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Academic Idioms In the long run bear in mind a fair share

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Although it is often assumed that idioms are too informal for use in academic English, two studies have identified idioms which occur fairly frequently in spoken and written academic English.

This page describes idioms in academic English, giving information on what an idiom is, why academic idioms should be studied, as well as a list of academic idioms for spoken and written English from a recent study of idioms (Miller, 2019), giving first background to the creation of the list and finally the list itself.

There are also some exercises to help you practise using academic idioms.

infog For a different look at the some of the idioms, check out the academic idioms infographics ».

What is an idiom?


For another look at the same content, check out the video on YouTube (also available on Youku). There is a worksheet (with answers and teacher's notes) for this video.

An idiom is a fixed, well-established, multi-word expression, the meaning of which is not deducible from the individual words. The following are some examples of idioms in everyday (not academic) English.

  • Raining cats and dogs - raining very hard
  • Break a leg - said before a performance, meaning 'good luck'
  • Behind one's back - secretly

The following are some examples of idioms for academic English use (a complete list is given below).

  • On the other hand - from another point of view (showing contrast)
  • Bear in mind - think of something, especially as a warning
  • The bottom line - the main or essential point
  • Take on board - accept or deal with (a problem or idea)

Why study academic idioms?

Idioms are common in everyday spoken and written English. Although it is often assumed that idioms are too informal for use in academic English, two studies (Simpson and Mendis, 2003, and Miller, 2019) have identified idioms which are used in academic contexts, more commonly in spoken academic contexts though also in academic writing. In Miller's study, idioms in spoken academic texts, including repetitions, occurred with a frequency of 835 per million words, or close to 0.1%. While this figure is not as high as, say, words in the Academic Word List (10%) or the Academic Collocation List (1.4%), productive knowledge of idioms will assist students in becoming part of the academic discourse community, while receptive knowledge will aid them in understanding spoken or written texts.

Miller reports that idioms may sometimes be signposted by lecturers (e.g. via the phrase as it were) or writers (e.g. via the phrase as they say or by use of quotation marks). However, these methods do not always signal idiom use, do not help students to understand the meaning of idioms, and in fact add a layer of complexity to academic English study (in terms of what as it were and as they say mean and why quotation marks are used in that way).

Academic Idioms List: background to the list

The list of academic idioms (below) comes from the study by Julia Miller (2019), which used two academic English corpuses: the British Academic Spoken English (BASE) corpus for spoken texts (lectures and seminars), and the Oxford Corpus of Academic English (OCAE) for written texts. Only idioms with a frequency of more than 1.2 per million words (pmw) in the BASE were included.

The range of idiom use is shown by the number of texts in which each idiom occurs, as well as the number of faculties (i.e. disciplinary groups) it occurs in. Miller's study used four such faculties, namely Social Sciences (which had the highest idiom use with 234 pmw), Arts and Humanities (which had 191 idioms pmw), Life and Medical Sciences (183 pmw), and Physical Sciences (which had the least frequent use, 76 pmw).

Most idioms in the list occur in more than one faculty, meaning they are suitable for study by all students of academic English. The most frequent idiom used in only one faculty, gold standard (24th most frequent idiom in spoken academic English and 10th most frequent in written academic English), was used only in the Life Sciences (medical articles).


Miller, J. (2019) 'The bottom line: Are idioms used in English academic speech and writing?', Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 43 (2020) 100810. Available online at:

Simpson, R., and Mendis, D. (2003) 'A corpus-based study of idioms in academic speech', Tesol Quarterly, 37(3), 419e441. Available online at:


Academic Idioms List: Spoken

The list below gives spoken academic idioms from the BASE (British Academic Spoken English) corpus, listed in order of frequency. There are 170 idioms in total. There is a separate version of 38 idioms for written academic English (use the button below to switch lists). Definitions are included for all idioms. [Note: Sp freq pmw means spoken frequency per million words while Wr freq pmw refers to written frequency per million words.]

