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.











What Idioms to Focus on

Are you at your wits’ end feeling desperate over which idioms to study for TOEFL?

Learning specific idioms with “take” improves performance on TOEFL and IELTS since these standardized tests are formatted with certain common English expressions.

The challenge for the test-taker comes in understanding the meaning of an idiom in the context of a passage or lecture. Some expressions seem to mean something different than what you might think.

Beat the Test

Improve your skill set of common take idioms. Knowing these expressions helps you understand TOEFL written passages and audio clips where your comprehension skills are tested. You’ll raise your competency by comprehending more details, which in turn, sets you up as a better test performer.

Examples in Context

Get to know these “take” idioms by familiarizing yourself with the examples in context. Dedicate study time to practicing them since they appear on TOEFL again and again. You’ll be at an advantage to get higher scores.

Take on I’ll take it on if no one else can complete the task.
Take notice The boss began to take notice of the worker’s productivity.
Take great pains to do something The parents went through great pains to ensure their daughter had enough money for university.
Take one at one’s word The cashier took the customer at his word when he described why he returned the product.
Take one by surprise The rebels took the army by surprise.
Take one’s time Let’s take our time to get the project done right.
Take one’s turn Wait until everyone has taken their turn.
Take someone at one’s word She invited me to come stay at her place in Rome, so I took her at her word.
Take one’s word for it I took his word for it when he said he had had an accident.
Take someone or something for granted It’s easy to take parents for granted until they’re gone. / I took my health for granted until the day I got sick.
Take someone or something at face value I take everything she says at face value. / The committee took the report at face value and approved the changes.
Take someone or something into account They’ll take his years of service into account when he’s evaluated for a raise. / She’ll try to take into account all the important things.
Take someone or something seriously If you don’t take the work seriously, you’ll be fired.
Take something into consideration They will take your experience into consideration when they decide who gets the job.
Take something lightly I’ve learned to take my work lightly as there are more important things to worry about.
Take something with a grain of salt His advice should be taken with a grain of salt since he doesn’t have much experience in the matter.
Take a beating In 2008, the stock market took a beating.
Take a dive The market took a dive after England’s exit from the EU.
Take it easy Take it easy after a long day of work.
Take it easy on Take it easy on him for missing work as his mother just died.
Take one’s chances Take your chances on oil and gold in the market.
Take the floor He took the floor speaking about pollution.
Take the helm She took the helm as CEO of the company.
Take the initiative The broker took the initiative to buy the stocks early when the market opened.

Step Up Fluency

You can even get practice using these expressions in business communication.

Now that you’ve got 24 new idioms under your belt, you’re a step ahead in fluency. Be confident on your next TOEFL that you’ll understand idiomatic meanings in context when these idioms surface on the exam.

If you were able to use these take idioms in context, feel free to Like this post.