4 TOEFL and 27 GMAT Idioms

How might idioms surface on the TOEFL and GMAT? Let’s look.

On TOEFL, in the listening section, you may hear idioms. Or, you could use idiomatic expressions on the speaking and writing sections–only if you can use them naturally and correctly. Using no idiom is better than using the wrong idiom. Get to know four idioms that have come up.

  1. “I’m broke.”  Be broke = not having money (used when one can’t afford to pay)
  2. “I’m in the black.” In the black = profitable (financially break-even)
  3. “The school was in the red.” In the red = unprofitable; operating at a loss
  4. “She’s in over her head.” In over one’s head = is deeply involved (has issues)

On GMAT, you’ll be tested on idioms in a different manner.

GMAT places idioms in the verbal section in sentence correction questions. Those types of questions give a sentence that has an underlined part and makes you choose between replacements for the part that’s underlined.

On questions with idioms, usually there’s an idiom that’s used incorrectly in the sentence and a grammar rule that’s broken. Look for the correct answer that has proper grammar and correct idiom.

Three principal errors:

  1. An incorrect preposition with an idiom
  2. Improper comparison
  3. Correlative conjunctions (Correlatives are a pair of short words or phrases though separated in a sentence such as either/or, neither/nor, both/and, not only/but also, rather/or.)

1. Idioms with prepositions:

Many of the idioms on GMAT have the wrong preposition (i.e. of, from, to, at, for, with) in the phrase. Pay close attention to both the use of the idiom and the grammar for errors.

Process of choosing the correct answer:

First, use process of elimination to catch grammar errors; after that, narrow down the multiple choices in the answers and look at the idiom errors to choose what makes sense.

2. Incorrect comparison:

Review comparison rules (more) how to compare things to each other, and be sure to look out for superlatives (the most) when 3+ items are compared. Often, incorrect phrases are listed in the comparison. Look for clues in a response such as a word like “more” to identify the error or proper usage.

The most common patterns that you’ll notice are the following:

  • compared to X, Y, (Compared to the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty is bigger.)
  • X more than Y (You study more intensively than she does) or a comparative adverb phrase (You study more productively than her,) Joe follows (verb + direct object) basketball +more closely than Matt does.
  • X is different from Y, (X/Y most often are replaced with nouns)
  • in contrast to X, Y (In contrast to Obama, Trump is a Tweeter.)

3. Analyze Correlatives:

  • Either x or y {join two nouns, verbs, adjectives, phrases, or clauses}
  • Neither x nor y {join two nouns, verbs, adjectives, phrases, or clauses}


  • Both x and y               (yes x/yes y)       {for GMAT, often in parallel verb phrases, infinitives (both to come and to go), participial phrase, gerund (both coming and going)}             [not for linking independent clauses]
  • Not x but y (no x/yes y)
  • Not only x but also y (yes x expected/yes y additional) [Mozart was not only a renowned pianist, but also a phenomenal composer.]
  • Not just x but also y (yes x expected/yes y additional)
  • Not so much x as y (yes x less so/y yes more in degree of comparison)      {for GMAT, used for nouns, infinitives, gerunds, prepositional phrases}   [format: subject + do not so much + prepositional phrase x as prepositional phrase y]     [Obama is remembered not so much for his campaign, “Change,” as for his terms as President.]                   idiom: be remembered for

  • Between x and y {x and y are nouns or gerunds [-ing] on GMAT}               [The names Great Britain and the United Kingdom are often used interchangeably, however, there is a difference between GB and the UK.]              GMAT idioms: difference between, distinction between or distinguish between x and y.  [Atheists do not distinguish between being skeptical about God and disbelieving.


  • Just as x, so y {to connect two independent clauses}    [Just as Shakespeare was the greatest British poet, so Edgar Allan Poe was the best American poet.]


  • For every x, y (nouns) {idiom used in economic, math, political contexts}            [For every $100. spent locally on business, $60 will stay in the community. For every vote Newsom wins in Northern California, he’ll lose two votes in Southern California.]

27 Common GMAT Idioms

Study these not only for the meaning of the examples but also for the correct usage in context.

1. A debate over A debate over the ingredients in the dish went on and on.
2. Account for The grocer accounted for 270 items on the shelves.
3. Accuse of The assailant was accused of murder.
4. Acquaint with (someone or something) He is acquainted with Robert Frost and poetry.
5. A means to (something i.e. an end) The money-saving App is only a means to an end, financial freedom.
6. A responsibility to (someone) The new mother has a responsibility to nurse the baby every few hours.
7. A result of (something) The champion’s win is a result of his dedication to practice.
8. Ability to The quadriplegic has no ability to walk.
9. Act as The headmaster hired a substitute to act as teacher when the instructor was out with a virus.
10. Act like Teens act like there’s no tomorrow.
11. Afflicted with (something) He was afflicted with a pinched nerve in his spine.
12. Agree on (something) Let’s agree on resolving the issue.
13. Agree to (something) We agreed to the fund-raising campaign.
14. Agree with (someone) The mother agreed with her son on politics.
15. Aid in Athletic coaches aid in being a role model for sportsmanship.
16. Aim at something Be sure to aim at the bullseye to reach your target.
17. Aim to do something Aim to reach your objective before the end of the year.
18. Allow for The bus can’t allow for restroom breaks.
19. Amount to Elon Musk amounted to becoming a significant leader.
20. Appear to The star appeared to be too skinny in the movie role.
21. Are in danger of The glaciers are in danger of melting.
22. Argue with The police argued with the pedestrian over jaywalking.
23. As/as I am as productive as she is.
24. Ask for The team leader asked for support on the legwork.
25. Associate with We associate cranberries with Thanksgiving.
26. Attend to (someone) The grandson attended to his grandmother in the hospital.
27. Attribute x to y We can attribute heart disease in part to obesity.

To improve your grasp of TOEFL and GMAT idioms, look up more examples of the idioms in this post. For TOEFL, find ten idioms you can use well and memorize them. You could work one naturally into one of your speaking tasks (or independent writing task.)

Keep reading every day since the best way to learn idioms either for TOEFL or GMAT is to understand them in context.

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