, here’s the link:


11:29 AM Nov 10 2012 |

1 person likes this


United States

Well Everyone, here is Mini Lesson No. 8:

By and large / Pull out all the stops / Still and yet

A. By and large= Overall or generally speaking about a topic.

Origin/background of the phrase:

On the surface, this phrase does not appear to make any sense.  ‘By’ can be used as a noun, such as ‘near to’ or as an adverb such as ‘aside,’ ‘away,’ ‘over,’ or ‘past.’ 

‘Large’ indicates above average size, degree, quantity, etc.  Therefore, to understand the phrase ‘by and large’ requires learning the origin.  This is a nautical term and involves the sails of a ship and it’s relationship to the wind.

‘By’ means in the general direction of the ship.

‘Large’ means the wind is blowing from behind the ship and pushing it forward by use of the sails.  Putting the literal meaning of this phrase together would render the meaning to be: Going in the general direction of the destination from the power of the wind.  This is explained in simplified terms.

Therefore, when used as a phrase, ‘By and large’ means the speaker is making a point that the object of discussion is going in a general direction or in other words, generally speaking.  Here are some examples:

1. Maria: Cindy, what do you think about the quality of the curriculum at your school?

Cindy: ‘By and large,’ I think they are good, but we need additional advanced courses.

2. ‘By and large,’ taking a language class can be beneficial in learning a new language.

3. ‘By and large,’ time will tell if you made a good decision!

B. Pull out all the stops= To use every means to be successful in accomplishing something.

Origin/background of the phrase:

This is a commonly used phrase to indicate using all of your available resources to accomplish a task.

The phrase comes from the tubes of a pipe organ, which had ‘stops’ (vents) to open or close, increasing or decreasing the airflow of the pipes. If a stop were opened (pulling out the stop), the airflow was increased and a higher volume was achieved.  Therefore, ‘pulling out the stops’ meant increasing the sound  of the organ.  When used as a phrase it meant achieving your goal though extra effort.  Here are some examples:

1. The candidates were ‘pulling out all the stops’ to persuade Voters to vote for them.

2. Our competitors are very successful in marking their products, therefore, we must ‘pull out all the stops’ to exceed their marketing skills!

3. If you want to win, you have to ‘pull out all the stops’ in preparation.

C. Still and yet= Things are the way they are but have a possibility to change.

Background/origin of the phrase:

This is not an easy phrase to understand or use, especially for non-native speakers.  It can be reversed to: ‘Yet and still’ and retain the same meaning.

Let’s look at the separate meaning of the words.

Still= To be stationary, at the present time, or continuing action.

Yet= At the present time or anticipated action.

The origin of the phrase is unknown to me.  Here are some examples:

1. The company has interview many candidates for the job position; ‘still and yet,’ the position remains vacant.

2. The US election process is long, ‘still and yet’ it is a part of the US political system.

3. “There was rain in the weather forecast, ‘still and yet’ the concert was not cancelled!”


By adding these phrases to your database of English knowledge, you increase your chances of understanding them.

Thanks for your patience!

Here are the phrases for Mini Lesson No. 9:

Hangs in the balance / Tooth and nail / Kicking the can down the road

11:15 AM Nov 10 2012 |


United States

Mini Lesson No. 8 on the phrases “By and large,” “Pull out all the stops,” and “Still and yet” is being written and I hope to post soon.  Stay tuned and thanks for your patience.

04:28 AM Nov 03 2012 |




It definitely helps. Thank you, dear AlstonSmile

12:14 PM Sep 10 2012 |


United States

Hello Lesya, you have already given the correct meaning and example.  It means to return to the point that someone did something and you are going to deal with it.  I hope this helps,

02:28 AM Sep 09 2012 |

1 person likes this




Good day, dear Alston :)

I hope my question will not be too boring for you.

Today when I was passing the quiz I met the phrase “get back at”

I’m going to ask you to give me more detailed explanation of the phrase “get back at”  because the example eBaby gives is not enough for me to understand where can I use this phrase.


“1. Definition (v.) get revenge on someone

Examples I got back at my brother for stealing my comic books.”

Many thanks in advanceSmile

06:13 AM Sep 05 2012 |


United States

Mini Lesson No. 7 – All bets are off / Where the rubber meets the road / Worth its weight in gold

These are commonly used phrases in American English, you should add this information to your knowledge of conversational English to help you understand native speakers.

A. All bets are off= All proposals which were offered are withdrawn.

Background/origin of the phrase: This phrase is from sports betting, specifically horseracing where people made a bet on the winning horse but something changed and the bet saleman (bookee) cancelled the bet because the odds have changed.

Examples of how the phrase is used:

1. The company offered a 1% wage increase but the workers rejected the offer, therefore the company said “all bets are off” and withdrew the offer.

2. When you negotiate for an equitable settlement, you must be careful not to anger someone or they may tell you “all bets are off” and “take it or leave it” and you’ll end up with nothing!

3. If the president vetoes the legislative bill, “all bets are off” of reaching a compromised bill.

B. Where the rubber meets the road= Where meaningfull things come together.

Background/origin of the phrase: The phrase comes from racing cars where the rubber meets the road and races are won.

Examples of how the phrase is used:

1. Learning a foreign language can be challenging but “where the rubber meets the road” is being able to speak it.

2. Going to school is a good investment in yourself, however, getting a job afterwards is “where the rubber meets the road!”

3.  If a business doesn’t have enough income to sustain their operation, they may have to raise their prices and reduce their overhead expenses. This is “where the rubber meets the road.”

C. Worth its weight in gold= Ascribing a high value or importance to something.

1. The ink pen I found was “worth its weight in gold” when I needed it to write down an important phone number.

2. Your cellphone was “worth it’s weight in gold” when I really needed it.

3. After receiving a flat tire, the spare tire was “worth its weight in gold” to prevent us from being stranded.

Developing a good listening skill is beneficial to training your ears to hear “exactness.”  This ability will help you to discern the variation between different speakers pronouncing the same word.

Strive to use various methods, different teachers and various angles to learn English.  Continue to move forward, even 5 minutes per day of learning is better that 0 minutes per day.  You can increase from there depending on your time.

I hope these phrase meanings will be helpful to you.

Mini lesson No. 8 phrases are:

By and large / Pull out all the stops / Still and yet

10:32 PM Aug 31 2012 |

1 person likes this

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