Learn English Idioms: Answers to your questions about idiomatic expressions

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What does it mean to be “on edge”?

If you are on edge, it means you are tense, nervous, and maybe a little bit irritable.

  • The whole family was on edge as we waited for news from the doctor.
  • You don’t have to snap at me! Why are you so on edge?
  • Our community is on edge due to the recent surge in violence.

What does it mean for someone to “have a breakdown”?

When a car or machine breaks down, it means it stops functioning.

When a person has a breakdown or has a nervous breakdown, it means they completely collapse (emotionally and/or physically) because of great pressure, stress, and anxiety over a long period of time.

  • He was working three jobs, until he had a breakdown and needed to be hospitalized.
  • If my kids get into any more trouble, I think I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown.

What does it mean to say “all bets are off”?

The word bet refers to when you put money on your prediction of the future – for example, if you strongly believe Brazil will win the World Cup, and you bet your friend $100 on it, if Brazil wins your friend will pay you $100 and if Brazil loses you will pay your friend $100.

In English, bet also means more generally “to believe strongly, to be certain that something will probably happen in the future” (without actually putting money on it). We use the expression all bets are off when a situation that used to be quite certain, changes, and now it is very uncertain or unpredictable.

  • The economy had been growing at a steady pace, but now with this new crisis, all bets are off.
  • Paula was a front-runner in the election and now she’s dropped out, so all bets are off.

What does “I didn’t have the heart to tell him” mean?

This means I didn’t tell him something because I knew he would feel sad or disappointed if he heard it, so I am trying to protect his emotions.

  • My father was so proud of me for publishing my book; I didn’t have the heart to tell him that very few people read it.
  • don’t have the heart to tell my aunt that I really don’t like her cooking.

What does it mean when someone says “I dropped the ball”?

This means there was a task or responsibility I was supposed to do, but I didn’t do it, resulting in negative consequences.

  • I can’t believe you missed the deadline to apply for the scholarship! You really dropped the ball on that one.
  • Nobody likes working with someone who constantly drops the ball – it’s impossible to depend on them for anything.

What does it mean if someone’s reputation is “on the line”?

In this context, being on the line means it is at risk; there is a possibility of losing it.

  • Katie played great defense when the game was on the line.
  • Paramedics have to work fast because someone’s life is on the line.

What does it mean to “have a knack for” something?

There are two possible meanings – one is to have a special talent or skill naturally:

  • These cookies are delicious! You have a knack for baking!
  • I’m so jealous of people who have a knack for learning languages quickly.

The other meaning is to have a tendency to do something or a habit:

  • My dogs have a knack for making a mess of the house.
  • have a knack for talking too much when I’m nervous.

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