Common Idioms to Boost your IELTS Score – Topic : Authority and Control

5 1

Authority and Control

be breathing down someone’s neck

If someone is breathing down your neck they are closely watching and checking everything that you do.

Most farmers have bank managers breathing down their necks, so have to give an economic reason for everything they do.

call the shots

If you call the shots you are the person who makes all the important decisions in an organization or situation. [INFORMAL]

NOTE: This may refer to someone shooting and saying which part of the target they intend to hit. Alternatively, it may refer to a snooker or pool player saying which ball they intend to hit or which pocket they intend to hit it into.

Is the military really the power behind the President now? Who really calls the shots?

get out of hand

If a situation gets out of hand it cannot be controlled any longer.

The two men had an argument that got out of hand and the police were called.

go over someone’s head

If you go over the head of someone in authority you communicate directly with someone in a higher position to try to get what you want.

He was criticized for trying to go over the heads of senior officers.

have someone eating out of your hand or have someone eating out of the palm of your hand

If you have someone eating out of your hand or have them eating out of the palm of your hand, they will do whatever you want because they like or admire you so much.

NOTE: The image here is of a wild animal that is tame enough to take food from a person’s hand.

No one can handle reporters like she can. She usually has them eating out of her hand by the time they leave.

in high places

People in high places are people who have power and influence in a group or society.

You do not succeed so quickly without having a few friends in high places.

a law unto yourself

If you describe a person or organization as a law unto themselves, you mean that they do what they want, ignoring laws, rules, or usual ways of doing things.

He does his work well but in his own way. He is truly a law unto himself.

on top of something

If you are on top of a task or situation you are dealing with it successfully.

The government does not seem on top of the situation.

NOTE: If you are beginning to deal with a task or situation successfully, you can say that you are getting on top of it.

We are getting on top of crime but there is still a lot to be done.

pass the buck

If you accuse someone of passing the buck you are accusing them of failing to take responsibility for a problem and of expecting someone else to deal with it instead.

His three commanders-in-chief were arguing and passing the buck to one another.

pull strings

If someone pulls strings to get something they want they get it by using their friendships with powerful people, often in a way which is unfair.

They felt that her father was pulling strings to advance her career.

put your foot down

If you put your foot down you tell someone forcefully that they must do something or that they must not do something.

Annabel went through a phase of saying: 7 can do my homework and watch TV at the same time’. Naturally I put my foot down.

twist someone around your little finger or wrap someone around your little finger

If you can twist someone around your little finger or wrap them around your little finger you can make them do anything you want them to.

Anna may not be the brightest person in the world but she knew exactly how to twist him around her little finger.

NOTE: You can use wind instead of twist or wrap and round instead of around.

I didn’t think there was a man in the world you were afraid of Christabel, or one you couldn’t wind round your finger.

twist someone’s arm

If you twist someone’s arm you try hard to persuade them to do something.

I had to twist their arms to get them to start working with me but once they did, it went well.

wear the trousers or wear the pants

If one person in a couple wears the trousers [BRITISH] or wears the pants [AMERICAN] they make all the important decisions.

NOTE: This expression is usually used about women who seem to control their husbands or partners.

She may give the impression that she wears the trousers but it’s actually Tim who makes all the big decisions.

My father said he wanted to discuss the investment with my mother, to which the salesman demanded, ‘Who wears the pants in your family?՛


Exercise 1

Complete the sentences with the words in the box.

neck | hand | finger | arm | foot | finger | head | hand
  1. If you won’t allow it I shall simply go over your ________ and speak to your manager.
  2. I can’t work with you breathing down my ________ all the time.
  3. He is a very clever lawyer, famous for always having the jury eating out of the palm of his ________
  4. She’s always been able to wrap her grandfather around her little ________
  5. I wish the teacher would put her ________ down and stop the children chatting so much.
  6. The company is losing money fast and the situation is getting out of ________
  7. If you twist his ________ hard enough he’ll probably see that you’re right.
  8. That child will try to wind you round his ________ if he possibly can.

Exercise 2

Decide if the sentences are true (T) or false (F).

  1. People in high places are important people. □
  2. Someone who is a law unto themselves does things the same way as everyone else. □
  3. If someone calls the shots they follow someone else’s orders. □
  4. If someone twists your arm they persuade you to do something. □
  5. If someone is on top of something that person hasn’t got things under control. □
  6. If someone passes the buck that person takes responsibility for a task. □
  7. A person who pulls strings manages to do something because of their connections with someone. □
  8. If someone is breathing down your neck they are watching you closely. □

Exercise 3

Choose the best answer to complete the sentences.