Spoken idioms

No. Idiom Definition Sp freq pmw (BASE) Wr freq pmw (OCAE) No. texts No. faculties
1on the other handadv (contrastive) from another point of view. [Syn: then again, but then] 64.1188.12304
2bear in mindverb (1) keep in mind. [Syn: mind] (2) think of something, especially as a warning. 46.7310.17424
3on the one handadv from one point of view. [Syn: on one hand] 37.7431.87304
4at the end of the dayadv taking everything into consideration. 14.981.36134
5the balance of powernoun an equilibrium of power between nations. 10.786.2082
6on the other [hand]adv (contrastive) from another point of view. [Syn: then again, but then] 10.1920.34123
7the bottom linenoun the main or essential point. 8.392.5084
8take on boardverb to understand or accept or deal with an idea. 7.790.00134
9by and largeadv usually; as a rule. [Syn: generally, more often than not, mostly] 7.190.04124
10a step further/backnoun action that will be helpful/harmful to a situation. 7.196.21124
11take for grantedverb (1) take to be the case or to be true; accept without verification or proof. [Syn: assume, presume] (2) value too lightly. 7.190.0193
12in the hands ofadv controlled or owned by someone. 6.5912.54103
13along the lines ofadv in a similar way or of a similar type. 6.599.2493
14in its own rightadv because of its own special qualities. 5.999.27104
15across the boardadv including or applying to all. 5.991.2173
16at the back of one's mindadv in the part of one's mind where memories are kept but not usually thought about. 5.990.3042
17sit on the fenceverb to be unwilling or unable to make a decision. 5.990.1222
18in the long runadv after a very lengthy period of time. [Syn: in the end] 5.397.8494
19bad newsnoun someone or something that is undesirable or dangerous. 5.392.7584
20driving forcenoun someone or something that makes something happen. 5.396.2184
21on the face of itadv from appearances alone. [Syn: apparently, seemingly, ostensibly] 5.392.5784
22in (the) light ofadv in view of, because of, considering. 5.3934.9983
23come into playverb begin to be used or begin to have an effect. 5.394.2683
24gold standardnoun (1) a monetary standard under which the basic unit of currency is defined by a stated quantity of gold. (2) a paragon of excellence. 5.396.6661
25what on earthadj used to show surprise, confusion, or anger (at what has happened or is happening). 4.790.1773
26go without sayingverb to be so obvious that it does not need explanation. 4.791.8562
27trial and errornoun experimenting until a solution is found. 4.791.8553
28down the lineadv in the future. 4.190.0873
29over the topadj too extreme, or demanding too much attention. 4.190.0563
30state of the artnoun the highest degree of development of an art or technique at a particular time. 4.191.3642
31the man/woman in the streetnoun an average person whose opinions are considered to be representative of most people. 4.190.2833
32stepping stonenoun (1) a stone in a marsh or shallow water that can be stepped on in crossing. (2) any means of advancement. 4.190.6621
33from scratchadv from the beginning. 3.591.8663
34bridge the gapverb to connect two things or make the difference between them smaller. 3.591.8563
35the big picturenoun the whole story or idea. 3.591.3063
36in the early daysnoun an early period of development. [Syn: youth] 3.592.3354
37get one's head (a) roundverb to understand something (often used in the negative). 3.590.0254
38go hand in hand withverb be closely related to or happening at the same tim. 3.592.6853
39keep an eye onverb follow with the eyes or the mind. [Syn: watch, observe, follow, watch over] 3.590.7853
40hang on a minuteverb used to tell someone to wait for a brief time. 3.590.0452
41on the spotadv (1) without delay or immediately. (2) in a difficult situation. (3) at the place in question; there. 3.590.8444
42get to grips withverb deal with (a problem or a subject). [Syn: come to grips] 3.591.7843
43go through the roofverb (1) to rise to a very high level. (2) to react angrily. 3.590.0642
44full circleadv returning to the original place, source, or state after a cycle of developments (esp. in the phrase to come full circle). 3.000.5453
45that's another storynoun used for something that you do not want to give more detail about at this time. 3.000.2753
46how on earthadv use to show surprise, confusion, or anger (at how something happened or is happening). 3.000.0853
47cast one's mind backverb to try to remember. 3.000.0453
48last resortnoun (1) French for `worst going'. [Syn: pis aller] (2) the only choice that remains after all others hand been tried. 3.004.0552
49the other side of the coinnoun a different way of considering a situation (either better or worse). 3.000.5452
50ring a bellverb to sound familiar. 3.000.1551
51good old daysnoun a time in the past when life seemed to be much better. 3.000.2743
52grey areanoun an intermediate area; a topic that is not clearly one thing or the other. [Syn: gray area] 3.000.6042
53out of the blueadj not anticipated. [Syn: unanticipated, unforeseen, unlooked-for] adv in a way that was not expected. [Syn: unexpectedly] 3.000.0533
54golden agenoun (1) a time period when some activity or skill was at its peak. (2) any period (sometimes imaginary) of great peace and prosperity and happiness. (3) (classical mythology) the first and best age of the world, a time of ideal happiness, prosperity, and innocence; by extension, any flourishing and outstanding period. [Syn: Golden Age] 3.002.9632
55touchy-feelyadj (often derogatory) openly expressing love and affection (especially through physical contact). 3.000.0531
56in the short runadv over a relatively brief period of time (often used in contrast with the long run) . 3.004.1922
57spring to mindverb be remembered. [Syn: come to mind] 2.400.3143
58on the right trackadv doing something in a way that is likely to lead to success. 2.400.2843
59have a stab atverb to try to do something, though you are unlikely to be successful. 2.400.2543
60get the pictureverb get the meaning of something. [Syn: comprehend, savvy, dig, grasp, compass, apprehend] 2.400.0843
61the high pointnoun the best or most enjoyable part of a given experience. 2.401.5242
62it's early daysnoun to be too soon to make a judgement about something because there is still a lot of time for things to change. 2.400.0142
63the whole storynoun all the facts. 2.401.4133
64do the jobverb to serve a particular purpose (though it may not be the best thing to use). 2.400.6333
65move the goalpostsverb to change the rules during an activity to make it more difficult for other people involved. 2.400.0833
66behind the scenesadv happening without people knowing it, especially when something else is happening publicly. 2.401.3632
67in the pipelineadj in progress. 2.400.3132
68on the back burneradj having low priority. 2.400.1132
69bog standardadj having no special or interesting qualities. 2.400.0232
70out of one's handsadj not in someone's control. 2.400.0032
71call the cavalryverb request back-up or a special team to solve a problem. 2.400.0032
72beg the questionverb (1) to cause someone to ask a particular question. (2) to talk about something as if it were true, even though it may not be. 2.402.1822
73get something straightverb to understand what is true. 2.400.0522
74play ballverb to agree to work with someone in the way they want. 2.400.0521
75boil down toverb (1) be the essential element. [Syn: reduce, come down] (2) be cooked until very little liquid is left. [Syn: reduce, decoct, concentrate] (3) cook until very little liquid is left. [Syn: reduce, concentrate] 1.801.1333
76in storeadj in readiness; awaiting. 1.800.3433
77make up one's own mindverb to make a decision about something. 1.800.2033
78have up one's sleeveverb to have a secret plan or idea that can be used when needed. 1.800.1233
79go down that routeverb to pursue a particular course of action (often negative). 1.800.0933
80get one's act togetherverb to organise oneself in order to do things in a more effective way. 1.800.0833
81on one handadv from one point of view. [Syn: on the one hand] 1.802.5832
82overall picturenoun a complete view of a subject. 1.801.1432
83golden rulenoun (1) any important rule. (2) a command based on Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount. [Syn: Golden Rule] 1.801.0532
84have a life of its ownverb to move or function without a person touching it. 1.800.8932
85turn something on its headverb to cause something to be the opposite of what it was before. 1.800.7632
86fall into placeverb become clear or enter one's consciousness or emotions. [Syn: click, get through, dawn, come home, get across, sink in, penetrate] 1.800.3032
87so far so goodadj used for an activity that has gone well up to now. 1.800.2332
88on one's handsadj imposed on someone (a responsibility). 1.800.1132
89in the same boatadj in the same difficult situation as others. 1.800.0932
90take home messagenoun the main piece of information that is learnt from something. 1.800.1131
91joe publicnoun the general public. 1.800.0431
92kicking and screamingadj used to describe someone who has been forced to go somewhere or do something, despite much protest. 1.800.0231
93rule of thumbnoun a rule or principle that provides guidance to appropriate behavior. [Syn: guidepost, guideline] 1.202.9822
94hot spotsnoun (1) a place of political unrest and potential violence. [Syn: hotspot] (2) a point of intense heat or radiation. [Syn: hotspot] (3) a lively entertainment spot. [Syn: hotspot] 1.800.9422
95ring trueverb to seem to be true. 1.800.3022
96put your finger onverb to recognise the reason behind a situation (especially when something is wrong). 1.800.2422
97get a handle onverb to have an understanding of something. 1.800.2122
98shut up shopverb to end an activity (especially business activity). 1.800.0122
99set something in stoneverb to be permanent or very difficult to change. 1.800.1221
100swings and roundaboutsnoun a situation in which the positive and negatives balance each other. 1.800.0221
101go in one ear and out the otherverb to quickly forget something. 1.800.0021
102in a nutshelladv summed up briefly. 1.201.1722
103fall foul ofverb to break a rule or law without intending to. 1.201.1522
104set the sceneverb (1) to describe a situation that is about to happen. (2) to make something likely to happen later. 1.201.1522
105have the upper handverb to have a position of advantage and control. 1.200.8822
106on the sideadv without official authorization. [Syn: unofficially] 1.200.8422
107make up one's mindverb to decide. 1.200.7622
108fly in the face ofverb go against. [Syn: fly in the teeth of] 1.200.7122
109get carried awayverb to become so excited that you cannot control what you do or say. 1.200.6522
110moot pointnoun a fact or claim that does not matter. 1.200.4722
111someone's bread and butternoun the job someone does to earn an income. 1.200.3822
112stand to reasonverb to be the logical conclusion. 1.200.3822
113devil's advocatenoun someone who pretends to be against a plan or idea in order to get others to discuss it in more detail. 1.200.3722
114get one's message acrossverb to make someone understand. 1.200.3022
115deliver the goodsverb attain success or reach a desired goal. [Syn: succeed, win, come through, bring home the bacon] 1.200.2322
116a bad pressnoun to be criticised (especially in the media). 1.200.1922
117the powers that benoun important people who have power or control over others. 1.200.1822
118set foot inverb to enter (a location). 1.200.1422
119happily ever afteradv used to suggest that things will work out perfectly in future. 1.200.1122
120shift gearsverb to suddenly change what you are doing or discussing. 1.200.1122
121get down to the nitty grittyverb to focus on the most important aspects of a situation. 1.200.0922
122in one's sightsadj the focus of someone's attention and desire for possession. 1.200.0822
123brain powernoun intelligence, ability to think. 1.200.0722
124not to mince one's wordsverb not to soften the effect of one's words. 1.200.0622
125throw somebody in at the deep endverb to make somebody do something new and difficult without help or preparation. 1.200.0622
126cover one's basesverb to make sure something is successful by trying to anticipate and deal with all problems first. 1.200.0622
127weird and wonderfuladj have unusual appearance or design. 1.200.0622
128cast an eye oververb to take a quick look at something. 1.200.0622
129above one's stationadj higher than is suitable according to a person's position or rank. 1.200.0522
130have a goverb make an attempt at something. [Syn: give it a try] 1.200.0222
131in the same ballparkadj of a similar amount or cost. 1.200.0222
132pat on the backnoun praise for something well done. verb to praise someone for something well done. 1.200.0222
133sit on one's handsverb to do nothing about a problem that needs dealing with. 1.200.0222
134throw up one's handsverb to give up, especially in frustration. 1.200.0222
135watch this spaceverb to pay attention, as something will happen soon. 1.200.0222
136go down the road ofverb to follow a similar course of action to (somebody/something). 1.200.0122
137this that and the othernoun a lot of different, varying things. 1.200.0122
138get crackingverb start to be active. [Syn: bestir oneself, get going, get moving, get weaving, get started, get rolling] 1.200.0122
139give someone a shoutverb to contact someone to alert them to something. 1.200.0122
140have a crack atverb to attempt something. 1.200.0122
141not to put too fine a point on itverb to be completely direct. 1.200.0122
142give the game awayverb to spoil a surprise by giving away something secret. 1.200.0122
143beat/get the hell out of somethingverb to defeat decisively (beat the hell out of), to leave as quickly as possible (get the hell out of). 1.200.0022
144get a move onverb to move or work faster, to hurry. 1.200.0022
145get one's thoughts togetherverb to organise one's thoughts, especially to regain one's calm. 1.200.0022
146hand on heartadv giving assurance that what one is saying is completely truthful. 1.200.0022
147quote somebody on somethingverb tell other people that someone said something. 1.200.0022
148put one's head above the parapetverb to take a risk (by saying something that may receive an unfavourable response). 1.200.0022
149a fair sharenoun a reasonable amount. 1.201.5521
150to say the leastverb to put it mildly (used to indicate that what you have described is much more serious than suggested). 1.201.1021
151grass roots movementnoun an organized effort made by ordinary individuals, not leaders. 1.200.6521
152pick and chooseverb to only take things you want. 1.200.4721
153sow seeds of thoughtverb to cause someone to think about something (in the future). 1.200.3721
154at loggerheadsadj in a dispute or confrontation. 1.200.2421
155drag one's feetverb to do something slowly (or not start to do it) because you do not want to do it. 1.200.2121
156in the driving seatadj in control of a situation. 1.200.1721
157go back to square oneverb to start a new course of action from the beginning because the original course failed. 1.200.0821
158set in tablets of stoneverb to be very difficult or impossible to change. 1.200.0721
159dear to one's heartadj personally important. 1.200.0621
160off the top of one's headadv from memory. 1.200.0521
161end of storynoun said when you think your opinion is correct and there is no other way of thinking about it . 1.200.0521
162in a rutadj fixed in a particular job or activity and needing a change. 1.200.0421
163tick the boxesverb to satisfy everything that is required. 1.200.0421
164round robinnoun (1) a tournament in which every contestant plays every other contestant. (2) a letter signed by a number of people. 1.200.0221
165dig one's heels inverb to refuse to change your idea, especially when someone is trying to persuade you to change. 1.200.0221
166stretch one's legsverb to go for a walk. 1.200.0221
167get someone on boardverb to get someone's support. 1.200.0021
168on that noteadv used to transition from one topic to the next. 1.200.0021
169tail end Charlienoun a person at the rear of a formation. 1.200.0021
170jump up and downverb to make a great display of emotion (especially anger or excitement). 1.200.0021



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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 16 November 2022.

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