10 Important English Expressions to Learn for Expats Living in the U.S.


10 Important English Expressions to Learn for Expats Living in the U.S. 

Guest Post by Austin Bay

People’s attitudes and beliefs within a country shape the culture and language. Americans use English to express their ideas in a way that’s unique from other English-speaking countries like the United Kingdom or even Canada. If you’re an expat living in the U.S., then using familiar English words and phrases is useful because it makes whoever you’re talking to feel comfortable and shows your command of the language.

An idiomatic expression, which is informal English where the statement means something different than the literal statement, is used in ways that are uniquely American. If you’ve ever heard someone say across the board or all kidding aside, then you’ve heard one of these expressions.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you have trouble understanding some of these idioms when you first move to the U.S. To help you adjust to the language we created a list for you to try out on your friends and coworkers. If you can master list this, then you’re already ahead of most people.

By the book

Everyone has that friend who feels compelled to follow the rules. In American English, by the book, might be used to suggest that a person is or a group of people are following the rules.

Example: The soccer team played by the book, but their competitors were too talented to lose.

Ace in the hole

This refers to a particular way of winning an argument or conflict unexpectedly. Originating from a game of cards, this idiomatic expression suggests that someone has a secret tool that will help them win over someone else.

Example: Our best player is out this weekend but he’s coming back next week. She’s our ace in the hole.

Speak one’s mind

Americans have a particular way of expressing their ideas, opinions, and feelings. To speak one’s mind is to tell someone directly how you think or feel.

Example: John wasn’t afraid to tell the teacher about how much he disliked the homework assignment. He’s never been afraid of speaking his mind.

Heart to heart

Every culture has a way of communicating to one another that they’d like to have a serious conversation. After moving to the U.S., you’ll hear people say they need to have a heart to heart conversation with you if they need to have a serious discussion.

Example: I needed to tell my boyfriend that I’m moving across the country, so I asked him to sit down with me for a heart to heart.

Give someone a hard time

American idiomatic expressions can be used with a serious or sarcastic tone. If someone seriously says you’re giving them a hard time, then it means you’re being unnecessarily difficult. A lot of people use this phrase after they tell a sarcastic joke about someone as well.

Example: The customer was giving the cashier a hard time and ended up walking out of the market without purchasing his groceries.

Bite off more than you can chew

Since success is at the heart of American culture, you might find that people feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities. When someone has more work then they can finish, this means they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.

Example: Tom took on too many clients and didn’t respond for a whole month. Lately, he’s been biting off more than he can chew.

More than meets the eye

If you want to describe a person or situation to which there is more than just an appearance, then you’ll want to use the phrase: more than meets the eye. This could be used to describe someone who has a charming personality or a building with an unexpectedly beautiful interior.

Example: He is quiet when you first meet him, but there is more than meets the eye.

Clam up

Especially if you recently moved to the United States, you might feel shy in certain social situations. You guessed it, there’s an American English expression for that, it’s called clamming up. If you clam up in front of a person or group of people then you are quiet and not able to say anything because of your nerves.

Example: In the middle of his presentation, the student clammed up before he could finish.

Water under the bridge

After experiencing something unpleasant, chances are you’ll want to put the memory behind you. Americans have an expression for when something unpleasant is in the past and they’re moving on with their lives: water under the bridge.

Example: My best friend forgot to pick me up from the airport, but we’ve been friends for a long time so it’s water under the bridge at this point.

Live and let live

Idiomatic expressions are not only used to describe a specific situation, but they can also be used to describe an overall attitude. Live and let live is a common American English expression to show that as long as people are kind to others then you believe their lives should be lived without interference.

Example: We promised not to get involved with other people’s affairs, because our attitude is to live and let live.

You can try using these American idiomatic expressions when writing or when speaking with someone close to you. We recommend trying them out with someone you know, so you learn how and when to use them!

Austin Bay is a writer who graduated from Boston University with his B.A. in International Relations. He can be found nerd-ing out over his favorite English words and phrases on LinguaLinkDC.

[Image courtesy of iStock]

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