An idiom (also called idiomatic expression) is an expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning conventionally understood by native speakers. This meaning is different from the literal meaning of the idiom’s individual elements. In other words, idioms don’t mean exactly what the words say. They have, however, hidden meaning. 

For your IELTS Speaking test, idiomatic language can be important because it is one of the elements in this component of the test the examiner looks for.

Have an ace up one’s sleeve

Meaning 

Have an effective resource or piece of information kept hidden until it is necessary to use it; a secret advantage. 

Origin 

The ace, the card marked with a single pip, is the highest card in many card games, so a cheating player might well conceal one to use against an unsuspecting opponent. 

In a sentence 

Josephine, our school’s star sprinter, was the ace up our team’s sleeve.

Have people rolling in the aisles

Meaning 

Make an audience laugh uncontrollably. To be very amusing (informal). 

Origin 

It is based on the idea of uncontrollable laughter, causing people watching a show to fall on the floor in the aisles. (the long narrow spaces between rows of seats in a theatre) 

In a sentence 

Russell’s jokes had everyone rolling in the aisles.

All-singing, all-dancing

Meaning 

Technologically advanced, with every possible attribute, able to perform any necessary function. 

Origin 

Applied particularly in the area of computer technology, but ultimately driving from descriptions of show business acts. 

In a sentence 

We love the all-singing, all-dancing mobile phone that was launched today.

Up (or raise) the ante

Meaning 

Increase what is at stake or under discussion, especially in a conflict or dispute. 

Origin 

From the Latin ante ‘before’. As an English noun, it was originally a term in poker and similar gambling games, meaning ‘a stake put up by a player before drawing cards’. 

In a sentence 

We upped the ante another $5,000 for the house on the hill as we want it badly.

A rotten (or bad) apple

Meaning 

A bad person in the group, typically one whose behaviour is likely to have a corrupting/bad influence on the rest. 

Origin 

With reference to the fact that a rotten apple causes other fruit with which is it in contact to rot. 

In a sentence 

Despite the occasional bad apple, I enjoy working with our regional sales team.

Upset the apple cart

Meaning 

Spoil an advantageous project or disturb the status quo. 

Origin 

Apple cart as a metaphor for a satisfactory but possible risky state of affairs is recorded in various expressions from late 18th century onward. 

In a sentence 

If there’s another top management resignation next week, it could really upset the apple cart. 

Argue the toss

Meaning 

Dispute a decision or choice already made. 

Origin 

Toss is the tossing of a coin to decide an issue in a simple and definite way according to the side of the coin visible when it lands. 

In a sentence 

I agree with the CEO’s decision, although some employees will argue the toss.

Alive and well

Meaning 

Still existing and active. 

Origin 

Often used to deny rumours or beliefs that something has disappeared or declined. 

In a sentence 

Many may disagree but chivalry is still alive and well in Melbourne. 

Rise from the ashes

Meaning 

Be renewed after destruction. 

Origin 

In classical myth, the phoenix was a fabulous bird which, when it became old, sacrificed itself upon a funeral pyre and was born again from the ashes with renewed youth. 

In a sentence 

With the failing economy, there are serious doubts that the company shares can rise from the ashes. 

Have an axe to grind

Meaning 

Have a (private, sometimes damaging) motive for doing or being involved with something. 

Origin 

The expression originated in a story told by Benjamin Franklin and was used first in the US. Especially with reference to politics, but now generally. Often in negative. 

In a sentence 

The people attempting to destroy the evidence definitely have an axe to grind. 

Source: Oxford Dictionary of Idiomsexternal iconThe Free Dictionaryexternal icon 

Learn idiomatic expressions for IELTS

The Speaking test in IELTS is just like a conversation that you would have in everyday life. You may notice many native English speakers use idioms in everyday speech. If you want a higher score for your IELTS Speaking test, you should include some idioms (and use them correctly). In our next Idioms A-Z post, you can learn some more most common idioms in English.