Idiomatic expressions for IELTS to boost your vocabulary score

Scrabble words

Idiomatic expressions are phrases where the meaning is derived not from the individual words but by their symbolic nature. In idiomatic expressions, the arrangement of words matter more than the literal meaning of the constituent words.

For an example, “crocodile tears” is an idiom which means “to show insincere sorrow”. Here, the expression is not talking about the actual tears of crocodiles. The phrase is commonly used in English to refer to the behavior of some people who do not care about other people’s suffering but express a false sense of grief. It entered the language because ancient people believed that crocodiles shed tears while devouring their prey.

Idiomatic expressions are a great way to increase your vocabulary score in the Writing and the Speaking sections of your IELTS tests. Below is a list of some useful idioms for IELTS, along with meanings and examples, which you can use in your next exam.


at the eleventh hour – at the last minute

As I was delayed by the traffic, I reached the conference only at the eleventh hour.


beat around the bush – to waste time by focusing on irrelevant information

Instead of explaining the hazards of the new power plant, the mayor was beating around the bush in his speech.

bone of contention – an issue that causes dispute

The land area surrounding the Mahakali River is a bone of contention between Nepal and India, as governments from both countries claim the land to be rightfully theirs.

burn the candle at both ends/burn the midnight oil – to work very hard

If Melania wants to secure the million-dollar contract, she has to burn the candle at both ends.

by hook or by crook – in any way possible

The residents were so angry that they wanted the burglar caught by hook or by crook.


clear the air – to remove confusion

The management has to clear the air regarding the detrimental effects of the new policies on workers’ health insurance.

close shave – a narrow escape

The miners had a close shave when the tunnel they were working on suddenly collapsed.

cog in the wheel/cog in the machine – a necessary part of a big system

Many people ignore the role of the street merchants in Kathmandu, but they are important cogs in the wheel of the city economy.

cup of tea – something that one likes

While I am a huge fan of football, cricket is not my cup of tea.


death by a thousand cuts – a very torturous situation with slow but prolonged abuse

Even though drinking alcohol may provide temporary pleasure, being an alcoholic is a death by a thousand cuts.

draw a line – to set a limit of tolerance

I did not complain when my neighbors were partying wildly all day, but I draw the line at partying after 8 pm.


face the music – to face the consequences of one’s action

Everybody knows that Elijah is cheating on his wife, so he has to confess before her and face the music.


give cold shoulder – to ignore someone intentionally

I was discouraged to ask her out because she gave me the cold shoulder on several occasions.

Herculean task – a very difficult and big task

Replacing all the fossil fuel-based vehicles with electric ones is a Herculean task.


hit the nail on the head – to tackle the root cause of the problem

To stop prolonging the controversy, the team has to hit the nail on the head and move on.


in the blink of an eye – very quickly

Humans have moved from writing letters to video calling in the blink of an eye.

in the driving seat – to be in a position of control

The government has to let scientists in the driving seat when it comes to the issue of deep-sea exploration.


keep at bay – to stay away from things (usually problems)

I have decided to keep gambling at bay right now and focus on improving my life.


make ends meet – to fulfill one’s basic needs

Despite being a university graduate, Jonathan is working as a janitor to make ends meet.

margin of error – the limit of acceptable activity

You have to be extra careful while driving at night because the margin of error for safety is low at dark.

miss the boat – to miss an opportunity

Miguel missed the boat when he refused to take part in the public speaking seminar organized by his company.


on the same page – to agree on something

Hopper and Byers were on the same page when it came to dealing with the toxic leakage from the farm.

once in a blue moon – happening rarely

Sancho visits his grandparents only once in a blue moon.


part of the picture1. involved in something, 2. a part of a bigger whole

1. The father was not a part of the picture while Sandra was raising her daughter.

2. The rude customer service staff is only a part of the picture regarding the problems facing the shopping mall.

pass the buck – to shift one’s responsibility for something to another person

When I confronted the Principal about the school’s drinking water problem, she passed the buck to the Board of Directors.

play with fire – to do something very risky

Trying to enter the event without a permit is playing with fire.

push out the horizon – to extend one’s ability or scope

Samantha’s short stories are awesome, but she has to push out the horizon and start writing books.


start from scratch – to restart a task from the beginning

Since all the chemicals and equipment have been contaminated, we have to start our sanitization program from scratch.

stand one’s ground – to firmly hold on to one’s opinion and refuse to change

When it comes to free speech, we have to stand our ground and denounce censorship of all forms.


turn over a new leaf – to make drastic changes towards improvement

After recovering from drug addiction, Pamela is relocating to San Diego in hopes of turning over a new leaf.

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Jay Ram
Jay Ram
3 years ago

For travelling
To kick off…..
Airway kick off faster than bus .

Jay Ram
Jay Ram
3 years ago
Reply to  Gaurav Thapa

Thank you sir for
correcting me…

Aditya shrestha
Aditya shrestha
3 years ago

Good one sir

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