English Phrases to Describe Situations

to have the run of the place

To be allowed to go wherever you want in a certain area.

“You guys will have the run of this place on Tuesday. Nobody will be here because of the holiday.”

to be packed

To have a lot of people in one area.

“The grocery store was packed yesterday because of the holiday.

in the nick of time

To have something happen at the last possible moment.

“We arrived at the gate in the nick of time. The plane was just about to take off.”

a bump in the road

A small problem that slows you down for a little bit.

“Getting sick last month was just a bump in the road. It didn’t stop me from starting my new business.”

a vote of confidence

A show of approval to a person or a group.

“It was a vote of confidence when my boss gave me a huge raise.”

To do something in vain

To waste your effort on something that was never going to turn out the way you wanted it to.

“My attempts to help her with learning English were all in vain. She never even wanted to learn the language.”

To cut it close

To come very close to having a bad outcome occur.

“I turned my paper into the professor one minute before it was due. I really cut it close.”

To reach a boiling point

When a situation gets so bad that an action has to happen.

“My sister’s son has been really bad lately. The situation reached a boiling point yesterday when he hit his sister in the face. She is going to take him to a psychologist

To sugarcoat something

To make something seem better than it really is.

“The teacher doesn’t sugarcoat the bad news. He told us we all failed the test and we are not smart.”

Occupational hazard

A danger that is common in a certain job.

“Policemen often get into car wrecks. It is an occupational hazard.”

A sugar buzz

This describes the feeling one gets after eating a lot of sugar. People feel energetic.

“Don’t give my son any candy. He is really bad when he is on a sugar buzz.”

An oldie but a goodie

Something that is old, but is still considered good.

“This song is from 1951, but I still like it. It is an oldie but a goodie.”

To lay it on the line.

To risk everything in the hopes of achieving your goal.

“I had to lay everything on the line to start that new business.”

To be on a roll

To be having a period of success or good luck

“I sold three cars today and two yesterday. I am on a roll! It’s been a good week.”

To be itching to do something

To have a strong desire to do something

“I have been itching to try out that new ice cream place. Let’s go!”

To fold

To change your mind after receiving pressure from a person or people

“Keep asking dad if we can borrow the car tonight. He will eventually fold and say yes!”

To settle down with somebody

To be in a committed relationship with someone

“My brother has settled down with a girl he met at church. He no longer has a new girlfriend every week.”

To hang on by a thread

To be extremely close to having something bad happen to you.

“He is very close to losing his job. At this point he is just hanging on by a thread. The boss is looking for reasons to fire him.”

Out of this world

An expression that describes something amazing or great.

“The dinner they served at the reception was out of this world. I’ve never had a better meal.”

A rat race

A situation where everyone is hurrying and competing to do better than his or her co-workers.

“I’m sick of this rat race here at my job. I want to move to a small town and work at a simple job.”

To play it by ear

To wait to see what the situation is in reality before making a decision on a future event.

“I’m not sure if we are going to go to the party. My daughter may still be sick. We will play it by ear and make a decision that day.”

To hang in there

To deal with a tough problem without giving up.

“I know you had a tough week at work. Just hang in there. The weekend is coming soon!”

To stay in the mix

To stay involved

“I don’t work for that business anymore, but I like to stay in the mix. I still show up once in a while to help out and see my old frieds.”

To blow it

To make a bad mistake and ruin things.

“I almost sold the house, but I blew it. I forgot to call the buyers back and they bought another house last weekend.”

To overstay your welcome

To stay longer than you are supposed to stay.

“My brother and his four annoying kids stayed for a week at my house. They overstayed their welocme. They were supposed to only stay for three days.”

To face the music

To acknowledge that you have done something wrong and to try to do the right thing about it.

“It is time to face the music. I have to tell my parents why I was out all night.”

To rock the boat

To make people uncomfortable.

“I wouldn’t make those changes in the office. You are new and you don’t want to rock the boat. People will resent you for it.”

To be as dry as a bone

To be extremely dry.

“It hasn’t rained in Texas for three months. It is as dry as a bone here.”

To take one for the team

To go through some pain or discomfort for the benefit of the group as a whole.

“At work I had a customer yell at me for something I didn’t do. It was my co worker Bob who messed up her order, not me. I took one for the team and listened to the angry lady.”

To carve out a name for yourself

To work hard in a certain area and be recognized for your efforts. To be respected for what you do.

“Jon started surfing two years ago in California. He has really carved out a name for himself at his local beach. Everyone knows who he is.”

Lip service

An expression of agreement that is not really sincere.

“John said he would support our decision, but that was lip service. He had no intention of supporting us ever.”

To throw in the towel

To be tired and give up on something you have tried hard to do

“After three years at this, I have decided to throw in the towel.”

To be out and about

To be out of the house doing errands or visiting people.

“Maybe we can hook up for lunch downtown tomorrow. I should be out and about in that part of town all day.”

A dry spell

A period of time where you are not accomplishing what you are trying to achieve.

“Last month I had a two week dry spell. I didn’t sell one car the entire time.”

An eye opener

A situation that makes you realize something important.

“It was an eye opener to see how far he had come with his studies.”

