SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

37 TOEFL Idioms You Must Know


Does thinking about TOEFL idioms make your blood run cold, or do you think they’re a piece of cake? If this sentence has you scratching your head, we’re here to help!

This guide will explain idioms, which are phrases that mean something different than what you might think at first. We’ll go over how idioms are tested on each section of the TOEFL, give you a list of the 37 idioms you should know for the exam, and end with the best methods for studying idioms. Let’s get this show on the road and start learning about idioms for TOEFL!


What Are Idioms?

An idiom is a word or phrase which has a different meaning than its literal definition.

If someone uses the phase “crying wolf,” you may know what both “crying” and “wolf” mean, but when they’re used together, this phrase takes on an entirely new meaning. “Crying wolf” is an idiom that means asking for help when you don’t actually need it. The definition of the idiom has nothing to do with the definition of either of the two words that make it up.

Idioms can be confusing, even for people who grew up speaking English, so they’re often especially difficult for non-native English speakers who haven’t been exposed to the sayings before. Knowing common idioms can help you understand English better and help you sound more like a native speaker when you use them yourself.

If you've studied idioms for other standardized tests like the SAT or GRE, know that the types of idioms tested on those exams are different than the idioms tested on the TOEFL. The SAT and GRE don't test the types of expressions you can see in the chart below. Instead, they test you on prepositional idioms and idioms with gerunds/infinitives. You don't need to worry about these for the TOEFL, but it's important to know that, if you're taking the TOEFL and one of the other exams, you'll need to study both types of idioms.


How Important Are Idioms on the TOEFL?

Idioms are not one of the key skills tested on the TOEFL, like reading comprehension or your ability to form an argument. In fact, it’s possible that you may get through an entire TOEFL without coming across a single idiom. However, idioms are still important to learn if you’re studying for the TOEFL.

If you come across an idiom you don’t know on the TOEFL, it can be hard to understand the sentence or paragraph it’s in. This can cause you to lose points on the test if you can’t figure out what’s being discussed.

Therefore, you should devote some of your TOEFL study time to understanding how idioms will be used on the TOEFL and learning common idioms. Finally, if you know TOEFL idioms well, you can also include one or two in your own Speaking or Writing responses to further show the graders how strong your English skills are. Including an idiom every now and then in your responses helps you sound more like a native speaker, which can earn you higher scores.


How Are Idioms Tested on the TOEFL?

When you understand how idioms are tested on the TOEFL, you’ll know what to expect before you even begin the test. For all sections of the TOEFL, it’s important to know that you won’t see any questions asking you directly about an idiom. For example, you’ll never see a Reading question ask “What’s the definition of ‘feeling blue’?” or a Speaking question that asks you to “Describe an experience that gave you butterflies in your stomach.”

Idioms are too obscure for most non-native speakers for the TOEFL to test them directly like that. Instead, TOEFL idioms will be included within written passages or audio clips. They usually won’t be a key part of the passage, but understanding what an idiom means can help you put the rest of the passage in context and better understand what’s being discussed.

Now let’s look at how specific TOEFL sections test idioms.



Initially, you might expect idioms to show up pretty regularly on the Reading section of the TOEFL since this is the section with the longest passages. However, TOEFL passages usually come from university-level texts and don’t include much informal writing. Since idioms are typically used in more informal and casual speech, most TOEFL Reading passages don’t include idioms. When idioms do occur in Reading passages, they are often part of a quote or opinion expressed by someone.

The idiom is sometimes (but not always!) enclosed in quotations marks which is what the creators of the TOEFL use to indicate a word or phrase with a definition different than its most commonly known one.

Here’s an example of an excerpt of a passage and an accompanying question:

“With the advent of the assembly line, car production began to soar in the United States. Quality improved as well since the assembly line allowed each worker to become an expert of a specific step of the process. Car makers reported they were producing far fewer “lemons” than before.”

Question:  How did the assembly line change auto production?

a) Workers had to work more hours.
b) The quality of the cars being made improved.
c) Cars became more expensive.
d) Workers began to form unions to assert their rights.


In this example, the idiom is “lemons” which refers to something that is defective and doesn’t work well or at all. This is the term the car manufacturers used to describe the cars they previously made. The manufacturers likely chose a more informal term than the author of the article would have if she hadn’t quoted them, which is why the idiom is included.

The correct answer is b. You don’t need to know the definition of the idiom “lemons” to answer the question, since there are other context clues given, but it can make it easier and faster to find the correct answer.



With idioms, "lemons" don't always refer to fruit!



The Listening section is where you’ll typically come across the most idioms on the TOEFL. This is because the audio clips you hear in this section are meant to portray realistic conversations that occur on a university campus.