  1. You may be unhappy but you shouldn’t________ unless you feel your boss is being irresponsible.

a          eat out of his hand      b          go over his head          c          get out of hand

  1. Many parents are tempted to ________ to schools and other organizations for teaching their children about moral issues.

a          pass the buck               b          get out of hand           c          go over their heads

  1. We’ve had some serious problems but we think we’re ________ now.

a          getting out of hand     b          passing the buck          c          getting on top of them

  1. He likes to be in control of everything – he’s always the one who ________

a          gets out of hand          b          calls the shots              c          passes the buck

  1. She knows a lot of people in the theatre so she’s usually able to ________ to get the tickets she wants.

a          call the shots               b          pass the buck               c          pull strings

Exercise 4

Re-order the phrases to make sentences. Add punctuation where necessary.

1          when their children / try to / to teachers / pass the buck / misbehave / some parents

2          your son’s behaviour / put your foot down / you / it’s time / about

3          twisted around your little finger / he’ll do anything / because / you ask / you’ve got him

4          get out of hand / stop the debate / things / if / I’ll

5          other people / don’t / call the shots / let / all the time

6          I’ll see / pull any strings / an interview / if I can / to get you

7          has always been / the newspaper / a law unto himself / the editor of

8          his view / the people / did not share / in high places

Exercise 5

Complete the sentences with idioms from this unit, changing the verb forms if necessary. Some sentences can take more than one idiom.

  1. It’s not difficult to see who ________ in that relationship.
  2. Most parents understand the need to calm situations like this before they ________ .
  3. No one’s ________ : you don’t have to buy one or both – it’s a free choice.
  4. Predictably, customer services ________ back to Internet services who suggested I ring customer services.
  1. We weren’t getting anywhere with the district manager so we decided to ________
  2. Those children behave very badly – their father should ________

Exercise 6

Complete the table. Put idioms in the correct groups.

breathing down someone’s neck | twist/wrap someone around your little finger

wear the trousers | go over someone’s head | call the shots | on top of something

have someone eating out of your hand | put your foot down twist someone’s arm | pull strings

being in control1 ___________________________________________

2 ___________________________________________

3 ___________________________________________

4 ___________________________________________

5 ___________________________________________

using influence1 ___________________________________________

2 ___________________________________________

3 ___________________________________________

4 ___________________________________________

5 ___________________________________________

Your turn!

Think about the people in your life who have authority or control. Use the idioms in this unit to describe any of your experiences with them. For example:

I’ve got my history teacher eating out of my hand since I got full marks in the exam.

I think I know who wears the trousers in our house.

Answer Key

Exercise 1

1 head              5 foot

2 neck              6 hand

3 hand             7 arm

4 finger            8 finger

Exercise 2

1T        4 T       7 T

2 F       5 F       8 T

3 F       6 F

Exercise 3

1 b       3 c       5 c

2 a       4 b

Exercise 4

1          Some parents try to pass the buck to teachers when their children misbehave.

2          It’s time you put your foot down about your son’s behaviour.

3          He’ll do anything you ask because you’ve got him twisted around your little finger.

4          I’ll stop the debate if things get out of hand.

5          Don’t let other people call the shots all the time.

6          I’ll see if I can pull any strings to get you an interview.

7          The editor of the newspaper has always been a law unto himself.

8          The people in high places did not share his view.

Exercise 5

1          wears the trousers OR calls the shots

2          get out of hand

3          twisting your arm

4          passed the buck

5          go over his head OR put our foot down

6          put his foot down

Exercise 6

being in controlwear the trousers

call the shots

on top of something

have someone eating out of your hand

put your foot down

using influence

breathing down someone’s neck

twist/wrap someone around your little finger

go over someone’s head

twist someone’s arm

pull strings


Written By

Nafia Zuhana is an experienced content writer and IELTS Trainer. Currently, she is guiding students who are appearing for IELTS General and Academic exams through With an 8.5 score herself, she trains and provides test takers with strategies, tips, and nuances on how to crack the IELTS Exam. She holds a degree in Master of Arts – Creative Writing, Oxford Brookes University, UK. She has worked with The Hindu for over a year as an English language trainer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *