Difference Between Idioms and Phrases

Main Difference – Idioms vs. Phrases

Idioms and phrases both refer to a small group of words that expresses a concept. The main difference between idioms and phrases is that idioms have a specific meaning that is not related to the meaning denoted by its individual words. This article will explain the difference between idioms and phrases with examples.

What is an Idiom

An idiom is a group words that has an established meaning that is not related to the individual meaning of the words. Oxford Dictionary defines idioms as “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.”  It is important to note that an idiom is also a phrase.

For example, let’s look at the phrase, “raining cats and dogs”. Here, this phrase does not actually mean cats and dogs are falling from the sky. It refers to heavy rain.

It is important to note that different countries and cultures have different idioms. Given below are some idioms from the English language.

Give someone the cold shoulder – Ignore someone

Read between the lines – Find the hidden meaning

A storm in a teacup– great excitement about a trivial matter 

To pull someone’s leg – to trick them by telling them something untrue             

Get the ax– lose the job                                       

Think on your feet -Adjusting quickly to changes and making fast decisions.

However,  it is important to note that these groups of words are not always used as idioms. They can be used as simple phrases as well. The following sentence pairs illustrate how the meaning of the phrases changes depending on the context.

Example 1

Finally, at the end of the lecture, he saw the light and realized how foolish his first assumption was.

He saw the light of the lighthouse.

Example 2

The company was losing money; many employees got the ax.       

He got the ax and went out to investigate the strange noises.

Example 3

This new dress cost me an arm and a leg.                                 

He lost an arm and a leg in the accident.

Difference Between Idioms and Phrases

What is a Phrase

A phrase is a group of words standing together as a conceptual unit. In linguistic analysis, it functions as a component of the syntax of a sentence. However, in general usage, people use a phrase to refer to expressions with special idiomatic meaning.  Some examples of such phrases include all rights reserved, all of a sudden, so to speak, lights, camera, action, fall in line, etc. These are different from idioms as these are used as parts of a sentences and is the standard way of expressing a concept.Main Difference - Idioms vs Phrases

Difference Between Idioms and Phrases


An idiom is a group of words with an established meaning which cannot be deduced through individual words.

A phrase is a group of words standing together as a conceptual unit.

Meaning of the phrase

The meanings of individual words do not indicate the meaning of the idiom.

The meanings of individual words contribute to the whole meaning of the phrase.


Idioms are phrases.

Phrases can have idiomatic meaning.Difference Between Idioms and Phrases-infographic

Image Courtesy:

“A dark horse” by Mukesh Patil (CC0)

“Copyright- all rights reserved” by – (Public Domain) via

About the Author: Hasa

Hasa has a BA degree in English, French and Translation studies. She is currently reading for a Masters degree in English. Her areas of interests include literature, language, linguistics and also food.

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