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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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United States

Mini Lesson No. 31 – 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.

Background/origin 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.

Background/Origin 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. 32:

Preaching to the choir / Go to town / Frankly speaking

11:16 AM May 13 2013 |



Iran, Islamic Republic Of

thank you very much it was useful

10:35 AM Sep 01 2013 |


United States

Tatalant, you’re welcome. I plan to start writing the next mini lesson this week

07:43 AM Sep 02 2013 |



Iran, Islamic Republic Of

hello dear mr alston

regarding the determining the meaning of the phrases ,if we know the phrase we can avoid translating literally. how should we know the words that we read in a text is a phrase?we should just memorize all?

11:55 AM Sep 19 2014 |


United States

Hello Samineh, you ask excellent questions that are helpful for teachers and students! Recognizing phrases is not an easy task for non-native speakers because it deviates from a sentence and can be confusing.

1. Context is a method you can use or in other words, if the literal sense doesn’t make sense, then it may be a phrase.

2. Learn by building a phrase vocabulary as you encounter them, experience is the best teacher.  Yes, memorizing common phrases is one method.

3. Consider this statement: “I am so hungry that I haven’t eaten ’since Columbus sailed!’”

If someone tries to make sense of this statement by reconciling Columbus and eating, they would be lost trying to understand it.

However, if you consider the context, you will find that someone is so hungry that they haven’t eaten in a long time.

If you make a copy of the mini lessons in this forum, you will have a good start on building your phrase vocabulary.

By the way, Mini Lesson No. 32 is long overdue, I’d better “get on the stick!”

02:33 AM Sep 21 2014 |




hello sir,this is first time i’m reading your mini lesson.it’s very useful.back in my days i never gave importance to english language.but now really i want to improve.thanks for your lessons.

02:51 PM Sep 26 2014 |


United States

(Another) Mini Lesson No. 32 – Preaching to the choir / Go to town / Frankly speaking

Please Note: This mini lesson have the same title (Understanding American English Phrases) name but is located in the Teacher Talk Forum. There are more lessons here than in the other forum with the same name.

American English is full of various phrases, idioms and expressions to communicate certain thought(s). Usually they do not follow logical reasoning and cannot be determined by defining each individual word.

The key to learning phrases is to expose you to them through media such as TV, interviews, English teachers, English websites, commentaries, movies, songs, radio, newspaper/magazine articles, personal contact and any other means of English exposure. 

The following phrases are commonly used in everyday American English. Add them to your phrase vocabulary list and you will increase your understanding when you encounter them. Let’s get started:

A. Preaching to the choir  This phrase is used when a speaker is talking to someone who is already in agreement with the speaker. In other words, the speaker is talking to a “captive audience” who is already “believers” in the message.

Background: The scenario of this phrase is one where a preacher in a church is speaking a message to the congregation with the choir seated behind him/her who already is converts and believers in the message.

The point of using this phrase is to indicate that a speaker is speaking a message that is redundant, that is, he/she is speaking to the wrong audience by trying to convince someone who is already convinced. Therefore, they are wasting their time speaking the message. Here is an example:

A politician while campaigning in a rural section of the country was speaking to a group of farmers about the value of hard work relating to their income from farming.

One of the farmers said to another farmer, “what is he talking about? Don’t he know he is “Preaching to the choir!” We already work hard from sun up to sun down, he needs to tell us how he will work to have the government help us financially during this draught that has reduced our crops and resulted in financial hardship to us farmers!”

B. Go to town To do something eagerly or having excitement about doing it or doing something enthusiastically.

Background: In rural areas of the US (especially in the past) people usually did not live close to a town. The stores, bank, post office, town hall and other places were located in town.

Therefore, it was a special event to “Go to town” because it meant being able to buy the items your family needed or pick up/mail a package at the post office or take care of some other business. 

The phrase took on the meaning to describe doing something enthusiastically. For example:

1. A manager told his work crew: “I want you to “Go to town” in doing your jobs this week, visitors are coming!”

2. Jan advised her international friend to “Go to town” and use the English she learned.

3. Steve “went to town” in giving his speech and received a standing ovation.

In the above sentence, “went” is used instead of “go” because the statement is in the past tense.

C. Frankly speaking= Being honest to reveal your true feelings or being forth right (direct)

Background: Previously I wrote a lesson on “Reading Between the Lines” explaining when a speaker hides the truth using verbal gymnastics such as words with double meanings but careful listeners will understand the true meaning.

Well, the phrase “Frankly speaking” is the opposite of reading between the lines and the speaker is speaking or giving a response that is from their heart and genuinely honest.

The honest answer is not with the intent of hurting someone’s feelings but to give a basis for them to consider in making their decision.

Sometimes the “speaking” part of the phrase is omitted and just ”Frankly” will be used; however, the meaning is basically the same depending on the construction of the sentence.

1. “Frankly speaking,” I think we made a mistake by not paying for a tutor for our child, he’s not getting it!”

2. ”Frankly speaking” dear, I think you should hire an accountant to handle your restaurant finances and you concentrate on your restaurant business!”

3. ”Frankly speaking,” the design was flawed from the get-go (beginning), so it should not be a surprise for all of the returned merchandise!”

Usually “Frankly speaking” is used at the beginning of a sentence because it is preparing the listener for the fact that an honest answer is about to be given.

However, in some sentences you could add the phrase at the end; in this case, it will soften the impact of using this phrase.


Don’t let phrases stress you out, write down any unknown phrase and look it up on the internet to build your phrase vocabulary list.

In an everyday English conversation, a speaker may speak using regular English words and then throw in a phrase and continue speaking. At this point, don’t worry about the meaning of the phrase, just try to remember it and find out later. Don’t miss what you do understand on the part that you don’t understand.

If possible, make friends with a native speaker or someone who speaks good English. You must have someone you can ask questions or you will not advance as fast. If you can afford it, pay for an English tutor on a regular basis. https://buddyschool.com/

If you cannot afford to pay for a tutor, use a language exchange partner


The main thing is to read, write, speak, and think in English as much as possible. 

Mini Lesson No. 33 phrases are: Caved in (caved) / Thrown under the bus / Left high and dry

11:42 AM Dec 17 2014 |



Iran, Islamic Republic Of

Hello sir it is first time I read your mini lesson.

I am surprise because I  dont know that.

Thank you invited me to read it.

10:16 AM May 20 2015 |


United States

Welcome back Pioneerseo, which phrase is your assignment?

10:51 AM Oct 17 2015 |