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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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Hong Kong

I'm new in the class, thank you for the lesson. 

02:43 AM May 21 2010 |


United States

Welcome back Meyra, you are a very dedicated and engaged student and I appreciate your participation.

Welcome aboard Ramin, Mionfabian, Ketzaline and GioGio as new students.  You can learn insider information here.  If you want the previous 9 mini lessons, please send me an email requesting them.  There's a lot of information which may be included in the book I'm writing.

The next phrases are scheduled to be:

Water under the bridge/Laughing all the way to the bank/How do you like them apples?

Until the next time, think in English!

08:39 AM May 21 2010 |



Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

thank you for clearing

03:39 PM May 21 2010 |



I am indeed very lucky to have found this website. I am new to this and I am pretty sure I'd be coming back for more new words to learn. Thank you teacher.

12:03 AM May 22 2010 |




when i've been in the US, i had some problem.

i had it when some teenagers spoke to me with their modern slangs!! gosh

well now i'm trying to learn new slangs every single day. I wish you present us some.

Thank you.


06:00 AM May 22 2010 |




Thanks a lot. This is my first lesson here.

Your examples are great. Now i'm looking forward to see the next one.

05:35 PM May 22 2010 |


United States

Welcome libya82, Mich_lac,Vmaestro and Sean2010,

I appreciate your comments and look forward to helping you with American English.

Vmaestro, I’m planning a lesson on slangs coming up in the near future, stay tuned!

01:35 AM May 26 2010 |


United States

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Mini Lesson No. 2

I want to thank everyone for your patience for this lesson, it was very challenging to put into words that are understandable, nevertheless, here is the lesson.

Water under the bridge:


This phrase is used to describe something that happened (in the past) and was usually an unfortunate occurrence that you do not want to spend time on.  Please study the example statements below:


1. Last semester school was very challenging for me and my grades were not what I expected.  Oh well, its water under the bridge, I’ll try to improve next semester!


2. Our soccer team played very poorly this season but its water under the bridge because we have good new players scheduled to start next season.


3. I lost my job last week but its water under the bridge because I plan to get a better one.


You can understand from these statements that the main thought is that something unfortunate happened that the person didn’t want to spend time talking about but would rather focus on something new.


This phrase is used a lot in conversation; you wouldn’t use it in formal writing.  It would be used in informal newspaper or magazine articles.


The meaning may have come from the fact that water is usually flowing under a bridge, and carrying anything away from it.  In English, it would imply that something bad is being carried away from the present and no longer relevant.




Laughing all the way to the bank:


This phrase describes a situation where someone is making a lot of money, usually from someone’s misfortune or appears simple minded but making a lot of money.  Here are some examples:


  1. Some businesses charge a fee for everything, and at end of the day, they’re laughing all the way to the bank!


  1. The clown appeared to be silly but he was laughing all the way to the bank.


  1. The con artist advertised selling diamond rings at a fraction of the cost but he was laughing all the way to the bank!


As you can see, the thought here is that certain people appears to be a certain way but actually they are making a large amount of money as a result of their actions.


This phrase is commonly used in conversation or informal written English.  Here’s an example of a comment from a blog of a New York Times writer Mr. Frank Rich dated 4/24/10

“Frank Rich: Wall Street Laughing All The Way to the Bank


I don’t know the source of this phrase but it may have evolved through the observation of watching some people make a large amount of money with little effort from taking advantage of situations or circumstances.


How do you like them apples?


This phrase is used to express a challenge or confirmation to something that was said or done.  In other words, its saying: “how do you like that?” in response to someone in a bold fashion.  Hopefully, the context of these examples will help your understanding of this phrase.


  1. Parent says to child: “Because you haven’t completed your house chores, you cannot go to the party on Saturday, “how do you like them apples?”

      Child says to parent: That’s not fair!

      Parent: Oh well, next time, do your house work and I’ll be “a Happy Camper” (request previous mini lessons)


  1. Customer: I bought this product from your store 6 months ago and now it doesn’t work?  Please exchange it for a new one.

      Store Manager: I’m sorry, but the warranty has expired, I can’t help you.

      Customer: Well, in the future I won’t purchase anything from your store, how do you like them apples?


  1. The basketball star made a basket in the last 2 seconds of the game and the team won, one of the members said to the reporter, “how do you like them apples?”


You can understand that this phrase is used in response as a challenge to something that was done.  You’re likely to encounter this phrase in conversational English, not much in written English because it’s a phrase used in response to something unless you were reading a story in a novel and one of the characters were expressing it to another character.

I do not know the source of this phrase but I would guess it refers to the appearance of nice large red apples and seeks your examination of them to determine that they’re beautiful in comparison to other apples.


Well there you are, if you hear any native speaker using these phrases, you will understand what they meant by using them. Please let me know if you have any questions and comments are always appreciated.

Until the next time, have fun learning American English!


02:20 PM May 27 2010 |




thank you for the lesson. i really like it :) It's very useful with no doubt

04:37 AM May 31 2010 |


United States

Hello Teacher,

Do you have any idea where the phrase "easy come, easy go". I've always wanted to know that!

10:03 PM May 31 2010 |