American Idioms

Gang up on: join to attack

e.g. They all gang up on the new student with verbal attacks.

 Handwriting on the wall: a warning

e.g. If the Governor had seen the handwriting on the wall, he would not have adopted those unpopular proposals.

Go through the roof: very angry

e.g. When he found out that you took his money, he went through the roof.

Fork out: pay

e.g. I like this computer, but I don’t want to fork out a lot of money.

That’s the ticket: what is needed

e.g. That’s the ticket! If you do as I tell you, you will succeed.

Rule the roost: be the boss

e.g. Who rules the roost at your house?

 Get a grip on: have control over

e.g. Get a grip on yourself; everybody is staring at you.

 Get a handle on something: get control or understanding of a situation

e.g. As soon as he heard the crisis, the President tried to put all the facts together to get a handle on the underlying cause of the crisis.

Had better: ought to, should

e.g. You had better finish your homework before going to bed.

Then and there: on the spot

e.g. As soon as the candidate finished his speech, he was shot then and there.

Make or break: succeed or fail

e.g. This book will make or break my career as a writer.

 Half a mind: a thought about something but without specific details

e.g. I have half a mind to close the store since the business has not been good.

Everyday American Idioms for ESL Learners

Stephen Lau

Copyright© by Stephen Lau

Types of Sentences

Writing is made up of sentences. Effective writing consists of different types of sentences put in different paragraphs to bring out the ideas of the writer. There are different types of sentences serving different functions.

The simple sentence

The simple sentence is made up of a subject and a predicate (a verb, or a verb + noun/adjective/adverb/preposition etc. to complete the sentence).

e.g. The woman went to Mexico.

(subject) (predicate)

e.g. Washington D.C. is the capital of the United States.

(subject)        (predicate)

Identifying the subject and the predicate helps you in subject-predicate agreement.

e.g. Drinking a glass of warm milk and taking a hot bath help me sleep better. (NOT helps)

e.g. Every house in the neighborhood has been searched. (NOT have)

e.g. Each of the students was given an assignment to do over the weekend. (NOT were)

The simple sentence (usually short) is used to make a statement, or to emphasize an idea.

However, overuse of short simple sentences may result in choppy sentences, showing lack of unity.

e.g. It was a beautiful day. The sun was warm. We wanted to go for a walk. We decided to go to the lake. (choppy)

e.g. It was a warm and beautiful day, and we decided to go to the lake for a walk. (improved)

The compound sentence

The compound sentence is made up two or more simple sentences joined together by a coordinating conjunction (andornor, butforsoyet), or a punctuation mark (colon, semicolon).

e.g. The man took the money, and (he) ran away.

e.g. You finish this work, or you don’t get paid!

e.g. I don’t want to go, nor will I.

e.g. He was poor, but he was happy.

e.g. We were thirsty, for the weather was hot.

e.g. He worked hard so he passed his test.

e.g. The boy practiced very hard, yet he did not make the swim team.

The compound sentence is used to show relationshipsequence, or importance of ideas in a sentence.

The complex sentence

The complex sentence is made up two or more simple sentences joined together by a subordinating conjunction (afterbeforesincewhenalthough).

e.g. After the man took the money, he ran away.

The emphasis is more on he ran away than on the man took the money; the complex sentence here not only shows the sequence of the action but also focuses on he ran away “after” taking the money.

Compare: “The man took the money, and (he) ran away.” In this compound sentence, the emphasis is on the man took the money as well as (he) ran away.

e.g. Before the postman came, the woman had already finished writing the letter.

e.g. When the postman came, the woman gave him the letter.

It is important that you construct different types of sentences to express your ideas.

Stephen Lau

Copyright©2018 by Stephen Lau

Effective Choice of Words

Good writing means trying to avoid the overuse of clichés (overused catch phrases and figures of speech)

e.g. busy NOT busy as a bee

e.g. confront the truth NOT face the music

e.g. everyone NOT each and every one

e.g. finally NOT last but not the least

e.g. firstly NOT first and foremost

e.g. gentle NOT gentle as a lamb

e.g. infrequent or seldom NOT few and far between

e.g. obviously NOT it goes without saying

e.g. seldom NOT once in a blue moon

Avoid weakling modifiers. Most of the following weakling modifiers can be removed without changing the meaning of a sentence:

e.g. actually

e.g. both

e.g. certainly

e.g. comparatively

e.g. definitely

e.g. herselfhimselfitselfthemselves

e.g. needless to say

e.g. particularly

e.g. per se

e.g. really

e.g. relatively

e.g. very

To use these weakling modifiers occasionally is permissible, but to use them frequently makes your writing ineffective.

Figures of speech add life and vividness to writing. Figures of speech compare one thing abstract with another thing, which is usually literal or concrete.


Metaphors are implied comparisons.

e.g. After listening to the speech of the senator, I was a volcano within although I was still calm without.

e.g. He is a hog at mealtime.


Similes are direct comparisons to bring out the imagination of the readers.

e.g. After listening to the speech of the senator, I was like a volcano about to erupt although I was still calm on the outside.

e.g. He eats like a hog.

Similes always use words as or like.

