Don't use these 10 idioms
For this episode, together with Jessica from All Ears English, we picked 10 cliché and cringe-inducing idioms that many English learners seem to use way too often. We'll show you how to use them more naturally and provide alternatives to help you express your ideas more clearly and effectively.
  • Raining cats and dogs (idiom) - something that you say when it is raining heavily.
  • It's not my cup of tea (idiom) - if something is not your cup of tea, it is not the type of thing that you like.
  • It's a piece of cake (idiom) - something that is very easy to do.
  • Once in a blue moon (idiom) - not very often.
  • Burn the midnight oil (idiom) - to work/study late into the night.
  • Bob's your uncle (idiom) - this expression is mainly used in Britain. It is often used immediately after a set of simple instructions and roughly means the same as '... and it's as simple as that!'
  • The early bird catches the worm (idiom) - a saying that means someone will have an advantage if they do something immediately, or before other people do it.
  • As cool as a cucumber (idiom) - very calm or very calmly, especially when this is surprising.
  • To be as busy as a bee (idiom) - to be moving about quickly doing many things.
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away (idiom) - if one eats healthful foods, one will remain in good health and will not need to see the doctor often.
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1. Raining cats and dogs
M: So, Jessica, you heard our introduction, right? How was it for you? Was it natural? Were you okay with that?

J: I mean, no, a lot of those idioms are cliche at this point. And native speakers don't use them a lot. If this is an idiom, like raining cats and dogs, you know, that is a great example. Because that is one idiom I tell my students like never to use, really, because like, nobody says that. But if it's an idiom that you learned in your first year of English, or you've seen it on three or more idiom lists online, then like don't say it.

M: So it's raining cats and dogs is an old idiom, nobody uses it. Right? Rory, would you use it?

R: Well, I would, but not to convey the meaning about the weather, you would use it to make people laugh like we did in our opener, which is a use for English, but it's not something general. That's a very specific use. It's like the irony, I think. It's not the real meaning that you want to convey to people.

J: I mean, that's why we use any cliche, right? Because we're using it in a sarcastic way. So we let the other person know, like I'm making a joke, this is cheesy. And then everybody laughs.

M: What would you say? How can we make it more natural? So if it's raining heavily, just like... Like what can you say?

J: I'd say like it's raining buckets, or it's pouring outside, right? So pouring isn't exactly an idiom. I guess it's used idiomatically in that sense, right? Because the water is pouring from the sky or gushing from the sky, right? But I would say, yeah, it's like raining buckets. I say that a lot.

M: So the neutral option is like it's pouring down. It's British and American. Right?

J: Yeah. I wouldn't say bucketing. We don't say that here.
2. It's not my cup of tea
M: Ou next idiom is It's not my cup of tea. For example, I did yoga yesterday, and it wasn't my cup of tea. Jessica, would you say that?

J: Again, like Rory noted earlier, I would say it to be funny. And, guys, like when you're doing that, I know this is hard to convey as a non-native. Like sarcasm. How do I do that? That's a really difficult language skill in another language, and it's all about intonation. You know what I mean? It has to be high and extreme like it's not my cup of tea. It's really just like high descending intonation, and then I know that or they know that I'm joking. I would just say like, that's not really my thing.

M: Yeah, that's not my thing. You see, dear listener. Or I did yoga yesterday. That wasn't my thing.

J: Isn't that a British English idiom instead of... Would you like some tea? Like what, do you want a cuppa? I've seen it in movies. Rory, is that a thing?

R: Is it an idiom? Or is it just like one of these weird expressions that it has a name that I've forgotten right now, but it is a British thing? Yes. For tea specifically, you don't ask someone if they want a cup of bourbon.

J: That'd be a lot of Bourbon.

M: Why not? Would you like a cup?

R: Oh, God.

J: Maybe I would.

