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Like any language, English if full of colourful expressions and idioms which pepper our conversations but can often cause comprehension problems for the non-native speaker. Here are 10 commonly used idioms which you might like to learn and use to pepper your next conversation in English. It often helps to learn where the expression originated from in order to remember it better.
1. 24/7 (pronounced “twenty-four seven”)
Meaning: twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
The production line never stops. We have three shifts during the week as well as a weekend shift, so we have to have someone on call 24/7 in case there’s a problem with one of the machines.
2. Round the clock (literally referring to the hands moving around the face of a clock.)
Meaning: to work all day and all night.
The team has been working round the clock to get the project finished.
3. At stake (a stake is the money that you bet (put down on the table) in a casino or at the horse races etc.)
Meaning: to be at risk.
There’s a lot at stake if we lose this contract. Some people might even have to lose their job.
4. Back to square one (probably originating from board games, where players start in the first ‘square’ and continue round the board by throwing the dice.)
Meaning: to go back to the beginning because the first attempt failed completely.
The new device developed by our R&D department failed the first tests, so we had to go back to square one and change the raw material.
5. A ballpark figure (originating from the estimate of spectators in the seats of the baseball park).
Meaning: a very rough estimate of a number.
I don’t know exactly how much the construction cost will be, but to give you a ball park figure, I would say around £150,000.
6. Call it a day
Meaning : to stop what you are doing because nothing more can be done, or you have done enough for the moment.
We’ve made a lot of decisions during this meeting. I suggest we call it a day and plan a second meeting for next week to see how we are progressing.
7. To get the ball rolling (a sporting idiom possibly from croquet, where the ball rolls along the ground.)
Meaning: to start getting things moving.
I’d like to get the ball rolling by asking if any of you have done any kind of management training in the past. Who’d like to begin?
To keep the ball rolling
Meaning: to keep things moving – keep an activity in momentum.
If we want to keep the ball rolling, we are going to have to find alternative sources of funding.
8. To go the extra mile
Meaning: to do more than is required in order to achieve something.
If we want the President’s visit on Friday to be a success, we’re all going to have to go the extra mile this week so that we’re ready in time.
9. To hit the nail of the head (literally, to hit a nail in the correct place)
Meaning: to say or do exactly the right thing – to get to the precise point.
You hit the nail on the head when you said that the problem was due to lack of staff. Recruitment must become our number one priority.
10. To learn the ropes (a nautical expression. New recruits had to learn how to tie knots and manipulate the ropes when sailing ships in the past.)
Meaning: to learn the basics of a new job and how to do it properly.
Peter joined us last month. He’s still learning the ropes but I reckon he’ll be able to work autonomously very soon.
Philippa Stacey a fondé Eureka en 2007. Elle vit et enseigne l’anglais aux professionnels en France depuis 1993.