Learn English with English, baby!

Join for FREE!


English Forums

Use our English forums to learn English. The message boards are great for English questions and English answers. The more you contribute, the more all members can practice English!


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 |

The iTEP® test

  • Schedule an iTEP® test and take the official English Practice Test.

    Take Now >



Saudi Arabia

great work , thank you
I really appreicate that to you ,
& I hope to seee more lessons in this site from you .

10:18 PM Aug 02 2010 |




I'm looking forward to new website..It seems everyone is on holiday,nowadays too quiet over here…:(

10:06 AM Aug 04 2010 |



 "However, if not many people responds by writing a comment, I must conclude there's not much interest. " I have to write some comments now! Laughing  Just joking.

You are indeed a really good teacher. You know what, you care a lot about your students! That's very nice!

Yeah, no comment, no forward; otherwise, some students will fall behind.

I have read everything you wrote here and the comments of my other "classmates". Terrific indeed!

04:27 AM Aug 05 2010 |




I do agree with you daisy,especially your words about our  teacher..Still I'm lil desperate about comments so from future of the website too :S

06:28 AM Aug 06 2010 |



Well, I think writing some personal thoughts here is much more beneficial than some aimless chatting online.

Hope more people will join us to interact! Smile

To Meyra, you are very active and studious!

04:57 PM Aug 06 2010 |


United States

Dear Meyra, Daisy and the Silent Majority,

As you know, I am most willing to help the students both on this forum and by email.  It takes a lot of time to write lessons in a manner that  students can understand.

Therefore, if I am willing to spend time to help students learn American English, I think it's only reasonable that students take the time to write a comment. The only compensation I receive is the personal satisfaction of knowing that someone is helped.  If only a few people write, I really have no way of knowing the effectiveness of my writing.

The people that will succeed in learning English, or anything, are the ones who will apply themselves diligently to their goal.  The others will continue complaining how difficult something is!

This information cannot be easily obtained, you would have to live in the United States, and even then you would have to be exposed to it and have someone explain the various idioms and phrases commonly used.

The power of the pen has always been mightier than the sword, now the power of the pen is in your hand!

06:12 AM Aug 07 2010 |




I don't hesitate your good intention & effort mr Alston,but it seems everyone is at holiday or at least I guess like that..Maybe you should give some time to every silent member for this month..After a while I think everything will be alright..

Thanks Daisy :) 

01:45 PM Aug 08 2010 |




thanks teacher…


09:22 AM Aug 13 2010 |


United States

Thanks Meyra for your thoughts, you may be right.  Also, thanks Sejukian for your expression of gratitude.

The plan for my next lesson will be on the phrases: The apple of my eye, Hook, line, and sinker, and Got your back.  Stay tuned for more!

05:40 AM Aug 17 2010 |


United States


I would like to inform everyone that is looking for the next lesson, I currently am completing the lesson and intend to post it within the next day or so.  

In the meantime, immerse yourself in English.  Use it or lose it!

06:30 AM Aug 26 2010 |