Dee’s English Tips #1 – Idiomatic Expressions








Problems with Idiomatic Expressions…?

One of our BEC Vantage students recently mentioned that he struggled to understand idiomatic expressions, which are frequently used in his workplace, both at meetings and in emails.  Idiomatic speech is normally defined as an expression whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up, so it understandable that students may find it difficult to de-code what is meant, from what it said.  For example, “To let the cat out of the bag”, has nothing to do with a bag or a cat.  It means to give away a secret without meaning to.

To help our students explore commonly- used idiomatic expressions, students were asked to note down expressions they met over the following week.  Before the task began, it was explained that many idiomatic expressions used in business come from sport.  We asked the BEC exam group to think about why this was the case.  Here is what they said:

  • In sport you need to work as a team and also in business.
  • In sport you have to make a plan and find strategies to succeed – this is also the case in business.

Another reason is that both environments are competitive – winning is important!

Here are some of the idiomatic expressions from sport that came out of the task.  To add a bit of fun, the students were asked to guess which sport the expression came from:



Expression:        “To show someone the ropes”  (Sport guessed: Boxing = incorrect) Sport: Sailing

Meaning: To show someone how to do something new.  Origin: probably from working on sailing ships many years ago.  A new sailor had to learn the ropes from an experienced sailor who would ‘show him the ropes’.

Example: On your first day at work, John will show you the ropes and explain everything, so don’t worry.


Expression:        “To step up to the plate”              (Sport guessed: Baseball = correct)

Meaning:            To take responsibility/ Do the right thing

Origin: Probably from coaching in baseball.  The coach might ask “Who will step up to the plate and get the winning score for us?”


Expression:        “Call the shots”    (Sport guessed: Hunting =incorrect)  Sport: Billiards/Snooker

Meaning:            To make the important decisions

Origin: Billiards – The stronger player, who plays the best shots, wins the game.

Example: Jack is retiring next month, so Mary will be calling the shots after that.




If you hear an expression you don’t understand ask your teacher, your host family or a friend to explain it to you.  Remember, idiomatic expressions can be influenced by different cultural factors, so share and explain the expressions you learn with classmates; then ask them to tell you the equivalent in their language.  In this way, you link learning inside and outside the class, in addition to increasing your intercultural awareness!

Dee Doyle, Irish College of English.