Category Archives: Idiomatic Vocabulary

This is some idiomatic vocabulary. Idiomatic vocabulary is used by higher-level speakers in any language, and the public version of the IELTS Band Descriptors recognises this by mentioning it in the IELTS 7 category of both the Speaking and Writing.

Idiomatic Vocabulary 5: ‘nerds and geeks’

The Phrasenerd

   To be a nerd / geek

 Its Definition

 These terms refer to people absorbed in technology or books to the extent that

they are socially awkward in the way they speak and act.

 

Discussion

These terms are useful because technology is becoming such a part of our lives that many people are becoming (overly) absorbed by it. In actual fact, the terms were once very negative, but are becoming increasingly less so, and even positive, as ‘computer nerds’ such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and many others, achieved incredible fortunes with their ‘obsession’ with computers.

 

Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “Oh, I’m not really technologically conversant. I don’t even know what my computer is called in geek-speak. Apple-Mac, or something like that.”
  • “It’s really weird, sometimes, when you think of all those computer nerds who are now multi-billionaires! I guess they get the last laugh, right?”

In IELTS Writing

Technology now rules the world, and those adept in utilising it, far from being seen as ‘geeks’, are now considered visionary pioneers by the younger generation – and indeed, their ideas are changing the way people live.

Idiomatic Vocabulary 4: ‘Mr Right’

The PhrasesMr Right

  • Mr Right
  • Prince Charming

Its Definition

    A perfect partner.

 

Discussion

This phrase is useful (for female candidates) because it can describe a perfectly compatible partner, and most IELTS candidates are single, and may well need to refer to such a person when talking about the future, ambitions, problems in life – in other words, typical IELTS speaking topics.

 

Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “Oh, I went to a nightclub, but I quickly realised I wouldn’t find Mr Right in that sort of place.”
  • “Basically, all us girls are looking for our Prince Charming, but it never happens, does it?”

In IELTS Writing

  • Nightclubs exist, as do dating and match-making services, catering primarily to women seeking their ‘Mr Right’.
  • If we accept that women are innately different from men, then the very concept of ‘Mr Right’ may well be merely an illusion.

Idiomatic Vocabulary 3: ‘fingers crossed’

The PhrasesFingers_Crossed

  • Fingers crossed
  • Knock on wood

 

Their Definition

Something you say when you hope for something to happen.

 

Discussion

This phrase is useful because we often wish for things to happen, and in the IELTS Speaking Test, we talk about our lives, our wishes, and our future hopes. These phrases are interchangeable, but can not really be used for IELTS Writing.

These phrases are too individual and situational to be used in IELTS Writing.

 

Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “Well, one day – fingers crossed – I can get a mainstream publisher interested in my novels.”
  • “The market in China could be huge, so – knock on wood – maybe I can get some books published there.”
  • [For students] “I hope to go to an overseas university, and – fingers crossed – hopefully my IELTS mark will be good enough.”
  • [For students] “My aim is to work for a big banking companies, and – knock on wood – it may happen in the near future.”

Idiomatic Vocabulary 2: ‘a real eye-opener’

The Phrase

To be a real eye-openerEye opener

 Its Definition

 An event or experience that is surprising,

and shows you sth. that you did not already know

Discussion

This phrase is useful because it can describe any very surprising thing or event or experience which you have encountered. Admittedly, many people lead quite conventional lives, without encountering really interesting things, but you never know. This phrase is often useful for when describing event when traveling to other countries. Because it involves so much personal reaction, this phrase is more for spoken, not written English.

Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “Oh, when I went into Libya it was a real eye-opener. I realised what a police-state was like, and the word ‘democracy’ finally took some meaning for me.”
  • “The poverty in South America was a real eye-opener. It’s just in-your-face, everyday, and the beggars can be really aggressive.”
  • “In Manilla, I had the opportunity to sleep one night in a slum, and I’ll tell you, that experience was a real eye-opener.”

