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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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red Rose

red Rose

Saudi Arabia

thank u so much teacher…..I m really interesting in yr lesson,and i want to get more like this and also in writing and in pronuncition

07:48 PM Jun 26 2010 |


United States

Well Red Rose, Pink Butterfly and everyone else, here is Mini lesson No. 4

Easy Come, Easy Go / A bone to pick with you / Get out of Dodge

1.  Easy Come/Easy Go: This phrase is used to express a situation where you easily acquire something only to lose it later. For example:

“I received some money unexpectedly yesterday but had to use it to pay a bill today.  Oh well, easy come, easy go!

You can see that the speaker is not too worried about what happened because in the final analysis the person haven’t lost anything.

I could not determine the origin of this phrase, it may have evolved as the context indicates.

2. A bone to pick with you: This phrase is used to express a complaint or dissatisfaction with someone.  It is primarily used when there has been a duration of time and the complaint has not been expressed.  At an appropriate time this statement is expressed to the person to allow an introduction to start a conversation about the complaint.  It is specifically addressed to an individual on a personal basis.  Here’s an example:

A person advertised to sell a black colored computer case for a good price but when the buyer went to receive it, the color was brown.

Buyer to seller: “I have a bone to pick with you, I thought I was buying a black computer case but it’s brown!” 

You can see that the buyer has a complaint with the merchant and wants to discuss the matter.

The origin of this phrase is said to have been from the 16th century and refers to a dog chewing on a bone endlessly.

3. Get Out Of Dodge:  This phrase means to leave town quickly due to some reason not to stay there.  This phrase comes from the TV series “Gunsmoke” which aired from 1955-1975 on CBS-TV and was used as a phrase of the good guys (cowboys) telling the bad guys (cowboys) to leave Dodge City, Kansas.  Therefore, when you want to leave somewhere quickly, you would say, “we’re getting out of Dodge” to indicate you’re leaving here!

Here’s an example:

“I have been working hard all year and now it’s time for a vacation, I’m ready to get out of Dodge!

This person is saying that they are tired and ready for a vacation and leave their city to go to another one for a vacation.

For those of you who want to accept the pronunciation challenge, try saying this sentence:

She sells, sea shells, by the sea shore!  Let me know how you did!  Until next time!

08:03 AM Jul 12 2010 |




Nice phrases mr Alston..We got saying like easy come,easy go too..:)

Having a bone to pick with someone is an interesting phrase but,as you said it indicates it's original meaning..Easy to get it with your explanation..;)

" I got out of Dodge due to my examination" I hope I use it right..

I like this pronunciation challenge thing,it s fun to pronounce..:p looking for much more mr Alston!Thanks a lot..:)


08:38 PM Jul 15 2010 |



dear Alstone

thx for u nice lessons it's really helpfull. and specially thx for prounciation challenge and ur nice email i'm trying ur advice and i think it's very good.

can u upload a video maybe on youtube to allow us listen to ur right pronunciaton for this phrases

thx again

07:36 PM Jul 19 2010 |


United States

Yes Meyra, you used the phrase correctly and thanks Braveheart for the suggestion on the audio.  I have received positive comments on the pronunciation exercises, therefore, I plan to include some of them beginning with the one below as a companion to the "she sells sea shells" one I listed before.  Here it is:

The shells she sells are seashells, I'm sure!

Here is another one:

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.

Did Peter Piper pick a peak of pickled peppers?

If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,

Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

Mini Lesson No. 5 is coming, stay tuned!

06:42 AM Jul 24 2010 |


United States

Anil, thanks for taking the time to write a comment, since you're the only one to do so, shall I continue to take the time to write?

04:50 AM Jul 29 2010 |



 I think you should!Smile


07:39 AM Jul 29 2010 |



dear Alstone

i'm still using ur advise about listening it's great i'm improving very rapidly as i think

many thx

tell me how can i use this challenge for maximum benefit

and how is project? when will we see it?


08:18 AM Jul 29 2010 |




Ok this one is pretty hard for me xD But please keep sharing Mr Alston ;)

07:26 AM Jul 31 2010 |


United States

Thanks Braveheart for your feedback on the technique I'm promoting of using songs to learn how to speak English.  It helps to quickly learn how to train your tongue and readjust your thinking to accommodate speaking English.  The tongue twister challenge also helps in this process.  Once I have finished developing the process, I'll provide more information.  I have received emails concerning my website under development to hurry up.  The squeaky wheel gets the oil, if I am convinced there are many people who want to learn English and willing to interact, then I will.  However, if not many people responds by writing a comment, I must conclude there's not much interest.  One way to learn English is to write and discard fear of the unknown.  

06:09 AM Aug 02 2010 |