Stephen Lau

Copyright©2018 by Stephen Lau

Prepositional Words and Phrases 3

A prepositional phrase is a combination of a verb with a preposition. Such a combination may give different meanings to the same verb with different prepositions.


Touch on: mention briefly.

e.g. The professor barely touched on the subject of Civil War.

Touch up: repair.

e.g. Can you touch up the scratches on the door?


Appeal against: ask a court to cancel something.

e.g. The lawyer appealed against the court’s decision.

Appeal for: demand as a right.

e.g. I think we should appeal for justice.

e.g. They are appealing for our help.

Appeal to: attract or please someone.

e.g. The proposal appealed to many of us.

e.g. Her personality appeals to everybody around her.

e.g. Does this food appeal to your taste?


Gouge out: cheat someone out of something.

e.g. Don’t try to gouge some money out of that poor old man.


 Answer for: be responsible for.

e.g. You will have to answer for your mistakes.

 Answer to: explain or justify for.

e.g. You will have to answer to the judge for what you did.


Inch across: creep slowly across.

e.g. The injured dog inched across the bridge.

Inch back: go back slowly.

e.g. The army inched back as we fired our guns.

Inch over: move back a little.

e.g. Can you inch over a little? I can’t get in


Ground in: instruct.

e.g. We should ground our children in love and values as they grow up.

Ground on: form a foundation for.

e.g. His intelligence was grounded on reading books on wisdom.


Let down: disappoint.

e.g. I put my hope on you; don’t let me down.

Let out: release.

e.g. Don’t let out your anger on me!

e.g. He was let out of prison after he was found not guilty of the crime.

Let up: decrease in intensity.

e.g After a while, the rain let up.


Hand down: deliver; leave as an inheritance.

e.g. We have handed down all the information to our associates.

e.g. When he dies, he will hand down his business to his family, and not before.

Hand in: submit.

e.g. I have handed in my resignation; tomorrow will be my last day in the office.

Hand over: yield control of.

e.g. The manager has handed over the human resources section to the assistant manager.

Stephen Lau

Copyright© 2018 by Stephen Lau



Use Tenses Correctly

Use Tenses Correctly

To write well, you need to know how to use English tenses correctly. Tenses are difficult to many because in many languages tenses are not used to express “time” or the “relationship of sequence”; instead, adverbs, such as “yesterday”, “tomorrow”, “soon” etc. are used.

To learn how to use English tenses correctly, you must have a perception of the “time” element.

Let’s take a looks at present tense, present continuous tensepresent perfect tensepast tense, and past perfect tense with the following examples:


 “I lived (or I used to live) in China before I came to the United States in 2015″ (past tense): an action in the past; it was a fact.

“I had lived in China for 20 years, from 1995 to 2015.” (past perfect tense): an action that “continued” for some time in the past.

“I came to the United States in 2015, and decided to move to Ohio.”

“Now I live in Ohio.” (present tense): an action in the present; it is a fact.

“I am living in Ohio.” (present continuous tense): an action in the present, and it may continue for some time into the near future.

“I have lived in Ohio, from 2015 up to now.” (present perfect tense): an action in the past that has continued into the present, and will probably continue into the near future.

Hopefully, the above examples have demonstrated how you should use some of the English tenses correctly.

Stephen Lau

Copyright© 2018 by Stephen

Prepositional Phrases 2

A prepositional phrase is a combination of a verb with a preposition. Such a combination may give different meanings to the same verb with different prepositions.


Argue about: dispute or quarrel with someone over.

e.g. They often argue about racial injustice over the dinner table.

Argue against: make a case against someone or something.

e.g. The police discovered new evidence that argued against the criminal charge.

Argue back: answer back.

e.g. I wish he would not argue back so much.

Argue down: defeat someone in a debate.

e.g. He tries to argue down everyone who has opposite views.

Argue for: make a case for someone.

e.g. My lawyer will argue for me in court.

Argue into: convince someone to do something.

e.g. I could not argue myself into helping you in this project.

Argue with: challenge someone or something.

e.g. I won’t argue with what you do; after all, it is your choice.


Muddle along: continue in confusion.

e.g. Without clear instructions, some employees simply muddled along.

 Muddle around: work inefficiently.

e.g. Many employees were laid off because they were muddling around.


Screw around with: play around with, usually not doing anything positive (slang).

e.g. Don’t screw around with that guy and waste your time!

Screw up: mess up; spoil.

e.g. See, you’ve screwed up my plan! I wish you hadn’t come.

Stephen Lau

Copyright© 2018 by Stephen Lau


Build Vocabulary 2

Build Vocabulary 2

outlay (noun): an amount of money

e.g. The Government is planning to have an enormous outlay on cancer research.

the rising generation (noun): the younger people

e.g. These are the innovative ideas of the rising generation.

innovative: creative; state-of-the-art

e.g. This is an innovative approach to solving the problem.

outdoor (an adjective)  / (an adverb): outside the house

e.g. Football is an outdoor sport.

e.g. We can play outdoors when the rain stops.

out and out (adverb): completely; thoroughly

e.g. Don’t go out with him: he is a criminal out and out.

out-and-away (adverb): by far

e.g. She is out-and-away the best pianist in town.

hunt (noun): search

e.g. I am now on a hunt for jobs.

e.g. The police are now on a hunt for the escaped prisoner.

the ins and outs (noun): details

e.g. Please give me all the ins and outs of the story.

hunch (noun): strong belief.

e.g. I have a hunch that he will not show up at the party tonight.

take the road (verb): go on a journey

e.g. We are going to take the road tomorrow.

