Learn English with English, baby!

Join for FREE!

Understanding American English Phrases

Understanding American English Phrases

Date: Sep 27 2011

Topic: Idioms and Slang

Author: englishteacher24/7


If you desire to learn Fluent American English, it is necessary to understand the many idioms, phrases, slang etc.  It's possible to increase your vocabulary of phrases to add to your formal study of English.

I've been publishing these mini lessons in the Teacher's Forum and this actually is Mini Lesson No. 20 there.  However, they will be published here also as lessons accessible from my profile page. 

Mini Lesson No. 1

Weigh in / A leg up / You nailed it

A. Weigh in= To offer your opinion or judgement in a discussion, argument or a certain matter.

Origin/Background of the phrase:

To determine the weight class of a fighter such as boxers or wrestlers, they must prove they are eligible for their weight class. Once their weight has been confirmed, they can proceed with the fighting match.

When used as a phrase, you are making your opinion known. Here are some examples:

1. With the campaign season starting, the public is waiting for the Republican candidates to "weigh in."

2. Everyone was waiting for the president to "weigh in" concerning his plan to improve the economy.

3. Until the referee "weighs in," we won't know if the basketball shot made when the clock ran out will count!

B. A leg up= To gain an advantage or receive a helping hand.

Origin/Background of the phrase:

The first known use of this phrase was in 1837.

This phrase is from the act of an equestrian receiving assistance in mounting a horse. The person helping the rider would cup his hands (put them together with the inside facing up) tp allow the rider to use the cupped hands as a step while the other person lifted him up and over onto the horse.

Can you imagine how this phrase can be used to indicate someone received help or has an advantage? Here are some examples:

1. The runner sacrificed going to a celebration party to get "a leg up" on the competition by receiving a good nights rest.

2. College students are always trying to get "a leg up" to be accepted by a college!

3. To get "a leg up" for a job interview, it helps if you can meet someone from the company.

C. You nailed it= To get something absolutely right (correct) or you were successful at doing something.

Origin/Background of the phrase:

I could not determine the origin of this phrase, however, my guess concerning the logic of the phrase may be that when you nail something, you attach something to a definite point. When using the phrase, you're correct on a certain point. Here are some sample statements:

1. Jane "nailed it" when she predicted the winning team.

2. "Daughter, "you nailed it" when you got all "A's" on your report card!"

3. The Defense Attorney "nailed it" when he proved the defendant was in another place, thus, vindicating his client of all criminal charges.

English lessons from within:

Determining the mood of the speaker/writer:

It is important to understand the mood of the speaker/writer, this is the foundation of the words that will follow. As you gain experience learning English, you will learn not to take everything in a literal sense. Your goal will be to discern the mood of the speaker/writer.

I've started a new lesson entitled: "Inside the language" which I invite you to read on my profile page.

Well, that's all I have for you in this session, here are the phrases for

Mini Lesson No. 21

A shoe-in / Waiting for the other shoe to drop / Caved and Caved-in

Until next time, use English as much as you can!


Log in to Comment



i understand ok, is nice to learn more phrases in english

I like that

12:21 PM May 12 2017 |



I recommend https://www.penpaland.com its a language exchange-based website.

11:23 PM Dec 04 2016 |


United States

Jpals, thanks for the website for those looking for penpals.

08:03 AM Oct 13 2016 |



www.letspal.com <= free penpal website

06:59 AM Oct 13 2016 |


United States

You’re welcome, it feels good when the light of knowledge is turned on!

11:26 PM Jan 01 2015 |



Viet Nam

thanks teacher very much:), i got it, it’s really clear:)

10:41 AM Jan 01 2015 |


United States

Susu, “a leg up” means giving someone assistance for them to be successful or in other words to receive an advantage from the result of someone helping you.

11:21 AM Dec 31 2014 |

1 person likes this



Viet Nam

Thank you for your lesson, teacher. But the pharse “a leg up” i did not understand clearly, can u tell me more about it?!? @@

06:23 AM Dec 30 2014 |


United States

Anja you’re welcome and thanks! Yes, I agree with you that idioms and phrases add life and color to expressions.

Macielmarcel welcome aboard and I’m much obliged by your comments. By adding the knowledge of phrases you can minimize confusion and your comprehension increases.

We all learn together!

09:38 PM Dec 23 2014 |

1 person likes this



Thanks for the lesson, very enlightening indeed. As there’s a language lover in me I do  know how difficult figuring out slang and indioms it is sometimes, mainly when you don’t have the background or are not familiar with the culture behind the words.

Kindly regards!

05:55 PM Dec 23 2014 |

1 person likes this




A massive THANK YOU for giving us part of your time to share your knowledge with us, Alston!

 Idioms are like the salt and pepper of any language, wouldn’t you agree?

07:38 AM Dec 22 2014 |


United States

Starting a phrase and idiom list from words you encounter is an effective way to learn them “on the fly.” Spending time learning words that are not frequently used may not be an effective use of time. 

It is advisable to spend your time on English activity that you will receive the maximum benefit. Be careful about this point.

Happy English learning!

02:02 AM Dec 22 2014 |

1 person likes this


United States

American English phrases, idioms, idiom expressions, and proverbs are used frequently in everyday conversations. They add a way to express a thought using picture images and is a departure from formal and literal English by adding color and humor to the language.

It is beneficial to add them as a part of your English education which will help you to understand English as it is actually spoken and give balance to your understanding of English.

12:25 PM Dec 18 2014 |

1 person likes this


United States

You’re welcome. Look for these phrases and when you find them, please submit an example of its usage. Thanks!

11:04 PM Dec 15 2014 |

1 person likes this




i ve found all those very helpful

thanks a lot for all your efforts

08:33 AM Dec 15 2014 |


United States

For those who really want to advance in learning to speak English, I recommend speaking English everyday for at least 30 minutes. If that is not practical, then at least 2-3 times per week using a paid tutor or language exchange partner.

I met a man from Mexico who went from speaking no English to English fluency in 6 months! I asked him how did he do it? He answered he worked where only English was spoken with no Spanish help. If he wanted anything, he had to learn the English words. In other words, through being immersed in the language.

For those who are not in that type of environment, the next best thing is to continually communicate with someone in English, or it will remain a dream.

02:08 AM Dec 15 2014 |


United States

Mini Lesson No. 12 – Preaching to the choir / Go to town / Frankly speaking

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. 13 phrases are: In the house / Thrown under the bus / Left high and dry

See you next time, and have fun learning English!

12:52 PM Dec 13 2014 |


United States

Understanding American English Phrases is a skill you need to help you understand everyday English; even to pass various English tests. Mini Lesson No. 12 covers these three phrases: “Preaching to the choir” “Go to town” and “Frankly speaking.”

The lesson is coming out of the oven and should be served up soon (this is using imagery in language). Look for it from tomorrow or the weekend. I hope to see you there! :)

02:16 PM Dec 11 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. 12 is long overdue, I’d better get on the stick!

Note: Samineh’s question was from “Understanding American English Phrases” from the Teacher Talk Forum.  There are 2 forums with the same name and same writer but the one in the Teacher Talk Forum has more lessons.

02:44 AM Sep 21 2014 |


United States

Mini Lesson No. 11 – Thanks for your patience!

09:10 PM May 13 2013 |

Likes (21):

See all >

Share this lesson:

  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Bebo
  • Share on Myspace
  • Share on Twitter
  • Email this to a friend
  • Share on Sina

Post Ebaby! lessons on your blog:

Ebaby! Cast