The makers of the TOEFL want the conversations to sound the way people really talk, and since people use idioms in everyday speech, idioms can be found in these audio clips.

Here’s an example of part of a discussion between two students and an accompanying question.

Student 1: Tomorrow’s the deadline for choosing our classes for next semester.

Student 2: Yeah, I saw the email they sent us this morning.

Student 1: Have you decided if you’re going to take Archaeology or History of Art?

Student 2: Not yet. I’m still on the fence about it.


Question: What issue is the student having difficulty figuring out?

a) How to get motivated to go to class.
b) Where to sign up for classes.
c) Where her next class is.
d) Which class she should sign up for.


Here, the idiom is “on the fence” which means to not have made a decision about something yet. The correct answer is d. Student 1 asks if Student 2 has decided which class she’s going to take, and Student 2 responds she’s on the fence (she hasn’t decided yet).

Like the example question for Reading, you could also answer this question without knowing what the idiom meant. However, knowing what it means helps you answer the question more quickly and reduces the chance of you picking an incorrect answer, especially if you didn’t understand other pieces of the conversation.


Speaking and Writing

The Speaking and Writing sections are the two parts of the TOEFL where idioms are least likely to show up, simply because these sections have fewer written and audio passages so there are fewer opportunities for idioms to be included.

When idioms are included, they won’t be included in prompts or questions, the same as other sections. Instead, they’ll be included in the written passages or audio clips that accompany some of the questions in these sections.

This means idioms for TOEFL are most likely to show up in the Integrated tasks of the Speaking section (questions 3-6), and the Integrated Writing task for the Writing section. When idioms are included in these sections, they’ll be included in ways similar to how they are used in the Reading and Listening example questions.

These sections are the best for you to include an idiom or two of your own in your responses. Don’t overdo it and fill your answers with idioms. Including one idiom in your Speaking responses and one in your Writing responses is plenty and still shows you have a good grasp of idioms.



This bird seems pretty on the fence about where to fly next.


The 37 Idioms You Should Know for the TOEFL

So now you know that idioms are important, but which ones are most important for the TOEFL? Below are the 37 best idioms to know for the TOEFL. These are idioms that have either been used before in the TOEFL, are used commonly enough in English that they’re important to know, or both.

For each idiom, the definition and a sample sentence using it are included.

Idiom Definition Sample Sentence
A short fuse A quick temper. Don’t get the coach mad; he has a very short fuse.
Beat around the bush To avoid the main topic/not speak directly. Stop beating around the bush and tell me why you’re here.
Be on your toes Be ready/prepared. A fire can happen at any moment, so firemen always need to be on their toes.
Breeze though something To do something quickly and easily. Don’t worry about the math homework; I’m sure you’ll breeze through it.
Butterflies in your stomach To feel nervous. Tom always got butterflies in his stomach before giving a speech.
Costs an arm and a leg Is very expensive. That new purse of hers costs an arm and a leg.
Couch potato Someone who is lazy. You need to stop being such a couch potato and start joining me at the gym.
Cut corners To do something badly to save time or money. The architect cut corners on the bridge’s construction, which is why it eventually collapsed.
Cut someone some slack To go easy on someone. I heard Rachel’s dad is sick, so we should cut her some slack on this group project.
Feeling blue Feeling sad or depressed. Erika’s been feeling blue every since her boyfriend broke up with her.
Finding a needle in a haystack Virtually impossible to find. These days, finding a job that doesn’t require experience is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Get some shut eye Sleep. I have a big exam tomorrow, so I need to get some shut eye.
Go the extra mile Put in extra effort. Kelsey has the highest grades in our class since she always goes the extra mile with homework assignments.
Hang in there Be patient. I know it’s hard waiting for the exam results, but you just need to hang in there.
Hard up Lack money. Ellie knew I was hard up, so she paid for my coffee.
Have a bone to pick Have something to argue about. I have a bone to pick with the girl who stole my boyfriend from me.
Jump on the bandwagon To join something that’s popular. I’ve decided to jump on the bandwagon and listen to that new band everyone is talking about.
Let’s get this show on the road! Let’s get started! We have everything packed for the road trip, so let’s get this show on the road!
Let the cat out of the bag To tell a secret. The surprise party was ruined when my little brother let the cat out of the bag and told our mom about it.
Lose your marbles To be crazy. (Often said as a joke.) Mrs. Thompson wants all this homework finished tomorrow? She must have lost her marbles!
Make a long story short To quickly get to the point. To make a long story short, my neighbor found my lost dog near the park.
Make your blood run cold Frighten. That new horror movie made my blood run cold.
Once in a blue moon Something that happens very rarely. Only once in a blue moon will Mr. Smith let us get out of class early.
On the fence To not have made a decision or formed an opinion yet. I’m on the fence as to whether this new law is a good idea.
Piece of cake Something easy to do. The math homework has only three questions, so finishing it will be a piece of cake.
Pulling one’s leg To joke with someone. You didn’t really believe that, did you? I was just pulling your leg.
Put your foot in your mouth Say something you shouldn’t have. The husband put his foot in his mouth when he told his wife her dress was ugly.
Raining cats and dogs Raining very hard. You absolutely need an umbrella; it’s raining cats and dogs out there!
Read between the lines To detect a meaning that’s implied but not stated outright. Reading between the lines of this poem you wrote her, it seems as though you like Elizabeth.
Run into someone Meet someone unexpectedly. I ran into my old kindergarten teacher at the grocery store today.
Sweating bullets To be very nervous. Alan was sweating bullets when he asked the girl he liked to the dance.
Tag along Accompany. I told my little sister she could tag along when we go to the beach.
Take a rain check Postpone a plan. I have the flu, so I’ll need to take a rain check on going to the club.
Take it easy Relax. This summer, all I’m going to do is take it easy.
Take with a grain of salt Don’t take too seriously. My father doesn’t know anything about cars, so take any advice he gives you about fixing your engine with a grain of salt.
Test the waters Try something out. If you’re not sure if you want to join the club, you can test the waters by just going to the first meeting.
Way to go! Good job! You got 100% on your chemistry test? Way to go!



