One of the things that separates native English speakers from those learner the language is the correct use of idioms. In the IELTS speaking test they can really help boost your score, if used properly, however, they can also lower your score, if you don’t use them correctly.
What are idioms?
An idiom is a group of words or phrase that through common usage has a meaning that is not clear from the words themselves.
For example, ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ means that it’s raining heavily, but if we look at the words it seems like dogs and cats are falling from the sky.
Confused? Let’s look at another example.
If someone is ‘High as a kite’, it doesn’t actually mean they are flying, it means that they are on drugs.
To really understand what they mean we have to understand two words- literal and metaphorical.
- Literal means the normal or usual meaning of a word.
- Metaphorical describes words that are used as symbols for something else. It is the opposite of literal.
So ‘high’ literally means located above the earth’s surface, but metaphorically means you have taken drugs and are feeling their effects.
Therefore, you cannot understand the meaning of idioms by just looking at the words. You have to find out what the metaphor actually means.
If you think about your own native language I’m sure you can think of a few idioms you use all the time.
Should I use them in the writing or speaking test?
Idioms are used informally most of time and should therefore not be used in the writing test.
Spoken English is normally much less formal than academic written English, so it is fine to use them in the speaking test.
How can they increase my score?
The picture above shows part of the band descriptors for speaking. The 3 bands of above are 7, 8 and 9. As you can see, using idioms, even with some inappropriate choices, is typical of a band 7 candidate. By using them skillfully, with only occasional inaccuracies you are likely to get an 8 in this category. Rarely students use them perfectly and this is typical of someone who reaches a 9.
Should I just memorise lots of them?
Absolutely not! This is one of the most common mistakes in the IELTS speaking test. Lots of students think that simply learning lots of idioms and then using them in the test will help them get a high score. In fact, the opposite is true. Examiners are trained to spot people trying to use idioms that are inappropriate.
It all depends on the context and if you don’t use them correctly, they will sound very forced and unnatural.
How do I use them effectively?
You should only use idioms if you have heard how they are used in context and you are 100% sure you are using them in the correct way. This may sound harsh, but it is better than losing marks.
Below are some common idioms that I have heard students use correctly in the IELTS speaking test. If you have never heard any of them before, try to find more examples of how they are used and then practice using them when you are practicing speaking. Also, understanding where they originate from can help you remember them.
If you can, have a native speaker or English teacher listen to you and tell you if you are using them correctly.
Most of these are ways to describe something, someone or how you feel. These tend to be easier to use because you can substitute the description you would normally use for the idiom.
Over the moon - to be extremely pleased or happy.
I was over the moon when I passed my speaking test.
Once in a blue moon - happens very rarely.
A student will get a 9 in the IELTS writing test once in a blue moon.
A piece of cake - very easy.
Getting a band 6 in the speaking test will be a piece of cake.
A drop in the ocean - a very small part of something much bigger.
Just learning idioms is a drop in the ocean when it comes to preparing for the speaking test.
Actions speak louder than words - it is better to actually do something than just talk about it.
Lots of people have great business ideas but do nothing about them. Actions speak louder than words, just do it.
Back to the drawing board - when you attempted to do something but failed and have to try again.
I got 4.5 in reading! Oh well, back to the drawing board.
Put all your eggs in one basket - put all your money or effort into one thing.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You should apply to lots of different universities.
The in thing - something fashionable.
The new iPhone is really the in thing at the moment.
The real McCoy - genuine or not fake.
I don’t think her new handbag is the real McCoy.
Off the top of my head - saying something without thinking first.
Off the top of my head, I’d say about 2 or 3.
Run of the mill - average, ordinary
Apple phones are very run of the mill these days.
Soul mate - someone you trust very deeply.
My husband is not just my lover, he’s my soul mate.
Down in the dumps - sad.
I was really down in the dumps after my dog died.
Found my feet - to become comfortable doing something.
Moving to a new city was difficult as first, but I soon found my feet.
Set in their ways - not wanting to change.
My parents are quite traditional and set in their ways.
Go the extra mile - do much more than is required.
I decided to go the extra mile and move to England to really perfect my English.
A hot potato - a controversial topic.
Abortion and capital punishment are hot potatoes in my country at the moment.
Miss the boat - miss an opportunity.
I sent my application in late and I think I missed the boat.
Costs an arm and a leg - really expensive.
Those shoes must have cost an arm and a leg.
Sit on the fence - to be undecided.
I haven’t made my mind up about that issue, I’ll have to sit on the fence.