R: And then go blind afterwards. If we talk about it's not my cup of tea, then I would. It's like Jessica said, it's not my thing, it's not really my thing or it wasn't really my thing. Although you could maybe take the edge off. It's not my cup of tea by saying it's not really my cup of tea like adding in the really there might break it up a little bit. But it's not the first thing I would reach for.

J: And here's the thing, like, listeners, sometimes I think students hear an episode like this. And they think, well, why are you telling me what people don't use? You know what I mean? But here's another reason why this is useful is because the amount of pop culture that everyone takes in these days, right? Movies from all the years, about all the years, TV shows, music, books, you're gonna see and hear these idioms all over the place. They are cliches for a reason. You know what I mean? Because they're used all the time, they have been, so it is useful to know what they mean and recognize them. But it's better to say these other alternatives we're giving you.
3. It's a piece of cake
M: Our next idiom is it's a piece of cake, something that is very easy. For example, making pancakes. Pancakes, you know, pancakes? Making pancakes is a piece of cake. Rory, what would you say? Do you ever use it?

R: It's not... Not in the full form. No. But I've heard people say just like a piece of cake in media. But not the whole thing. Not it's a piece of cake, just a piece of cake to describe something easy, but it's not in huge numbers in the media that I've seen, or talking to real people.

M: So we don't say the full thing. It's a piece of cake. No. Piece of cake. And we say it like a piece of cake. No-no-no. Piece of cake. Piece of cake.

J: Piece of cake. Yeah.

M: Do you ever say it?

J: Sometimes. I mean, yeah, I have been known to say that. I think normally though I just say easy peasy. Or if you want to like make it longer, like easy peasy, lemon squeezy, whatever you want to, like, rhyme with that. But I like that note that sometimes we don't use the whole idiom, though. There's a... I did a YouTube video a couple of years ago on IELTS Energy TV about the half idioms that natives use. Like, when in Rome, we never say the whole thing, when in Rome do as the Romans do, like that takes forever. So instead, we just say, when in Rome and so there's these, like half idioms that you can convey to sound more natural. But yeah, like I do comment like that. Piece of cake. Yeah, I've said that sometimes. But my favourite is easy peasy.

M: And, Rory, you don't use like a piece of cake, but you heard it.

R: I've heard it. Yes. It's not something that I would say though. I'd usually just say it's easy. And that's about it. But then I'm not very imaginative sometimes.

J: It sounds like pizza cake. But no, that's not what we're saying. Piece of cake. That's important.
4. Once in a blue moon
M: Our next idiom is once in a blue moon, which means not very often. For example, Rory lives in Scotland. I'm in Moscow. I see him once in a blue moon. Rory, do you ever say this?

R: This I have again heard before, but it's not something that I've said more than once or twice. It's not something you would use regularly. It's usually in response to a question like how often do you do something if you say like, oh, once in a blue moon, and then move on to the next thing, but that's not with any regularity. I don't think there's... I don't think it's something that people use to describe their situation very often. What about your, Jessica?

J: I actually love the phrase that you just used instead of once in a blue moon being like, not with any regularity. Like that, like that's such a subord-sounding phrase.

R: Oh, you like that one, then you're gonna love the other one, which is not with any degree of any regularity or not with any great degree of regularity. That's the other one as well.

J: That's exhausting. Why would you say that many words if you don't have to?

R: Come, come to Britain, we have excessive numbers of words for everything.
5. Burn the midnight oil
M: Okay, the next one is interesting. Burn the midnight oil. Rory, could you tell us what it means? Burn the midnight oil. It is my favourite one because I'm trying to lead a revival for people to start using it. However, to burn the midnight oil is to work through the night on something.

M: Jessica, is it used today? Or is it a cliche? Should we learn it? Should we use it?

