Doctor Ian’s English Clinic – A Cup of Tea and a Frog

One of the more difficult things to learn in English is the many figurative expressions in the language. By this, I mean words or phrases which, on the surface, seem to have one meaning, but which actually have another meaning. This compares with literal expressions, which have the meaning usually found in a dictionary.

Here’s a simple example. Let’s take the phrase “on the same page”. Anyone seeing or hearing this for the first time would think this probably means that there are a lot of words on a single page of a book or a letter. But let’s think of another situation. You and your friend have a problem, so you discuss possible solutions and finally agree on how to solve the problem. Because you both agree on the same solution, you can now say “We are on the same page”.

FRIEND: “You and Harry used to argue a lot.”

YOU: “That was last year. These days we meet every day and discuss things so we’re always on the same page.”

Understanding and using figurative expressions can help you learn English and become more fluent quickly. Here’s another one.

Imagine you know someone whose hobby is stamp collecting. OK, maybe it’s an interesting hobby, but what if that person can only talk about stamp collecting? You’re not so interested in stamp collecting, so you try to talk to them about politics, your girlfriend or boyfriend, your dog, or the weather, but the conversation goes back to stamp collecting. That person is BORING and a “pain in the neck”. It’s painful to talk to that person. There seems to be no real reason why in English we say “He’s a pain in the neck” and NOT “He’s a pain in the leg”. However, it is possible to also say “He’s a pain in the butt”. “Butt” is short for “buttocks” or bottom, which is the part of your body you sit on. Just remember that these expressions are not used when you need to be polite.

FRIEND: “Fred’s always talking about himself.”

YOU: “Yes, he’s a pain in the neck.”

How about a useful figurative expression for your English language classroom? Your English teacher asks you a question, but you can’t remember the answer. You think you’ll probably remember tonight, just before you go to sleep. But right now, the teacher is expecting you to give the answer. Or you are at a party and want to introduce someone to a friend, but you can’t remember that person’s name. This is when you say to the teacher or your friend “It’s on the tip of my tongue”. Why do we say that? It is because we use the tongue to speak. This is the moment when the tongue should be doing its job, but it can’t.

FRIEND: “What’s the name of that person who just came into the room?”

YOU: “Oh no, it’s on the tip of my tongue.”

A lot of English language figurative expressions involve animals. Here’s a fun one for when you have a bad throat cold and can’t speak properly. You can say to everyone “I’ve got a frog in my throat”. That’s because you sound like a croaking frog. You have a croaky voice. Croak! Croak!

FRIEND: “How are you feeling?”

YOU: “Terrible. I’ve got a frog in my throat.”

Some expressions involve food and drink. So here’s one for when you do or don’t want to do something. This one comes from England in the early 1800s when the British were importing tea from China and India. Tea became a fashionable drink, so to say “It’s my cup of tea” meant that you enjoyed or liked something. These days, if you like a particular type of music, hobby, literature, person, or sport, you can say “I love it/him/her. It’s/He’s/She’s my cup of tea.” But here’s a tip. We use this expression more often in the negative, when you DON’T like something.

FRIEND: “So did you enjoy the concert?”

YOU: “No way, Beethoven’s not my cup of tea. I prefer Lady Gaga.”


And just finally….can you imagine what “It’s a piece of cake” means? Imagine a simple, plain piece of cake with no decoration. So, if a job is simple and easy, or if learning your English vocabulary is not difficult, you can tell your teacher “It’s a piece of cake”.

FRIEND: “How’s your English class?”

YOU: “It’s a piece of cake.”


Then you will get good marks because the teacher will think you have a good knowledge of figurative expressions.