For the love of god

An expression used to indicate that you are desperate.

“For the love of god, please stop screaming!”

To be up in arms about something

To be really upset about a situation and ready to fight against it.

“A lot of people in this town are up in arms about the new highway. There is going to be meeting tomorrow to address this issue.”

A chance of a lifetime

An opportunity that is really good and will probably only happen once.

“I have the option to work at my dream job in New York. This is a chance of a lifetime that I’m not going to miss.”

To know inside and out

To know something very well

“I’ve been using this text book for years now. I know it inside and out.”

Get off your high horse

This is a way to tell someone to stop acting like he or she is better than others.

“You need to get off your high horse. You are just as guilty as the rest of us.”

To be a joke (describing something)

To be of such poor quality that it seems like a joke.

“This new vacuum cleaner is a joke. It doesn’t pick up anything.”

By the skin of your teeth

To come very close to not accomplishing your goal

“I made the deadline by the skin of my teeth. I got it in at the last second.”

To cut it close

To do something right at the last minute.

“We really cut it close this time. The project was due on Monday morning and we finished it late Sunday night.”

To have trouble making ends meat

To struggle to live with the money that you currently make.

“Working at this restaurant I can barely make ends meat. They don’t pay me very well.”

A hell hole

A place that is miserable.

“This city has turned into a real hell hole. There has been riots here for a week now.”

To be like a fish out of water

To be very uncomfortable in a certain situation.

“John is like a fish out of water when he talks to his father-in-law. he gets so nervous.”

To be a mobbed

To be full of people.

“The mall is mobbed on Saturdays.”

To do something “like there is no tomorrow”

To do an activity with great passion and intensity.

“I’m going to go out and dance like there is no tomorrow.”

To be in the thick of it

To be right in the middle of a situation that is going on.

“John and I saw the riot up close. We were right in the thick of it.”


Ordinary and not special.

“We watched another run of the mill horror film to kill time.”

To stay the course

To keep to your plan even when things are going poorly.

“I told him to stay the course and it would eventually work out.”

To go the extra mile

To put extra effort into what you are doing.

“I love the service at this store. All of the sales people go the extra mile to help you.”
To avoid it like the plague

To do everything possible to avoid a particular situation.

“I hate going to the dentist. I avoid it like the plague.”

To find a happy medium

To find a balance in a situation that you are dealing with.

“My wife says I work too much. She says I need to find a happy medium between work and spending time with the family.

To go overboard

To do something with too much intensity or effort.

She went a little overboard with the ballons for the birthday party. She hung 700 of them!

To be a cinch

To be easy or for sure.

Don’t worry about the math class. It is easy to pass. It is a cinch to do well.

To not fly

To not be acceptable.

Talking in class, while the teacher is teaching, won’t fly here. You will get sent out of class.

See you on the flip side

A slang way of saying “see you later

I have to go. I’ll see you on the flip side.

To fly the coop

To leave a place or a home to live somewhere else.

Once my son graduates high school, I imagine he will fly the coop as soon as possible.

To be on the mend

To be feeling better healthwise.

I’m happy to say that I am on the mend. I’ve been getting better for a couple of days now.

To catch someone’s drift

To understand what a person is talking about.

bq. That guy creeps me out. Do you get my drift?
A close call

A situation that almost happened, but did not.

That was a close call. I almost fell off my horse.

That’s the way the cookie crumbles

Another way to say “this is how life goes”.

I didn’t get the job I applied for. Sometimes things just don’t work out. That’s the way the cookie crumbles I’m afraid.

Running on empty

To go along with your life or work feeling very tired and drained.

I’ve been running on empty these last two weeks. I’m working too much.

Living on the edge

To live a risky life style where things could go wrong at any time.

John really lives on the edge. Any day he could die with all the risks he takes.

A freebie

Something given away for free.

On the last day of school the teacher gave out some cool freebies. We all got pencils and notebooks for free!

A scorcher

A very hot day.

It was a real scorcher today. The high was about 100 degrees!

A fiasco

A bad situation that is chaotic and turns out poorly.

The day at the beach was a fiasco. It rained all day and the baby got sick

To be in a rut

To have a feeling that you are doing the same thing over and over and not getting successful results.

I am kind of in a rut with my new project. I need some new ideas.

To be far out

An expression used to describe something that is pleasing or “cool”

That new movie is far out. I loved it!

Long range plan

A plan of action that takes into account the distant future.

My long range plan for this business is to start marketing to China.

Come hell or high water

This means that no matter what happens you are going to do someting.

Come hell or high water I am going to class today. My professor told me that I will fail if I miss again

To be “up to” someone

When the result depends on the decision of another person.

Ask your mother if you can have that cookie. It is up to her. She knows what you have had today, not me.

A Hair Pin Turn

A very sharp turn on a road or highway.

Don’t drive fast up here. There’s a hairpin turn that causes horrible accidents

To Not Cut It

To not be enough. To not be acceptable

“The paper you wrote doesn’t cut it. You need to add more information to get an A.”

A Tongue Twister

A sentence or phrase that is difficult to say because the sounds are hard to pronounce.