J: Yeah, I mean, use it if you want to. You know, honestly, like any of these idioms, guys, if they click with you, if they resonate with you if they are fun for you to say then say it. Like it's not going to ruin communication. It's not going to like, you know, stop a connection from happening. The thing like idioms and slang, guys, if they're fun for you to say, say it, like, have fun with words that you're. Use English that you enjoy. Do I say this? Sometimes. Yeah, I mean, honestly, there's not a lot of context for me to say this at this point, you know, I'm 43. I don't burn the midnight oil anymore. I mean, maybe when I was like at university, or maybe in my 20s or something, but you know, now I go to sleep at a proper time, and I sleep well, and I wake up early, so I don't have the opportunity to use it that much. But yeah, like I do hear people say it, sometimes.

M: If you talk about your university years, any other synonym that you would use? Like to say that you stayed up late.

J: No, I can't think of any idiomatic or slangy synonym. It would just be in like the intonation and describing how little I slept. I could be like, oh, like I did not sleep at all. Maybe just throwing in a double negative in there to emphasize that, I didn't sleep at all, I worked through the night. There's a good phrasal verb we can put in there as a synonym. Worked through the night.

M: Our phrasal verb course, dear listener, you see phrasal verbs are better than idioms. Work through the night. The click is in the description. Okay, okay, what about like I pulled an all nighter?

J: Oh, yeah.

R: Yeah, that one is more common I would say.

J: That's a good one.

R: I don't know why. It sounds like it's something that came from America over to the UK. But if you asked me to explain why, I couldn't. It just sounds like there's something American about it. I don't know, like pool, pull something is more of an American thing. Do Americans have the phrase "pull a fast one"? I'm wondering if that is an overlap.

J: Yeah, to trick someone. Yeah.

R: Yeah. I think this might be an American one. It's still cool though. But it's not, again, one you want to overuse.
6. Bob's your uncle
M: Our next idiom is one of my favourite ones, Bob's your uncle. For example, just open Google podcasts, type IELTS Speaking for success and Bob's your uncle, you'll find our show. So Jessica, do you ever say this? Bob's your uncle.

J: No. You know what I say instead? I say tada. Like that's what I would say. It's literally like instead of that so you want to find IELTS energy. Just type in IELTS energy. And tada, there's our podcast, because really, all you're doing is presenting.

M: Tada. Okay, Bob's your uncle. Rory, do you think it's British English?

R: I was about to say, I think this is a British thing. But why it's never been used by Americans? I don't know. Like I say, maybe tada is the alternative.

J: We have used it.

M: Do you have many Bobs in your country?

J: We have tons of Bob's. Everybody has an uncle Bob. Again, like watching, like watching a movie or TV show that was made a long time ago or about a time, you know, in the past. That's when I would have come across it. Come across - phrasal verb. I'm gonna keep highlighting your phrasal verb course because that's so cool. Every time I say a phrasal verb would be like tada. Hey! IELTS Speaking for success phrasal verb course. So yeah, like I've come across it but never used it myself.

M: Okay, Rory, could you give us an example to make sure that our listener does understand it?

R: Yes, go to and download our phrasal verbs course today. And Bob's your uncle. You're a phrasal verbs master.
7. The early bird catches the worm
M: The next idiom is the early bird catches the worm.

J: I say that the early bird gets the worm. Catches? Rory, do you say catches?

R: I'm more likely to say gets, but I wonder if that's because of the influence of American culture over the years it's expanded.

J: I say that sometimes. And I know it is cliche and overused. But that is something I still hear people say honestly. And again, some of this does come down to the context in your lifestyle, right? Like, I am not likely to use or hear people say Burn the midnight oil, but I am likely to hear people use the early bird catches the worm or gets the worm.

M: In what context? Like, oh, Jessica, like, do you get up early?

J: Yeah, because I have to get done with a lot of work before I get my son at three o'clock and the early bird catches the worm.

R: But I was thinking about, well, the alternatives might be and I would usually say to get in early. And some people talk about physically going into a place early. I hear it used to mean getting work done early, get your work in early.

M: For example. Give us a sentence.

R: Oh, well. Somebody said like, oh, why are you up at this time? And I was like, well, I think it's important to get in early.