Idiomatic Vocabulary 1: “not my cup of tea”

The Phrase

  Not [somebody’s] cup of teacup of tea

Its Definition

An adjectival phrase meaning “I don’t like it”.

Discussion

This phrase is useful because in the IELTS test you are often asked about your likes and dislikes, and even if not asked, we often give these feelings anyway.

Examiner:          Do people in your culture like outdoor sport?

Speaker:             Some do, but it’s certainly not my cup of tea.

 

Watch Out

  1. This phrase is always used in the negative, when saying that you do NOT like something.

Examiner:          Do people in your culture like indoor sport?

Speaker:             Well, it’s certainly my cup of tea.

A better answer here is ….

 Speaker:            Well, I certainly do, but I’m not sure …..[continue the answer].

 

  1. This phrase is probably too long [Remember Rule 2], and thus too informal to be used in IELTS writing.

 

Other Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “People go to bars and drink, but that’s definitely not my cup of tea.”
  • “My ambition has always been to climb Mount Everest, but I know that would definitely not be everyone’s cup of tea.”

Idiomatic Vocabulary 16: the call of nature

The Phrases

To answer the call of nature

Its Definition

A discreet and idiomatic way to say, ‘Go to the toilet’.

Discussion

This is useful for IELTS because it is a fact of life, happening regularly to every single human being on earth. When relating stories, anecdotes, or when exemplifying generally, such a concept may need to be stated.

This phrase follows our rules for use in IELTS writing (being 1. Not too many words, and 2. able to be applied to many people), although it is very unlikely that such a subject matter will need to be explored in writing.

Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “I worked for one school where the whole floor, with some 300 people, had access to two tiny toilets. If everyone had to answer the call of nature at once, it would have been horrible.”
  • “I see building sites, and they always have outdoor cubicles there for when the workman have to answer the call of nature.”

In IELTS Writing

  • With over seven billion human beings on the planet, all needing to ‘answer the call of nature’, efficient sewerage systems are now crucial.
  • [Task One, map task] The north-eastern corner of the park has provisions for those needing to respond to ‘the call of nature’.

Idiomatic Vocabulary 15: a different story / kettle of fish

The Phrases

  1. To be a different story
  2. To be a different kettle of fish

Their Definitions

These are two related sayings, describing a situation which is completely different to another.

Discussion

These are useful for IELTS because, in a complicated world, we face a variety of situations, each different to the other, and we often compare then. In addition, to test your speaking and explore a situation more deeply, in Part Three of the Speaking Test, IELTS examiners tend to throw out questions which change the situation: “What about women?”, “Is it the same for adults?”, and “Would teachers agree with that?”

This saying is too long and personal to be used in IELTS writing.

Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “I think shopping is a form a torture, but obviously, for women, it’s a different story.”
  • “Rock music is fairly popular among young people.” [“Is it the same in Asia?”] “Well, that’s a different story.”
  • “The humidity in this country is sometimes almost unbearable.” [“What about in your country?”] “Well, that’s a different kettle of fish.”
  • “I managed a school for five years, and had to deal with incompetence all around me. Now I run my own small classroom, and [smiling] it’s a different kettle of fish altogether”.

Idiomatic Vocabulary 14: a sharp learning curve

The Phrases

  1. To be a sharp learning curve
  2. To do everything from scratch
  3. To revert to Plan B.
  4. To go back to the drawing board.

Their Definitions

These are a series of related sayings, describing situations where …

  1. where you have to learn very
  2. where you have to do everything from the beginning.
  3. after the first plan fails, you change to another.
  4. a plan fails, and you have to begin all over again.

Discussion

This is useful for IELTS because, in a complicated world, we are all trying to learn, and have learnt much in the past, have tried and failed at various projects. Thus, this phrase can probably be useful for everyone, describing some situation in their past.

Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “When I started my website, it was definitely a sharp learning curve.”
  • “I was given complete responsibility for the entire school, which was certainly a sharp learning curve, and absolutely nothing was done or prepared beforehand. I had to do absolutely everything from scratch.”
  • “After three months, I realised I’d never get along with the crazy boss, so, Plan A having failed, one reverts to Plan B, right?”
  • “I designed IELTS courses for one school where I worked for years, then decided to leave and teach using my own books, so it was back to the drawing board. I spent at least three weeks working on the new syllabus.”

Idiomatic Vocabulary 13: to go overboard

The Phrase

 To go overboard

Its Definition

A verb phrase meaning to do something good, but do it too much or excessively so that it becomes bad.

Discussion

This is useful for IELTS speaking because this situation does happen in life. People may ‘go overboard’ in politeness, actions, and public behavior.

This phrase passes our test for use in written language: it is short [Rule 2], and it can be applied widely to many people [Rule 3].

 

Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “I’m not convinced cosmetic surgery is good. Many people go overboard, and begin looking like freaks.”
  • “Study is important, but I see three-year-old babies learning Japanese. Now, that’s just going overboard.”
  • “Some memorisation is possible when writing in IELTS, but people just go overboard, and the whole essay becomes absolutely ridiculous.”

In IELTS Writing

  • Given the emphasis now placed on good looks in this celebrity-driven society, the current trend towards cosmetic surgery is understandable, but too many ‘go overboard’, Michael Jackson being a classic example.
  • Money is undeniably important, but those who sacrifice friends, family, and good health in the process of acquiring it, are obviously ‘going overboard’.

Idiomatic Vocabulary 12: turning up your nose

The Phrase

  To turn your nose up (at sth.)

Its Definition

A verb phrase meaning you don’t want to do, use, or accept sth. kindly offered to you.

Discussion

This is useful for IELTS because people generally try to help others in the world, so not accepting, or not having your offer accepted, can be quite common. Since this usually involves refusing a kind offer, the phrase can be negative.

Following Rule 2 (See Introduction), this phrase is too long for formal writing, and so should not be used there.

Note: it would be hard to say this, and not perform the ‘body language’ as described – turning up your nose.

Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “So, I offered to drive her home, but she just turned her nose up.”
  • “Sometimes I just don’t get it! Students ask me for help, say they desperately need a good IELTS mark, but when I recommend my IELTS books, but they just turn up their noses and walk away.”
  • “Oh, whenever they offer me something, I just basically turn up my nose.”
  • “Cats are so fussy. Basically, they’ll turn up their noses at just about everything.”

Idiomatic Vocabulary 11: A grain of salt

The Phrase

To take [sth.] with a grain of salt

Its Definition

A verb phrase meaning you don’t really believe the previous fact.

Discussion

This is useful for IELTS because there are so many lies and so much deceit in the world. An intelligent person doesn’t necessarily believe it all, and we often have to indicate this to other speakers.

Following Rule 2 (See Introduction), this phrase is too long for formal writing, and so should not be used there.

 Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “He claims he really helped me – but I took it all with a grain of salt.”
  • “All the advertising is just basically garbage. You have to take it all with a grain of salt.”
  • “I’ve checked other IELTS websites, from other school and freelance teachers, and almost every one of them is just sheer and utter lies. I don’t take it with a grain of salt; I just reject it outright with absolute disgust! The sad fact is that students usually believe it.”
  • “I know a guy, and absolutely everything he said had to be taken with a grain of salt.”

Idiomatic Vocabulary 10: On Steroids

The Phrase

To be on steroids

Its Definition

An adjectival phrase meaning extremely developed when compared to something else.

Discussion

Body builders take ‘steroids’ [a hormonal drug’] in order to develop abnormally large muscles. Similarly, when comparing a strong with a weak

form, we can consider the strong one ‘on steroids’. This is very idiomatic and descriptive (good), but not easy to use (bad). Try inventing some

comparison and seeing if you can make these phrase work for you.

