Idiomatic Vocabulary


Every language has phrases and sentences that cannot be understood by just knowing the individual words. There are …

  • cliches (‘Tom, Dick, and Harry’),
  • proverbs (‘A bird in the hand’),
  • items of slang (‘claptrap’),
  • phrasal verbs (‘to bear out’),
  • and common sayings (‘in your face’),

… where knowing the literal meanings of the words is not enough. This sort of language is collectively known as ‘idiomatic’, and obviously is only language which higher speakers of any language (including English) can use appropriately and well. This language is also informal, and thus higher speakers of English would certainly use it in the situation of the IELTS Speaking Test.

Let us explore this issue. Here is a part from my Speaking Book [Tip 4, page 21] (picture shown). IELTS Speak

Case 5

Examiner      Why do people prefer going to cinemas to watching TV?

Speaker         I would attribute this phenomenon to many causes, the most prevalent being the alleviation of pressure consequent to the  psychological conflicts in modern society. Not only is the cinema very relaxing, but it is also a social activity allowing varied other activities. Moreover, people can have time with their families. Furthermore, they can be entertained.

Is this good or bad? Here’s what my book says (page 23).

The phrasing used in Case 5 does not respond to the informality of the situation. This informality is shown in the public version of the Band Descriptors, which, for Lexical Resource, reward ‘idiomatic’ vocabulary, not ‘formal’ complicated words. These band descriptors tell us that:


uses idiomatic language naturally.


idiomatic vocabulary skillfully.


some idiomatic vocabulary.


vocabulary mostly appropriately.


vocabulary with limited flexibility

Source: the public version of the IELTS Speaking Band Descriptors


Now, that doesn’t mean formal words are necessarily bad. These words just need to be appropriate to the situation. Thus, when talking about the Taiwanese education system, the answer …

What I don’t like is the totally regurgitative nature of the system, which totally stifles the students’ psychic being, and if you add the ubiquitous cram schools into the equation, you have a vast, oppressive, and Orwellian regime.

… shows GREAT use of vocabulary [surely at least IELTS 8 = uses vocabulary resource readily and flexibly to convey precise meaning]. Yet when talking about insects, the reply …

Oh, I definitely don’t like creepy crawlies. They give me the willies, particularly cockroaches, and those pesky little critters inhabit just about every nook and cranny, don’t they?

… also shows GREAT use, this time moving into more idiomatic usage. The truth is, even with the ‘serious’ topic of the Taiwanese education system, given the informal nature of the IELTS Speaking Test, that first speaker could also well have said…

I hate the system here. I think it’s absolutely terrible, the way they stuff knowledge down the students’ mouths, and make them mindlessly spew out memorised claptrap without really knowing a damn thing.

The public version of the IELTS Speaking Band descriptors admits that this idiomatic and informal vocabulary is a sign of a better speaker. Thus, it is worth acquainting yourself with some of this language, and this section will give you small doses of some of the more useful examples that you can consider.

The important point is that memorising this vocabulary and saying it mechanically (that is: wrongly, confusingly, and sometimes embarrassingly) could merely indicate you are IELTS 5 ( using vocabulary with limited flexibility). A constant theme in this website (and my IELTS books) is that memorisation is the wrong strategy.


Idiomatic Vocabulary in Writing?

One final point is that you can use idiomatic language in IELTS writing, but there are three rules.

Rule 1

It is important to ‘flag’ this vocabulary by using inverted commas (as I did with ‘flag’, which is an idiomatic and imprecise term). This shows the examiner that you are aware the term is idiomatic, but wish to convey meaning with the term, since sometimes it can be more concise and efficient to do so. For example,

Opinions differ on smoking, with some people, often the younger generation, regarding it as ‘cool’.

Rule 2

Do not use idiomatic terms which are long, or have too many words. The previous example was just one word – so it certainly passes this rule.

So, think one, or two, or maybe three words, but no more. Being too long makes it too casual or perhaps too imprecise to be appropriate to formal writing.

Rule 3

Do not use idiomatic terms which are too dependent on a single individual attitude – for example, ‘my cup of tea’. Idiomatic language works better in formal writing when it can be applied more generally – for example, ‘Mr Right’ [‘Women generally still seek their ‘Mr Right’, but it may be only an idealistic illusion’).

Notice that the words are given one at a time, with pictures and full explanations, other forms of the word, and example sentences. Play with the words one at a time, explore their meaning, check them also in your dictionary, and write them in your vocabulary notebook with an example sentence [Reading Strategy #6]. Remember, simply studying a list of words is a BAD strategy [Check: Tricks Bad School Use #3].

Okay, now that you know more about idiomatic vocabulary, explore some of the pages below. Just click on them for a full page view. You can also get these in ‘blog’ format by clicking on the link at the bottom of the right-hand-side menu. Good luck.


9. Idiomatic Use, the rat race-page-001

10. Idiomatic Use, on steroids-page-00111. Idiomatic Use, a grain of salt-page-001

8. Idiomatic Use, sweet tooth-page-0017. Idiomatic Use, super-page-0016. Idiomatic Use, olic-page-001

5. Idiomatic Use, nerds and geeks-page-0014. Idiomatic Use, Mr Right-page-0013. Idiomatic Use, fingers crossed-page-001

2. Idiomatic Use, eye opener-page-001not my cup of tea

12. Idiomatic Use, turning up your nose-page-00113. Idiomatic Use, to go overboard-page-00114. Idiomatic Use, a sharp learning curve .etc.-page-001

15. Idiomatic Use, a different story-page-00116. Idiomatic Use, call of nature-page-00118. Idiomatic Use, a different story.-page-001








19. Idiomatic Use, chicken feed-page-001