J: That was a phrasal verb. You know, the idiom that I think is more general that could be used in this context and a variety of contexts talking about early morning to say the crack of dawn, you know, like if you want to convey this idea that you get up early to do something, to do anything. Or even if you didn't mean to get up early, but you did, right? You'd be like, oh, I was up at the crack of dawn this morning. I don't know why, I just couldn't go back to sleep or, oh my gosh, I'm so tired, I had to wake up at the crack of dawn because I had so much work to do. I'm going to sleep in tomorrow.

M: Yeah, I was up at the crack of dawn.

R: I was thinking as well about what Jessica was saying about using half of the idiom here, and you can't use it, but you can make a slight modification just by saying, well, you know, what they say about and then half of the idiom. So in this case, it would be, you know, what they say about the early bird. And then the other half, you assume the other person knows what you're saying.

J: That's a really good point, actually. You could also, I think, we also use this to be like, like cute with friends, you know, if they are, like, super productive and get up early to do stuff, you're like, okay, early bird. And again, it's just taking it from that idiom, but just using those two words. Yeah.

R: But it's not the whole thing. It's the part. Like, you know what they say about that midnight oil? I don't know why I'm doing that with my hands.

M: I say if you learn an idiom, learn the full thing and use the full thing as it is. Okay? Don't just, yeah, only super natives feel what they might do and like, how they can change, what part to use, what part not to use.

R: Oh, Maria, no, experiment, just not in an IELTS exam or anything like that.
8. As cool as a cucumber
M: Okay, cool as a cucumber or as cool as a cucumber.

J: No.

R: No, also.

J: Yeah, I mean, you know, I've heard it, I've seen it. Like it's, it's used sometimes. But it does sound super cheesy to me. It is very cliche. You know, how would I describe someone that's cool as a cucumber? Well, I would just say they're super cool. You know what I mean? Just throwing super in there for the adjective. But cool as a cucumber really means like, calm, and unflappable in the face of challenges, right? Somebody that is, yeah, even keel I guess is a phrase we could throw in as a synonym. Yeah, or you're doing this right now. So reminds me of just calling someone Zen. You could say that as an adjective, which is kind of slangy. Like no, he's super zen. Doesn't matter what dumpster fire is happening around him. He's gonna stay super cool.

R: Although, on the subject of expressions that we use alternatively, I went on a bit of an adventure to find some alternatives to this and I discovered something. Because the words I would use are unfazed and nonplussed, which just means that it doesn't affect you. But apparently, in America, nonplussed means something completely different to what it means in the UK. So if I said that somebody was nonplussed, Jessica, what would you say? How do they feel?

J: If they're nonplussed. It means they are unimpressed. Yeah.

R: Over in the UK, apparently, it means that people are confused. So it's funny how there's this one word that's got two totally different meanings.

J: That's so odd.

R: But I've only heard the American usage.

J: I haven't heard that used to mean anything else besides how we use it. Yeah, I would say, let's see, this will be in response to someone asking how you feel or how you liked something. Right? So if somebody was like, what do you think about that last night? You know? Was it useful? Did you make a lot of new connections? I could be like, I was kinda nonplussed actually, it was pretty boring and useless.
9. To be as busy as a bee
M: To be as busy as a bee.

R: I love that.

M: Jessica, are you as busy as a bee these days?

J: I'm always busy as a bee, man. That's fun to say, you know because it sounds like a bee. Busy as a bee. Do I say that though? Yeah. Again, I know it's a cliche, but it is something I'll throw in there. Let's see, what would I say instead? Maybe to, let's say, exaggerate. We exaggerate a lot in English to make a point, to emphasize a point. So I could be like, oh, I don't get a moment's rest these days, or I don't have a moment free these days. Like no, that's not exactly true. It's an exaggeration, but it does convey that I'm super busy.

M: Rory, would you say that?

