Most Common Idioms?

Hello colleagues, Teaching idioms is both important, since they are ubiquitous in spoke (and written) English and popular. What idioms do you often focus on in your teaching? Do you know which idioms are the most common in spoken American English?

Looking forward to members' comments on this topic!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP


Hi all,

I've been trying to answer this question since yesterday.  I've got 5 minutes.  Let's see if I can finish it!

I find that in my natural conversation with my students, I end up using idioms and sayings.  Somewhere along the line, I trained myself to think, "I wonder if they know what that means?"  This tool has helped me and my students to identify not just idioms and sayings that are in the books, but the ones we actually use in conversation.  I'm sometimes surprised by the things that come out of my own mouth!  I also love to use movies, old and new.  Here's one process that works well with high beginners and up:

1) Identify the idioms / sayings you hear in the movie that you think students need (or may want) to learn.

2) Create a worksheet with the target expressions and possible meanings.

3) Have students watch the movie.  Pause at the appropriate time (when the expression or phrase comes up) and have them guess the meaning based on the context.  

4) Debrief and share the correct responses.

30-minute TV shows work REALLY well for this, too, by the way.  

If you try it, let me know how it goes.


Hi Glenda, Thanks for sharing your teaching idea. It's great how you encourage students to guess the meanings of idioms and sayings by drawing upon the context. I'm betting this activity leads to some wonderfully rich conversations. This skill can also be applied to guessing the meaning of any word -- not just idioms-- when reading.

Cheers, Susan

Moderator, AELL CoP




Hello colleagues, Some members of our community may be familiar with the work of Dilin Liu, a linguistics researcher who has done corpus studies of English. Corpus linguistics is the study of real world language. In other words, researchers analyze the language that is actually expressed by the people who use it. In this way, they can determine how language is changing as well as which words and phrases are most commonly used -- and a variety of other questions of interest. Computer technology, not surprisingly, has made analysis of huge volumes of language much more feasible.

In 2003, Liu published a study of the most common idioms in spoken English. Here is the list of the most common idioms according to Liu's study.

"kind of, as well & as well as, sort of, make sure, of course, go through*, in terms of, come up*, in fact, look for*, deal with*, find out*, at all, go on*"

Liu, D. (2003). The most frequently used spoken American English idioms: A corpus analysis and its implications. TESOL Quarterly, 37(4), 671-700.

What, if anything, surprises you about this list? How do you or would you go about teaching these idioms?

Five terms on the list have an asterisk. What is common about these five terms?

Looking forward to comments about the most common idioms in English! Image removed.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP




First, they are phrasal verbs, which I think is the bane of my students' existence.

Some of my private students ask VERY hard questions about vocabulary, sometimes having memorized the dictionary and acquiring archaic terms that I have to look up! When there is a question about an alternative form being "acceptable" or not, I don't like to depend solely on my native-speaker instinct.  I turn to the Corpus of American English at BYU: 

They also have a Corpus of British English:

This helps me distinguish a collocation that is specific to my region or is more general.  It is also a great resource for showing examples of how a word or phrase is used both in speaking and writing. I've gotten my advanced students in the habit of using it to get a better "feel" for how a new word is used in context.

Hello colleagues, You are right, of course, Glenda, that the words with the asterisk from Liu's (2003) most common idioms list  (i.e., go through*, come up*,  look for*, deal with*, find out*,  go on*) are phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb is a verb and a particle (preposition or adverb) that together serve a different meaning than either word alone. For example, students may know the word "throw" and the word "up" -- but ... when you put those two words together, the meaning is QUITE different! Most languages don't have phrasal verbs, so a lot of students don't even realize these words exist; thus, it's not surprising that these pervasive words are challenging for students to learn.

Since this is a particular challenge for English learners, it would be great to hear how teachers are approaching the teaching of phrasal verbs. Please share your strategies here.

One thing I have learned is that it is a good idea to avoid teaching phrasal verbs that have the same particle at the same time. For instance, I don't teach show up, make up, take up, and look up at the same time since doing so makes it harder for students to remember the distinct meanings of each phrasal verb.

Some members may be aware that Dilin Liu also published a study of the most common phrasal verbs in 2011. Any guesses as to which phrasal verbs are at the top of the list?

Liu, D. (2011). The most frequently used phrasal verbs in American and British English: A multicorpus examination. TESOL Quarterly, 45(4), 661-688

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP


Hi Glenda and all, Glenda, It's fantastic that you have students working with the corpus to help them get a sense of how we actually use words in various contexts. I think members would love to see some examples and to hear how you introduce this tool to adult English learners.

Thank you for sharing this invaluable resource!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP