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Academic Idioms

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.

What is an idiom?


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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 Collocations 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) corpus for written texts. Only idioms with a frequency of more than 1.2 per million words (pmw) in the BASE are 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).

Academic Idioms List: Written

The list below gives written academic idioms from the OCAE (Oxford Corpus of Academic English) corpus, listed in order of frequency. There are 38 idioms in total. There is a separate version of 170 idioms for spoken academic English (use the button above the table). Hyperlinks of definitions are included for some of the idioms.

Written idioms

Number Idiom Spoken frequency per million words (BASE) Written frequency per million words (OCAE) Number of texts in which the idiom occurs  Number of faculties in which the idiom occurs 
1on the other hand64.1188.12304
2in (the) light of5.3934.9983
3on the one hand37.7431.87304
4on the other [hand]10.1920.34123
5in the hands of6.5912.54103
6bear in mind46.7310.17424
7in its own right5.999.27104
8along the lines of6.599.2493
9in the long run5.397.8494
10gold standard5.396.6661
11a step further/back7.196.21124
12driving force5.396.2184
13the balance of power10.786.2082
14come into play5.394.2683
15in the short run3.004.1922
16last resort3.004.0552
17rule of thumb1.202.9822
18golden age3.002.9632
19bad news5.392.7584
20go hand in hand with3.592.6853
21on one hand1.802.5832
22on the face of it5.392.5784
23the bottom line8.392.5084
24in the early days3.592.3354
25beg the question2.402.1822
26from scratch3.591.8663
27go without saying4.791.8562
28trial and error4.791.8553
29bridge the gap3.591.8563
30get to grips with3.591.7843
31a fair share1.201.5521
32the high point2.401.5242
33the whole story2.401.4133
34at the end of the day14.981.36134
35state of the art4.191.3642
36behind the scenes2.401.3632
37the big picture3.591.3063
38across the board5.991.2173


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:


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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 05 June 2021.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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