“His name is long and there are a lot of consonants. It is a tongue twister.”

To Splurge

To uncharacteristically spend a lot of money on something.

“I’m going to splurge on this new Rolex. It is something I’ve wanted for a while, so I’ll just spend the money.”

To Be a Sitting Duck

To be exposed to danger because of the situation that you are in.

“I’m like a sitting duck out here on the football field. There is lightning and I have nowhere to hide.”

To be hairy

If a situation is “hairy” it is very intense and maybe even scary.

“It got pretty hairy in there. Both customers were yelling at me and my boss was angry. Luckily I talked my way out of it.”

A nail biter

A situation is a “nail biter” if you don’t know how it is going to turn out until the very end. It creates a nervous feeling.

“That game was a real nail biter. We didn’t know who was going to win until the last second when the forward scored the last point.”

Mad house

A place or situation is called a “mad house” when there is no order and everyone is going crazy.

“Don’t go to my house when all of the kids are at home. It is a mad house.”

To go haywire

When everything starts to go wrong and chaos takes over.

“Once I dropped the glass of water on the computer everything went haywire. The computer blew up and we lost all of the files.”

To be hard up

To not have enough money to pay for anything that you need.

“Last summer I wasn’t working. I was so hard up for cash that I had to cut the neighbors lawn to get enough money to go out.”

To be stuck between a rock and a hard place

To be in a situation that is impossible to get out of.

“Last night I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. At 7:00 PM I had to pick up my daughter from school and be at home for the cable guy. I couldn’t do both things at the same time.

Pressure Cooker

This is a situation that is full of stress and pressure.

“That meeting was a real pressure cooker. We didn’t know if we could convince the boss of our new proposal.”


Something that is easily done. It is an easy goal to accomplish.

“Getting that job was a cakewalk. I knew the owner of the company.”

Off the hook

When something is really cool or outstanding it can be described as “off the hook”.

“The party was off the hook. Everyone was going crazy and having a great time.”

To be down and out

To be in a depressed and low mood. Things are not going well for you.

bq. “Last year I was down and out. My wife divorced me and I lost my job. Nothing was going well for me.”
Running around like a chicken with its head cut off

This expression describes a person who is confused and frantic and unsure of what to do next.

“The kitchen staff was running around like a chicken with its head cut off. There were too many food orders and nobody knew what to do.”

A lost cause

A situation is described as a “lost cause” when there is no hope for success.

“I tried to help him learn to play the piano, but he just won’t practice. It is a lost cause thinking that he will one day play well.


A situation that brings everyone’s mood down, like rain during a picnic or a flat tire on a road trip, is called a “downer”.

“Seeing my ex wife at the party was a downer. It brought back a lot of bad memories.”

To be up in the air

When it is uncertain how the situation will turn out it is said to be “up in the air”.

“We don’t know if John is returning from Iraq next month. With the war being so unpredictable everything is up in the air.”

To kill two birds with one stone

To take care of two different obligations with one action.

“If you get a pool you will be killing two birds with one stone. You will have a place to exercise doing laps and you’re kids will have a place to play.”

Jacked up

Not working correctly. Something that is broken could be described as “jacked up”.

“After the accident my bike was all jacked up. The gears were no longer working and my handle bars were crooked.”

Dime a dozen

Something that is very common and not difficult to find.

“Employees with an MBA are a dime a dozen. To get a job in this market you need to have real experience too.”

To get out of hand

When a situation is no longer controllable it is “out of hand”.

“My party got out of hand when everyone started to drink too much. All the younger people started throwing food at each other.”

A pigsty

A slang word to describe a place that is very messy.

“John’s mom told him his room was a pigsty. He wasn’t allowed to go out to play until he cleaned it.”

To cut back

To do a certain activity less. To refrain from a previous activity.

“When the economy goes bad people cut back on spending. Everyone is scared of spending money.”

Wealth of

To say there is a “wealth of” something means that there is a lot of it available.

“There is a wealth of information in the library. You should go there to do your research.

To be a “steal”

If you purchase something, and you get a really good price for it, you can say it was a steal.

“That was a real steal. I got a new I pod and a Wii for $200!”

To be out of your league

If something is out of your league it means that you are not good enough for it. You don’t have the qualities it takes to obtain that goal.

“That girl is out of your league. She is really pretty and only dates rich guys.

A no brainer

A situation or problem that is easy to figure out. The solution is obvious.

“Choosing between going to the beach or staying home with Bob is a no brainer. The beach is fun and Bob is boring. I will go to the beach!”

To end on a bad note

When something ends and people are left with a bad feeling about the situation.

“Our trip ended on a bad note. The last day of travel we got a flat tire and everyone was irritable and exhausted.”

A thorn in my side

This is something that continually annoys you like a student who is always bad or a problem that never goes away.

“John has been a real thorn in my side at work. He doesn’t know how to do anything so I always have to do it for him.”

Over the top

When a person takes things a little too far and pushes the limits.

“John is way over the top when it comes to basketball. He gets really upset with everyone when he is not winning.”

To be green with envy

To be very jealous of someone or something.

“I was green with envy when I found out you were going to Hawaii. I love it there!”