R: I wasn't thinking about that. Although, I like Jessica's alternatives because the only one I could think of was just being a busy bee, which is a slight paraphrase of the original.

M: I'm a busy bee.

R: I've heard that one before. I'm a busy bee.

J: That's adorable.

R: But then I hear people use expressions about insects all the time, like being a social butterfly and things like that. So it all kind of fits together for me.

J: You know what's crazy? Social butterflies need to visit wallflowers.

M: So if I am a social butterfly, I kind of what? What do I do? I visit different places, and socialize with people.

J: Yeah, social butterflies just, you're a classic extrovert, they're good at going and talking to lots of people. People want to talk to them, right? They're not like annoying people. A social butterfly usually like has a lot of friends and is outgoing. Whereas wallflowers, opposite of that, a wallflower goes to an event with a group of people and does not interact with anybody. Just like stays aside, like against a wall or something and is very shy.

R: Actually people often say, like look at you being a social butterfly. I want to say that it's British, but not for any particular reason other than it's cool. And I want to lay claim to it culturally. What do you think, Jessica?

J: It's all of ours, it's a universal idiom.

R: No, it's ours, I'm afraid.

J: Oh, okay, awesome. It's yours.

R: I've claimed it. I've claimed it now.
10. An apple a day keeps the doctor away
M: So let's wrap it up with an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

J: This like exhausted you already. I think they know our message.

M: Come on. Please tell me that nobody uses this.

R: Not in the full form.

J: Yeah, exactly. It's a half idiom, right? Yeah, you would still hear people say like, well, an apple a day. Honestly, like this is... When are apples such a part of our like, linguistic slang? Like, you know, What's that movie with Ben Affleck? Good Will Hunting. When he was like, how about them apples? That's become like a cliche. People say that. We love to talk about apples. I do hear people use this as talking like, just whatever's healthy. So, well, an apple a day. Like if you say, well, I'm really, I'm trying to eat better. I'm trying to have like, vegetables with every dinner not have meat and you're like, well, you know, an apple a day. It's just sort of like a comment on someone else talking about healthy habits.

M: Rory, could you give us an example with half the idiom?

R: I'm not very healthy. So I don't know if I'm very good at that.

M: Okay, okay. How about like... Let's talk about your university days. Like...

R: Let's not.

M: Did you keep fit?

R: Well, then in that case, it would be, well, despite what they say about an apple a day, I didn't go to the gym that much and spent a lot of my time eating pizza. So not very healthy.

J: You know, now that we're trying to come up with natural examples, I'm realizing like, we really do only use this to like joke. You know, like, I mean, we really don't use this to mean what it means that often. I think it's often like sarcastic like if... Oh, so here's a story. Okay, I got a good story here. So my mom is a dietician. So she knows all the health food science stuff, right? And she told my son that ice cream was very healthy because it has protein and calcium. So my son took that and ran with it. And he's like, well, grandma said ice cream is healthy. I should have it every day. An apple a day, mom. And it's just like, it's, you know, it's a joke type thing. So I think that was really the only time I would use it. Like to mean the opposite of what it actually means. You know what I mean?

M: Wow, dear listener, you see how confusing this is? So if you're not 200% sure, idioms, phrasal verbs. Jessica, you do have a course, right?

J: Yes, guys. So first, remember for free our podcast, IELTS Energy, follow it wherever you listen to podcasts. Check out the IELTS energy TV channel on YouTube. And we do have an IELTS course, guys, and it now comes with lifetime access and everyone gets personal feedback on speaking and writing on their final practice tests. So do check that out guys.

M: Thank you so much for being with us. Aw...

R: Thank you very much!

J: My pleasure, my pleasure. Have me on again, okay?

R: Yes, please.

M: Bye!

R: Bye!

J: Bye, guys!
Get exclusive episodes on IELTS Speaking parts 1, 2, and 3
Get exclusive episodes on IELTS Speaking parts 1, 2, and 3
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