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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

Iyse Leigh – “Waiting for the other shoe to drop” means when you have received unwelcomed news you are preparing yourself to received additional unwelcomed news.  For example, let’s say someone heard that their company was going to terminate a certain number of workers.  “Waiting for the other shoe to drop” would mean they are hoping it won’t be them!  I hope this helps you.

03:23 AM Aug 12 2012 |

iyse leigh

iyse leigh


i’m not so certain with the meaning but let me give my own definition of waiting for the other shoe to drop. i think it’s all about issues that are expected to release or come out.. I know i shouldn’t understand this idiom word for word or the word meaning itself. So please enlighten my mind with the appropriate answer odf this idiom,thanks

01:41 PM Aug 04 2012 |

La Princesse de la vie


That’s really meritorious work, mr. Alston… Thank you so much

You know what? During my tour in this fantastic lesson , I met some idioms we use in our language, Arabic, as slang.. 

Gradually by pursuing this lesson, everytime I can guess the meaning more properly..

09:38 PM Aug 01 2012 |


United States

It’s a deal!

09:48 PM Jul 31 2012 |

emmanuel twene amanfo

South Africa

thank you sir and i will visit for more lessons. i appreciate

04:54 PM Jul 29 2012 |


United States

Lesya, glad you were helped with being able to translate “on the fly” phrase.

You are correct on the “worth it’s weight in gold.”  I intend to give a detailed meaning in the next lesson.  Good job!

02:45 PM Jul 27 2012 |

1 person likes this




Mini Lesson №6  is very useful for me, thanks dear Alston.

All idioms are easy to understand and use in daily “english life”

Russian people use extensively the expression “on the fly”. :) I had no idea how to translate this idiom from Russian to English correctly. Now I know it, thanks Alston.

“Come out in the wash” in some sentences reminded me about barter while I was reading the meaning  this morning. 

As I suppose “Worth it’s weight in gold”  is an idiom we often use in my country. Correct me please if I’m wrong.

 “Worth it’s weight in gold” = something very precious and necessary in such and such circumstances.

08:00 AM Jul 25 2012 |


United States

Please scroll back for the other 5 lessons or 24 more on the link to the other “Understanding American English Phrases” lessons I write in the Teacher’s Forum.


08:09 AM Jul 20 2012 |



expecting more information like this

07:51 AM Jul 20 2012 |


United States

You’re welcome Bluestar and welcome aboard!

08:25 PM Jul 19 2012 |


Palestinian Territory, Occupied

it is very useful information for me ,thank you

04:16 PM Jul 19 2012 |


United States

Hello Anja,

Thanks for your response, I always welcome and appreciate your comments.

Well, the Determining Mood Lesson is in the crock pot stewing.  Once it’s done, I intend to serve it up soon!  Smile

04:27 AM Jul 19 2012 |

1 person likes this


United States

You’re welcome, thanks for the feedback!

01:41 AM Jul 18 2012 |




Many thanks dear respectfully teacher, I got the lesson it was very useful


08:01 AM Jul 17 2012 |


United States

Mini Lesson No. 6: A piece of cake / Comes out in the wash / The proof is in the pudding:

A. A piece of cake: Describing a situation that is an easy task or requires a small amount of effort.

Background/Origin of the phrase:

This phrase dates back to 1936 by American Poet Ogden Nash’s “Primrose Path” where the phrase was used in this quote: “Her picture in the papers now, and life’s a piece of cake.”

It was describing the fact that the person now had a nice easy type of life because of the notoriety of her picture being in the paper.

Here are some examples:

1. My first job was “a piece of cake” compared to my new job.  I should have remained at my first job!

2. Putting a puzzle together is “a piece of cake” the second time around.

3. Hey Tim, following your directions made finding your house “a piece of cake.”

B. Comes out in the wash: Neutralizing the effect of something.

Background/origin of the phrase:

This phrase is used to assure someone that the results of a particular matter will be alright.  It literally means that the dirt in clothes will come out when they are washed.

It dates back to 1876 by novelist Samuel Butler who stated: “As my cousins laundress says, it will all come right in the wash.”  From Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985.)

Here are some examples:

1. Jane: Shelly, since you’re a great seamstress, how much will it cost me for you to fit and hem my dress?

Shelly: Well, because you provided baby-sitting service for me last weekend, I won’t charge you anything, we’ll just let it “come out in the wash!”

Jane: Thanks Shelly!

2. Worker-to-Boss: Sorry Boss but I’m going to be 15 minutes late due to bad weather.

Boss: Don’t worry, we’ll cover your delay, just work 15 minutes over and it’ll “come out in the wash.”

Worker: Thanks Boss!

3. If the cost of services is equal to the value of the merchandise received, then we do not have to exchange money because “it all comes out in the wash!”

C. The proof is in the pudding: The end result is proof that the method used was good.

Origin/background of the phrase:

The origin of this phrase is debatable.  However, Americans tend to use it to describe a situation where the end result is proof the method, process, technique or activity was good.

In a more practical explanation of this phrase is revealed in this example: A baker bakes a delicious cake without following a recipe.  The baker’s experience will result in a delicious cake.  However the baker did it, “the proof is in the pudding,” the cake is superb!

Here are additional examples:

1. The quality of work performed by skillful people is outstanding and “the proof is in the pudding!”

2. A new study method used by some students is untraditional and controversial.  However, “the proof is in the pudding” because the students have increased their knowledge and are receiving higher test scores.

3. The human brain can process information faster than the fastest computer.  “The proof is in the pudding” by our ability to make decisions “on the fly” (immediately)!

All of these phrases are interwoven in American culture.  Natives will speak them with the assumption their audience will fully understand their comments.

If your goal is to be fluent in speaking and understanding American English, you must make it a priority to learn common idioms, phrases and some slang expressions.

To improve your knowledge of this aspect of English, I recommend that you write down any expression you do not understand.  Let this be the start of your vocabulary list which are expressions you’ve heard from movies, news reports, interviews or native speakers.  Use a search engine or seek the answer from any native speaker.  You can also send me your question by email.

One of the keys to your success is having the proper attitude about learning English.  Progress will be achieved word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase, lesson-by-lesson, conversation-by-conversation over a period of time.

Strive to use every opportunity to advance your English skill level, even if its only 5 minutes per day.  You can do it! 

For your information, I’m currently writing a new lesson for my “Inside the language” series to be posted soon.  The topic is: “Determing the mood of the writer/speaker.”  Here is the link which is also accessed from my profile page:


Well, I hope this lesson was helpful for you.  The next mini lesson phrase expressions are:

All bets are off / Where the rubber meets the road / Worth it’s weight in gold

06:26 AM Jul 16 2012 |


United States

Snow I and Amber*lady, thanks, here is the link to this series in the Teacher’s Forum from the beginning.  Keep scrolling to see them all.


06:22 AM May 10 2012 |



This lesson is very useful for me. I hope more lesons will show up here.Wink

02:04 PM Apr 27 2012 |

snow l

snow l

Iran, Islamic Republic Of

Mr. Alston,thanks alot for your useful lessons.

10:00 AM Apr 27 2012 |


United States

Thanks, you all have made my day! Smile

03:10 PM Apr 09 2012 |



Mr. Alston, thank you so much for the valuable contribution that you make to our learning process, I really appreciate your way of teaching and try to catch the tips you use. I really loved this lesson.

02:08 PM Apr 09 2012 |

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