How to Study TOEFL Idioms

What can you do to make sure these idiom definitions stick in your head? There are a couple of ways to study for idioms:



One of the best ways to study idioms is to use the waterfall method. Here's how the waterfall method works:

First, make flashcards for the idioms in the list above. You can make these flashcards on paper or use an online flashcard maker on the computer. You can find many free ones by Googling “flashcard maker” or something similar. Once you’ve made your flashcards, go through them one by one. For each card whose idiom definition you know easily, you’ll put it in a “Know It” pile. If you don’t know the definition of a particular idiom, put it in a “Struggled” pile.

After you’ve gone through each of the cards once, pick up your “Struggled” pile, and go through this pile again. For idioms where you know the definition, place them in a second “Know It” pile next to (but not combined with) the first “Know It” pile. For idioms you don’t know, make a new “Struggled” pile. Repeat this process, placing new “Know It” piles in a row from left to right. This creates your waterfall. Repeat this process until the “Struggled” pile has only a few words left.

Now, you’ll move back up the waterfall. Starting with the most recent “Struggled” pile, go through the flashcards until you know all the idioms in the pile. Then, add the most recent (the rightmost) “Know It” pile. Go through those words. If you miss any, go through the entire pile again until you get all of them right. It may take awhile to get through the entire pile, but this method will guarantee that you learn those idioms!

This is the best method to study flashcards because you’ll spend the majority of your time reviewing the idioms you struggle the most with, as opposed to just studying the entire stack over and over.





Another way to learn TOEFL idioms is by reading, and, fortunately, you don’t need any academic journals or textbooks to do this! English magazines and novels often include more slang and modern language than academic texts, so you’re more likely to find idioms in an article about celebrity gossip than a biology textbook.

You’ll be reading a lot of phrases that aren’t idioms so it isn’t as targeted a way to learn as flashcards, but when you do come across an idiom while reading, you’ll be able to see how it’s used in a real-word context.


Watching TV or Listening to the Radio

Listening to English is also a good way to use idioms since they’re commonly used in everyday speech. Pretty much any English-language TV show or radio program where there’s a lot of speaking involved can be a good way to learn idioms.

Pay attention while you’re listening to see how many idioms you can pick out and how they’re used. This can be especially good practice for when idioms are used in audio clips on the TOEFL, since you’ll only be hearing them in those cases and not seeing them written out.


Review: Understanding TOEFL Idioms

Even though idioms won’t show up that often on the TOEFL, they’re still an important part of the English language, and knowing them can help you understand written passages and audio clips.

TOEFL questions likely won’t ask you directly about idioms. Instead, TOEFL idioms may be included in the written or audio passages of the exam to test your comprehension skills.

On the TOEFL, not knowing the definition of an idiom usually won’t stop you from understanding the main point of the passage. However, it can make it harder to understand details you may be tested on. Knowing commonly used idioms can improve your English skills and help you score higher on the TOEFL.


What's Next?

Knowing your vocab is another important part of doing well on the TOEFL. Learn the 327 words you absolutely need to know for the TOEFL.

A prep book can be your most useful study tool for the TOEFL. Learn what the five best TOEFL prep books are so you can start studying!

How hard is the TOEFL? Learn about the 7 most challenging aspects of the TOEFL and how you can prepare for each of them!



Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!

author image
Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

Get Free Guides to Boost Your SAT/ACT
100% Privacy. No spam ever.

Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!