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Popular English Expressions

There are so many idioms and expressions embedded in the English language that it can be really difficult for a non-native speaker to get to grips with them all. But they are a regular and important part of everyday use, so it is good for learners to slowly build up their knowledge. Some expressions have origins that help them make sense, for others it is no longer clear where they came from.  Below are a few such popular expressions:

Bob’s your uncle – this is often compared to the French ‘Voila’. It’s an expression of something coming together, a bit like saying ‘there you have it’.

“I followed the instructions, put it all together, and Bob’s your uncle, I’ve got a new desk.

Taking the biscuit – when something or someone is being stupid or annoying or behaving badly. You strongly object to what is being done or happening.

“It’s bad enough that they want me to work Saturday, but now its Sunday too. That really takes the biscuit.”

Beat around the bush – to avoid or talk around something without getting to the main point.  This saying relates back to hunting, where hunters would beat the bush with a stick to try and get the prey to come out.

“Stop beating around the bush and tell me what you want.”

Biting off more than you can chew – taking on more than you can manage. You can imagine this literally – perhaps a big piece of cake that you enthusiastically put in your mouth but can’t chew or move because of its size!

“I think with this new job, he’s bitten off more than he can chew.”

Barking up the wrong tree – to be mistaken in your understanding or pursuing actions that won’t lead to the desired result. On a literal level, think of a dog who is barking at a tree long after the squirrel has run away!

“The police were getting nowhere with the investigation. I think they were barking up the wrong tree.”

Not the sharpest tool in the box – a less direct way of saying someone is not very intelligent. Being ‘sharp’ is associated with quick wit and being smart. The word ‘tool’ can also be used to mean a fool.

He’s not exactly the smartest tool in the box is he?”

It’s all gone pear-shaped – when something goes badly wrong, or fails. The origins of this expression are not clear, but it is the sense of being misshapen or wrong.

“We were planning a lovely holiday, but it all went pear-shaped.”

Our online English lessons and courses are designed to help your speak English with confidence and also correctly. But we also know it is important to understand local sayings and customs in order to give your spoken English texture and for you to understand more about the culture of the UK and people from the UK.







Burn’s Night – What you need to know

The United Kingdom is home to many quirky festivals and celebrations. Burns Night is one such Scottish event that can brighten the cold winter month of January with a wee dram (a shot of whisky). An institution in its homeland, many Scots in England, and indeed English people, enjoy marking this unique event with its unusual menu and traditions.

The Event

The event is held on the birthday of the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns in recognition of his work and importance. Celebrations range from formal, highly traditional affairs to informal gatherings of friends. It involves many foods that are traditionally Scottish, and not commonplace across England in everyday life.  A traditional menu includes:

  • A soup starter – cockaleekie (chicken and leeks) or cullen skint (haddock, potatoes and onion).
  • Haggis – made from sheep’s heart, liver and lungs put in a sheep’s stomach, or sausage skin casing and mixed with spices, onion, oatmeal and suet. It can be a challenging meal for some!
  • This is often served with neeps and tatties (neeps being swede and tatties potato – these are mixed with butter and the like and sometimes also with turnips).
  • A traditional pudding might be Clootie Dumpling (a pudding made with dried fruit and spices often steamed in a linen cloth known as a ‘cloot’) or Typsy Laird (a Scottish sherry trifle).

At a formal celebration a bagpiper will play to welcome guests and there will be chairman or host leading proceedings. The host will make a speech to celebrate the life and work of Robert Burns and perhaps read some of his poetry. The haggis is the main dish of the night, and is often brought on a silver platter and everyone will raise a glass to it. There will be further traditional music, dancing with many men and women wearing Scottish kilts.

Different Ways to Celebrate

In less formal versions, people are just generally celebrating Scottish culture, perhaps playing some traditional music, enjoying a glass of whisky and a version of the menu. The evening ends singing one of Robert Burn’s most famous poems, Auld Lang Syne. This is also sung across the UK as the clock strikes midday on the 31st December, to mark the end of one year and the beginning of the next.


Why News is So Important for English Learners

If you are learning English there are lots of different ways you can help support your English lessons and courses. Watching movies in English can be very useful and a great way to test yourself and be aware of different accents. Music can also be very helpful; trying to learn the words and practising English by singing but there is one more way you can use the media to help you and that’s by reading lots of online news. There are actually lots of reasons why reading the news can be useful so here is why!

Reason 1

News is a great way to read something interesting that will help your English. Reading phrases from courses and books can be helpful but it can also be quite boring. Keeping up to date with world news will help keep your mind engaged while you are also learning.

Reason 2

The news is a great thing to talk about and it is a great thing to practice talking English with. A good news topic can be perfect for people learning English to talk about together in English. If you are living in an English speaking country or working with English speaking people a news topic is a brilliant way to start a conversation and get some practice in.

Reason 3

Knowing what is going on in the world is very important. It is also very useful to be aware of news stories that affect the country you may be working or studying in. it can help you talk with friends, understand different cultures and it is also very useful if you are going for job interviews in English. Being able to discuss some basic news items in English can really make a great impression at an interview.

Reason 4

English learning experts all agree that news is a great way to learn and understand real and authentic terms and phrases. News is a great place to hear how native speakers really talk and its a great place to learn some of the differences and important language skills you may not learn using more traditional methods.


Not Always Easy

Even though news is very useful and a great way to learn and practice English, we know it is not always easy. A lot of news websites have large articles with 1000s of words and this can be very hard to work through as an English leaner. Even watching videos of news can be complicated if people speak very fast. But it is worth the effort and there are lots of different news outlets that have smaller articles that are easier to understand.

The important things to remember are

  • Read as much news as you can but make sure you take time to try and understand it
  • Make a list of words that you do not understand, look them up, learn them and then re-read the news article
  • Find a friend or someone at work who will talk about the news article with you. You could even send the article to  a friend online and have a video or phone call to talk about it in English to practice.
  • Pick subjects and topics you find interesting or that are very important. Trying to learn from things you find boring will not be as useful or easy as something you are interested in.

Simple News for English Learners

We have launched a new news service for English learners called News Flash. This fantastic new service provides news straight from Reuters who are one of the largest news agencies in the world. News Flash not only gives you simple, interesting and useful stories to read about and learn from it also includes a vocabulary test so you can actually score your learning while catching up on important news stories.