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What is an Idiom?

What is an idiom?What is an idiom? An idiom is an expression, sometimes colorful, that conveys an idea that is different from its literal word-for-word meaning. Idioms are insider phrases that native speakers use and understand, often without even realizing that the phrases are idioms. Because idioms come so naturally to native speakers, non-native speakers are sometimes inadvertently “left in the dark” (an idiom meaning “excluded from understanding”) when an idiom is used. The non-native speakers may then ask themselves, “We know what was said, but what did it actually mean?” To illustrate the confusion that idioms can cause, consider the following paragraph full of idioms (in italics) that might be difficult for a non-native speaker to understand:

I was asked yesterday to write off the top of my head a paragraph about metaphors. I felt out of my depth and wasn’t sure that I was up to the task. I decided to sleep on it before trying my hand at the project. It would have been a piece of cake if I could have bounced ideas off of someone else, but it was ultimately up to me to fly by the seat of my pants and give the project my best shot.

Idioms can have their origins in past cultural experiences or they may exist as snippets of literary works. Connections to these origins are often long forgotten, but expressions continue to be repeated as time passes, ultimately surviving as idioms in our current everyday speech. Every language has its idioms, and it is interesting to compare how the same idea might be idiomatically expressed in different languages. For example, the English idiom to express utter confusion about something is, “it’s Greek to me,” whereas the eastern European idiom for the same idea is, “it is a Spanish village to me.”

Unfortunately, the only way to learn idioms in any language is to memorize them one by one, preferably after encountering each in the teachable moment when they are first heard. Knowing how to use a language’s idioms, in a nutshell ("in summary"), is an important English skill. Just make sure that when you choose which idioms to learn, you "separate the wheat from the chaff" (an idiom meaning, “separate the good ones from the bad ones.”)

To learn more idioms, click on our "List of English idioms".

List of English Idioms

Here is a list of English idioms and their meanings. If you don't know what an idiom is, please read our "What is an idiom?" article.

All bets are off - There can be no predicting what will happen

Beating a dead horse - Continuing to talk about a subject that has already been overly discussed

Bounce ideas off (someone) - Share ideas (with someone for their response)

Come again? - What did you say?

Come around(someone) - Eventually agree

English Idioms - The coast is clear

Drop me a line - Write (or email) me

Feel free - Do as you want (with or about something)

Fly by the seat of one’s pants - Improvise as you go

Get over it - Stop being unhappy about something

Give it your best shot - Do your best

Hop in (a car) - Get in

Hop on (a bus, train, or subway) - Get on

I give you my word - I promise

It’s Greek to me - It’s unintelligible to me

It’s not a big deal - It’s not that important

It’s up to me (or anyone else) - It will be my responsibility

Jump in at any time - Contribute your opinion or input to this conversation

Off the top of my head - As I can recall or think of at this time

On the other hand... - An alternative would be...

Out of my depth - Outside my area of expertise

Out of your mind - Crazy

Sleep on it - Think about it until tomorrow

Sweating the small stuff - Worrying too much about unimportant details

There is no telling... - It is impossible to predict...

Think out of the box - Imagine ideas or methods never tried before

This is on me (when paying) - I will pay the bill

Try my hand - Try it for yourself (perhaps for the first time)

Up for grabs - Available to anyone

Up in arms - Angry

What’s up? - How are you? (informally)

Who cares? - This is unimportant.

Who knows? - Nobody can say for sure

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How to Order Coffee at Starbucks

How to order coffee at Starbucks

Learning how to order coffee at Starbucks can be tricky, and if you think that ordering coffee at Starbucks is confusing, you are not alone. Starbucks is often a very busy place, and things move quickly as the baristas (their employees) try to serve customers as efficiently as possible. Orders are generally taken at one of the cash registers, although someone might offer to “get your drink order started” before you even reach the front of the line. You will be asked for your first name, which you should state clearly. Your name will immediately be written on your drink cup and called out later at the “Pick Up” end of the counter when your drink is ready. Don’t be offended if they spell your name incorrectly; they often misspell native speakers’ names as well! People who have unique or hard-to-spell names will sometimes use an easy "Starbucks" name when ordering, like Mike or Amy.

Starbucks’ ordering process is made complicated by the fact that they use terms to describe drink size that are not used by other coffee vendors. Their terms for size are, from smallest to largest: Tall, Grande, Venti, and (for some cold drinks) Trenta although if you order a small, medium, large, or extra-large drink, they will still understand you.

Ordering Basic Coffee

For ordering basic coffee, beyond specifying the size you want, you will need to tell the server whether you want regular or decaffeinated coffee. If you do not say decaf, they will assume that you want regular. If you intend to add cream or milk to your coffee, say with room for cream, or simply, with room. Some servers automatically leave room; if you want a full cup, say no room. The basic coffee served is a medium roast coffee called Pike Place, but Starbucks offers other varieties as well. Read the list of roasts above the counter ahead of time, because they may not ask you which you would like. Finally, if you are very particular about the freshness of your coffee, you can ask before you order, “When was the coffee brewed?” If it has been a long while, they may offer to make a fresh batch; you will have to wait a few minutes for this new batch to brew. Once you have your coffee, you will find milk, cream (marked “half and half”), and sweeteners on a nearby counter.

When you order, say the size you want first, then give the name of the drink, and finally add the special instructions last.

Example basic coffee order:
"I would like a tall decaf coffee with room."

Ordering Specialty Hot Coffee Drinks

There are several specialty hot coffee drinks available at Starbucks, including espressos, lattes, cappuccinos, and macchiatos. The last three of these can be customized according to the fat content of the milk and the number of shots of espresso used, and whether or not they contain caffeine. Specify the milk fat content by saying whole, low fat (2%), or skinny (non-fat). Customize how much espresso is used in your drink by asking for a single, double, or tripple shot. Tall drinks are typically made with one shot, and grande and venti sizes are typically made with two shots. So, if you ask for one of these drinks without making any specifications, your drink will be likely made with whole milk and the typical shot of espresso containing caffeine.

Example specialty hot coffee drink order:
"I would like a tall skinny latte with a double shot."

Ordering a Frappuccino®:

Starbucks offers a number of their own blended cold coffee drinks, which they call Frappuccinos®. Any of these flavored specially drinks can be customized in the same ways as the specialty hot coffee drinks. Be aware, however, that Starbucks adds the word “light” to the name of the cold drinks that are made with non-fat milk, e.g. “Caramel Frappuccino® Light.” See the sign above the serving counter for a list of the varieties that are offered.

Example Frappuccino® order:
"I would like a grande decaf Mocha Frappuccino® Light."

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