Language structures: Idioms/Past tenses

An idiom is an expression that's formed by a group of words, with the meaning of the idiom being different to the meaning of each individual word within the idiom. For example:

a) She's over the moon! [She's very happy.]
b) I felt like a fish out of water. [I felt different from the rest.]

Top tip

Try to guess the meaning of idioms from the context. Also, where possible, "visualise" idioms as some actually represent an action that you might do in the circumstances or situation that the idiom is referring to.

For example:

a) I like to put my feet up after work. [to relax]
b) They're up in arms about the new holiday dates. [to be angry about something]

1. Guessing 

Read over the sentences. What do the idiomatic expressions in bold mean? Guess if you aren't sure!

1. Renting your flat to Jack would be a recipe for disaster. You know what he's like with food and money. 
2. I started off the competition well, but I messed up big style in round two and got all the questions wrong.
3. Our team started off well, but one of our players got sent off in the second half and then things just went from bad to worse. We ended up losing 10:2.
4. More bad weather like this could spell disaster for farmers across the country.
5. They still haven't repaired the railing around the balcony. It's an accident waiting to happen
6. I don't know how I managed to fix it, but I just did. It was more by accident than by design.
7. After the party, the house was a disaster area with dirty plates, cigarette butts and rubbish everywhere.

2. Idioms completion

Read the definitions. Then, complete the sentences with the correct words. Try to do it without referring back to the definitions.

Fall from grace
If a famous person "falls from grace", that person becomes less popular after doing something illegal / immoral / bad, etc.
Hit a home run
To be successful; to do something really well.
The key to success
The secret to someone's success / fame / popularity, etc.
Nothing succeeds like success.
If you have succeeded in the past, you will continue to be successful in the future.
Take the bull by the horns
To deal with a problem directly and without being afraid of it or trying to avoid it.
Seize an opportunity (with both hands)
To take advantage of an opportunity quickly, positively and enthusiastically.
Keep fighting till the very end
Not to stop until something has completely finished.
Think outside the box
To think imaginatively, using new ideas instead of traditional ones.
Be a piece of cake
Be very simple / easy.
Bite the bullet
To make yourself do something or accept something difficult or unpleasant.
Play to your strengths
To do the things that you're good at.

1. Sales were falling, so the owner took the bull by the _______ and replaced the managing director and brought in some new staff.
2. We need to think outside the _______ if we want to come up with a good idea.
3. Stop wasting time trying to learn new skills. In business, you need to play to your _________ .
4. After changing the fortunes of the company, everyone wanted to hire her. Nothing succeeds like ___________ .
5. After years of popularity, he finally fell from _________ after a string of films that bombed. 
6. They decided to bite the __________ and pay extra for the car they really wanted.
7. They ______________ the opportunity to invest in the company.
8. They hit a home __________ with their excellent perfomance in the new play.
9. The exam was a piece of ___________ .
10. Sally said that the __________ to her success was nothing less than hard work.
11. We can't give up now. We've got to keep fighting till the very _______ .

3. Website analysis

Read over the advice. Which advice do you like? Why? Then, try to complete the table without refering back to the text.

We asked a few successful people for their top tips on succeding in life.

You've got to seize opportunities before they slip away. I guess the hard part is recognising the potential of something when it comes your way. I also believe in working hard — nothing comes easily in this life it's up to you to make the most of what gets thrown your way. Sandra Smith. Net worth: $400 million.

I love the Nike slogan, "Just do it!" That really sums up my philosophy on life. You can't sit around at home forever making plans about what you're going to do — at some point you just have to bite the bullet, take the bull by the horns and get on with it.
Lilian Cualfield. Net worth: $500 million.

Aim high and don't shy away from difficult situations — that's my advice. Also, you've got to keep fit and healthy so you can stay on top of things. The world of business is tough, so in order to stay ahead of the game, you need to get up early, eat healthy food and do lots of exercise. It's the only way you'll ever be able to survive.
Sam Jenkins. Net worth: $700 million.

Follow your dreams, play to your strengths, keep on learning and never give up. If you mess up, simply go back to the drawing board. There's only one way to hit a home run — that's to practise, plan and prepare. There's no such thing in life as a lucky break! When things aren't working out, you need to stop, think and make adjustments. But if that still doesn't turn things around, you may have to make some hard decisions. There's no point in carrying on if things aren't going well. You have to reach a point where you say, hey, this isn't working — let's stop doing this and dedicate our time to something more worthwhile.
Bruce Saunders. Net worth: $200 million.


  Idiom Who said it Meaning
1. Stay on top of things    
2. Hit a home run    
3. Seize opportunities    
4. Play to your strengths    
5. Bite the bullet    
6. There's no point in    
7. Take the bull by the horns    
8. Follow your dreams    
9. Aim high    


4. Past tense review: table completion

Read over the sentences. Then, complete the table with the correct names of the tenses. Which ones are passives? What do we use each tense for?

  Sentence Tense
1. She went to work by bus. past simple
2. They were discussing the idea.  
3. She'd already seen the film.  
4. They'd been living there previously.  
5. We used to go there every year.  
6. She'd often take us to the pool on Sundays.  
7. She wasn't aware of the changes.  
8. They were given two hours to do it.  
9. She was being taken round the factory.  
10. I’d already been shown it before.  

5. Leaders matching

Write the name of a famous person from below next to each description. Then, answer the questions without referring back to the text.

Sharon Osbourne * Margaret Thatcher * Angela Merkel * Hillary Clinton * Christine Lagarde * Marissa Mayer

1. Born in Paris in 1956, this Frenchwoman originally worked as a lawyer. She’s the current Managing Director of the IMF. She got the job in July 2011 when the former head of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn stepped down. ______________

2. Born in London in 1952, she’s one of the world’s most successful businesswomen. Over the years, she’s been a talk show host, music manager and published author. She’s got three children and a net worth of approximately $40 million.

3. Born in 1975 in Wisconsin (USA), she’s a leading American businesswoman. She studied computer science at Stanford University and is an expert on artificial intelligence. She worked at Google for 14 years, before becoming the CEO of Yahoo!

4. This American politician and diplomat was the 67th United States Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, serving under President Barack Obama. In the 2008 election, she was a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. ________________

5. Born in Hamburg in 1954, this woman was the daughter of a Protestant pastor. She’s currently the first female Chancellor of Germany. In 2007, she became the second woman (after Margaret Thatcher) to chair the G8 Summit. _______________________

6. With her tough-talking rhetoric, which earned her the nickname “The Iron Lady”, this woman was Britain’s first female Prime Minister She served three consecutive terms in office._____________

Your turn!
Write about someone from your country who was famous many years ago. Why are they still remembered? What impact did they have? What legacy have they left?

6. Fluency practice

Answer the questions. Invent if necessary. Give details. Did you…

  • …get blamed for anything last year?
  • …take on any new projects last month?
  • …learn from any mistakes last month?
  • …achieve everything that you set out to do last month?
  • …develop any systems or new ways of doing things last year?
  • …have to inspire others in any way last year?
  • …have to defuse any hostile situations last month?

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