 

Examiner:          Did you like Shanghai?

          Speaker:            In some ways. It’s sort of like Taipei on steroids.

Other Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “My ambition has always been to climb Mount Everest, but basically the only thing I’ve done is ascend Yang Ming Shan – let’s call it Everest without steroids.”
  • “The chess player, Kasparov, played a computer called ‘Deeper Blue’ – which was, basically, just your average computer on steroids – and he lost the match.”
  • “The competition in schools in Taiwan is insane. It’s like a dog-eat-dog world on steroids. My teenage cousins, would you believe, are seeing psychiatrists due to the stress!”

Idiomatic Vocabulary 9: the rat race

The Phrases

  • the rat race / concrete jungle (N)
  • // dog-eat-dog (adj)

Their Definitions

Describing the intense and often ruthless competition in society

Discussion

These phrases are useful because we all live in a society which has such competition. We can all be compared to laboratory rats racing each other to get food. City life can be compared to a jungle of buildings – a concrete jungle – where animals eat other animals, even of their own kind – a real dog-eat-dog existence.

These phrases all express strong criticism or negative feelings towards this existence – and if you honestly feel this, express it.

 

Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “After some 20 years in the workforce, I just want to get out of this rat race, and live in a quiet rural area.”
  • “Coming from Australia, it’s really weird that I find myself now marooned, probably forever, in an unlovely concrete jungle.”

In IELTS Writing

  • The competition in the Asian-school systems is becoming increasingly competitive, often ruthlessly so, creating a ‘dog-eat-dog’ scenario, which can hardly be psychologically healthy for the students involved.
  • In the race to succeed in all aspects of life and work, ethics inevitably fall, and the ‘rat race’ begins from an early age.

Idiomatic Vocabulary 8: a sweet tooth

The Phrase

 To have a sweet tooth

Its Definition

To like eating sweet and sugary food and drink

Discussion

This phrase is useful because it can describe almost everyone, and food is a common topic that can come into many conversations. We all either like, or don’t like, sweet food.

Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “Oh, I definitely have a sweet tooth. I just love chocolate, cheesecake, and various snacks.”
  • “I really have a sweet tooth, just like my mother, but my father didn’t have one at all.”

In IELTS Writing

  • Confectionery companies produce a multitude of products, catering to the ‘sweet tooth’ of modern consumers.
  • One of the common causes of obesity is undoubtedly the ‘sweet tooth’ possessed by many people.

Idiomatic Vocabulary 7: super

The Phrase

  Super-[adj]

Its Definition

A prefix which makes the adjective which follows much stronger.

Discussion

This phrase is useful because it can describe many more extremes of feeling, and has a fun and upbeat feel. My 9-year-old boy uses this regularly. It is used as a prefix (meaning ‘more than’) in some formal words, such as…

superstar

superstition

supersonic

supergroup

supernatural

superhuman

…and many others, but it can be used playfully to give a more informal feel to the speaking.

Example Sentences

In IELTS Speaking

  • “Oh, I thought the movie was good – super good, in fact.”
  • “I didn’t like the food in America. The deserts were super-sweet, so different to what we have in Taiwan.”

In IELTS Writing

  • In this electronic age, and with this globalised world, media celebrities are often not just rich, but ‘super-rich’.
  • Media celebrities undergo far too much cosmetic surgery, deciding that only ‘super-glamorous’ will serve their purposes.

Idiomatic Vocabulary

Exclamation Point

This section gives some idiomatic vocabulary in English, as a blog, or list to which I regularly add. This vocabulary is also given (in more detail) in the page ‘Idiomatic Vocabulary’ (under the ‘Vocabulary’ Section). So, you have the same input twice, since both forms can be convenient.

However, if you are accessing the information here, it is very important that you go to the ‘Idiomatic Vocabulary’ Section to read the introduction – as there are rules and issues about idiomatic vocabulary which you should know.