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 >




Thanks,we're waiting ..;)

08:40 AM Aug 26 2010 |


United States

The wait is over, here is Mini Lesson No. 5 on the phrases:

The Apple Of My Eye / Hook, Line and Sinker / Got Your Back

1. The Apple Of My Eye: This phrase is actually from old English and not an easy one to understand.  However, it is used to express the fact that a person is precious and special to the individual using the phrase.

It appears the apple is represented by the pupil of the eye and the eye itself is one that is protected from it being touched.  Since eyesight is precious, this thought is transferred to the phrase and used in everyday English.  Here are some sample uses of the phrase:

1. "You are the apple of my eye, that's why I'll always be around." (Sunshine Of My Life by Stevie Wonder)

2. Everyone knows that you're the apple of my eye!

3. There are verses in the King James Version of the Bible according to the following books, chapter and verses that uses this phrase.

Deuteronomy 32:10   Psalm 17:8   Proverbs 7:2   Zechariah 2:8

This is a phrase that has been used since 900 AD to convey the thought of one person special feelings toward another.

2. Hook, line, and sinker:

This phrase literally means the tackle used in fishing, that is, the hook to hold the bait, the line which attaches the hook and the weight or sinker used to cause this to sink to lower depths where the fish are.

The logic of the phrase is this: when a hungry fish sees the bait, it attacks with force and swallows the hook that is part of the tackle.  Because the fish didn't realize it was a trick, it pays a high price for the bait.

When this phrase is used, it means that someone believed a story without considering the evidence and will pay a high price for the consequences.  Here are some sample sentences to understand the phrase used in it's context.

1. There was a person in the marketplace who supposedly was selling genuine gold nuggets worth a lot of money at a small price.  Many people bought it hook, line and sinker and later found out that it was "Fools Gold!"

2. The jury believed the defendant in court and swallowed his story hook, line and sinker despite the evidence against him.

3. The stock holders thought they could make a good profit on their investment in purchasing stock in a company that seemed to be going upward.  However, the owner of the company falsified the company earnings that was reported.  The stock holders bought it all, hook, line and sinker and lost a lot of money.

You can see from the use of this phrase, that it is used in a negative sense in describing something.  It is a commonly used phrase in informal English and fully understood by native speakers.

3. Got your back:

This phrase is actually slang for protecting or caring for someone. The back of a person is referring to the rear side of the body. The rear side is unprotected because you cannot see behind yourself.  Therefore, if someone is protecting your back, then the phrase is expressed as, "I got your back" or in other words, "don't worry, I'm protecting your rear which means you are caring for someone.  Here are some sample sentences:

1. "My friend, you don't have to stay in a hotel when you're in town, I got your back, stay at my house."

2. Don't worry about the restaurant bill, I got your back!

3. Attorney to Client: "I know there's a lot of legal terms in the contract, but don't worry about it because I got your back!"

Background of the phrase:  This is slang which came from urban inner city youth which made it's way into mainstream American English.


We'll, I hope this mini lesson has been helpful to you.  If you hear any of the phrases anywhere, please let us know.

To conclude the lesson, here is a tongue twister to cultivate your thinking and help you gain experience in learning English.

"I thought a thought, but the thought I thought was not the thought I thought I thought!"

Until next time, immerse yourself in English to improve.

06:54 AM Aug 27 2010 |



Saudi Arabia

thank you my teacher for adding me as friend and for the great lesson

really I like it it's new for me I will try to learn it becuase it's have a lot of new words to me Embarassed

I will follow your lessons

cheers :)

09:36 AM Aug 28 2010 |




The apple of my eye is using in Turkish with the exact meaning in English..That's great to know :)

Also in movies I hear  often " I got your back".Now I know its meaning properly..

I wanna ask this; "just for the record " is a phrase?What is its background?

Thanks a lot teacher! 

06:37 PM Aug 28 2010 |


United States

Welcome aboard Foz12!  Meyra, you are one of my best students, thanks for the feedback!  For the next lesson, the phrases scheduled are: "Just for the record"/ "Off the record"/ and "the jury is still out."

I am developing a unique technique in learning to speak English and training your ears to listen and understand English as spoken by native English speakers.

If you want to participate in the testing, please request by email that you want to participate, and I will include you as a tester.  There is no charge, however, once I have completed developing the course, there will be a charge. This offer is open until I have enough testers, then it will close.

I intend to post the next lesson within one week.

For those who was on vacation, welcome back!

02:15 AM Aug 29 2010 |




Thanks teacher,I'll look for new phrases..

I really want to participate to test your system..But I got some questions which I'll send you by email. 

02:50 PM Aug 29 2010 |




It is very useful,i can understood it clearly

And now i can use it in our daily life sometimes.

Thanks ,expect next MINI lessons~~

03:59 PM Aug 30 2010 |




 Good morning, sir.
Thank you very much for your very helpful lesson.

“how do you like them apples?”
That phrase I have said in Jpanese to my son again and again.
Now, I going to practice with my son every day.

I'm looking forward to next lesson.

 Hello there!

This is my first time coming to lesson.
My name is yumi. Nice to meet you.

Thanks so much.Have a nice daySmile

02:44 PM Sep 01 2010 |


United States

Hi yumi.  Hello TeacherSmile

I like the phrase "Back in the Day". It also reminds me of those old love songs.

You are really bringing back fond memories….Thank you.


03:50 AM Sep 03 2010 |


United States

Thanks Ashley, Adlib-english, Yumii and PinkButterfly for your feedback and welcome aboard new members. I apologize for the delay in posting this lesson, anyway, on with the show!

06:29 AM Sep 08 2010 |