Stephen Lau

Copyright© 2018 by Stephen Lau

Singular and Plural Nouns

Singular and Plural Nouns

 In English, there are many singular nouns that represent a group; that is, you do not add an “s” to them, even though they are plural in number. In addition, their pronouns are usually singular.

e.g. You must talk to the committee and its members about this issue.

e.g. I have a lot of information about this business and its impact on the economy.

Some of the most common singular nouns representing many components are as follows:

anger, appreciation, baggage, concentration, confusion, consideration, corruption,  cost, devotion, energy, entertainment, envy, equipment, evidence, furniture, frustration, gossip, help, homework, humanity, humility, imagination, independence, jewelry, justice, knowledge, luggage, mail, offspring, proof, recovery, respect, sleep, slang, software, violence, waste

Remember, they do not need an “s” and their respective pronouns are also singular.

Stephen Lau

Copyright© 2018 by Stephen Lau

Learn American Idioms 3

After all: in spite of everything

e.g. She didn’t get a good score; after all, it was her first attempt

Late in life: in old age

e.g. It was only late in life that he became a famous writer.

You bet: yes, of course

e.g. “Are you hungry?” “You bet!”

 Act one’s age: behave maturely

e.g. Stop behaving like a teenager! Act your age.

 All of it: the best

e.g. From the way he presented him at the debate, he was all of it.

 Vicious circle: a series of events that create more problems

e.g. You take drugs to remove the symptoms, but the drugs also cause symptoms that require more drugs; you are ony creating a vicious circle.

 Lead someone astray: cause someone to do something wrong or illegal

e.g. If you are always in the company of lawbreakers, you  may be easily be led astray.

Abide by: accept and follow

e.g. If you wish to become a citizen of the United States, you must abide by U.S. immigration laws.

 Pass the hat: collect money for

e.g. He is always passing the hat for something.

Actions speak louder than words: do something about it, not just talking about it

e.g. Show me what you have done! Actions speak louder than words.

Bag your face: shut up!

e.g. You and your loud mouth! Go and bag your face!

Live beyond one’s means: spend more than one can earn

e.g. You are in debt because you are living beyond your means.

Down and out: very poor

e.g. He is down and out without a job and a roof over his head.

Tail end: the last part

e.g. His speech was long, and only the tail end was interesting.

Ball of fire: an energetic and enthusiastic person

e.g. We all want his presence; he is a ball of fire.

 No flies on: very alert, smart

e.g. You cannot trick her; there are no flies on her.

Add insult to injury: make things worse

e.g. Enough is enough! Don’t add insult to injury.

Ball of fire: an energetic and enthusiastic person

e.g. We all want his presence; he is a ball of fire.

Stephen Lau

Copyright© 2018 by Stephen Lau


Learn Some Slang 2

Learn Some Slang and Colloquial Expressions

 Beat about the bush; prevaricate; not being direct.

e.g. Don’t beat about the bush; tell me what’s on your mind.

 Better than a slap in the eye: okay, acceptable.

e.g. Not all the goals were accomplished. Well, at least the project was completed on time; it’s better than a slap in the eye.

 Poison: drink..

e.g. “What’s your poison?” “I’ll have a gin tonic.”

 Butter up: flatter.

e.g. Now that you have been promoted, everybody seems to butter up you.

 French leave: leave without permission.

e.g. His boss found out that he took French leave yesterday afternoon to see his mother in the hospital.

 Full bang: full speed.

e.g. You have to go on full bang if you don’t want to miss your flight.

 By a long chalk: by a great amount.

e.g. He lost his reelection by a long chalk.

Choosy: difficult to please.

e.g. Nobody likes to deal with you: you’re a choosy customer.

Come clean: confess everything.

e.g. Under the police interrogation, the man finally came clean.

 Creature comforts: physical comforts.

e.g. We all need a TV; it’s just one of those creature comforts.

 Darned sight more: a lot more.

e.g. “Do you think he should put more effort on this?” “A darned sight more!”

 Dead head: a stupid person.

e.g. Your friend seems like a dead head to me from the way he behaves.

 Deliver the goods: do what is expected or required.

e.g. The new employee seems to deliver the goods — very hard working and conscientious.

 Do one’s bit: do one’s share of responsibility.

e.g. I’ve done my bit; I hope it’s going to work.

 Do the trick: achieve the objective.

e.g. If you turn the handle in the opposite it may do the trick and open the lid.

 Drive up the wall: irritate intensely.

e.g. Don’t drive me up the wall every time I see you.

 Drop in on: visit casually.

e.g. Do drop in on us; you are always welcome.

 Stephen Lau

Copyright© 2018 by Stephen Lau