Common Idioms to Improve Your IELTS Score – Topic: Communication



keep someone posted

If you keep someone posted, you continue giving them the latest information about a situation.

She made me promise to keep her posted on developments here while she was in London.

in the loop

Part of a group that is kept up-to-date with information about something

Not many people knew about the strike but the CEO was almost certainly in the loop.

at cross purposes

If two people are at cross purposes, they think they are talking about or trying to do the same thing as each other, but they are actually talking about or trying to do different things.

They had been talking at cross purposes earlier, he realized. They hadn’t been offering him a share of the deal at all.

come out of your shell

If you come out of your shell, you become less shy and more confident.

NOTE: The image here is of a snail or shellfish, both of which go into their shells for protection.

She used to be very timid and shy but I think she’s come out of her shell.

NOTE: You can say that someone or something brings you out of your shell when they cause you to be less shy and more confident.

I think the job has brought her out of her shell.

find common ground

If two people or groups who generally disagree find common ground, they find a particular subject or opinion that they agree about.

Both leaders were keen to stress that they were seeking to find common ground.

from the horse’s mouth

If you get a piece of information from the horse’s mouth, you get it directly from someone who is involved in it and knows the most about it.

NOTE: This expression may refer to the fact that you can tell a horse’s age by looking at its teeth.

When he tells them, straight from the horse’s mouth, what a good assistant you are, they’ll increase your wages.

get your wires crossed or get your lines crossed

If you get your wires crossed or get your lines crossed, you are mistaken about what someone else means.

NOTE: People used to say they had a crossed line when their phone call was connected wrongly and they could hear someone else’s conversation.

She looked confused at what he said and he began to wonder if he’d got his wires crossed.

He’d got his lines crossed: ‘What part of America are you from?’ he asked. ‘Sweden,’ came the reply.

go off on a tangent or go off at a tangent

If a person or piece of writing goes off on a tangent or goes off at a tangent, they start saying or thinking something that is not directly connected with what they were saying or thinking before.

NOTE: In geometry, a tangent is a straight line which touches a curve at one point.

Our teacher would occasionally go off on a tangent and start talking about something totally unrelated to the textbook.

NOTE: You can use other verbs instead of go.

The book’s theme wanders off on a tangent now and then.

hear something through the grapevine or hear something on the grapevine

If you hear something through the grapevine or hear something on the grapevine, you are told a piece of news informally by someone who was told it by someone else.

NOTE: One of the early telegraph systems in America was given the nickname ‘the grapevine telegraph’ because the wires often became tangled, so that they reminded people of grapevines.

I heard through the grapevine that she was looking for work.

She heard on the grapevine that he had come back to London.

in black and white

If you say that something is in black and white, you mean that you have written proof of it.

We have a strict, clear rule in black and white, that this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated.

let the cat out of the bag

If you let the cat out of the bag, you reveal something secret or private, often without meaning to.

NOTE: Perhaps from an old trick where a person pretended to sell a piglet in a bag, although the bag really contained a cat. If the cat was let out of the bag, then the trick would be exposed.

‘They didn’t tell the cops my name, did they?’ ‘Of course not,’ she said. ‘They wouldn’t want to let the cat out of the bag.’

put someone in the picture

If you put someone in the picture, you tell them about a situation that they need to know about.

I believe that I could now produce evidence to prove my case, so let me put you in the picture.

spill the beans

If you spill the beans, you reveal the truth about something secret or private. [INFORMAL]

NOTE: This expression has a number of possible explanations. One refers to an ancient way of voting by placing coloured beans in jars or pots, then tipping the beans out and counting them.

He was scared to death I was going to spill the beans to the cops.

touch base

If you touch base with someone, you contact them, often when you have not spoken to them or seen them for a long time.

NOTE: In baseball, batters have to touch the first, second, and third bases to score a run.

A brief phone-call is often made to touch base and update the parent on any developments.


Exercise 1

Match phrases 1-8 with A-H to make idioms from this unit.

1          go off at                                     A         the bag

2          get your wires                         B         base

3          to be                                          C         a tangent

4          keep someone                         D         the beans

5          spill                                            E          the picture

6          touch                                         F          posted

7          let the cat out of                      G         at cross purposes

8          put someone in                       H         crossed

Exercise 2

Complete the sentences with the words in the box. Some of the sentences have more than one answer.

out       from    at         in        off       on

1          Keep me ____________ the loop, will you?

2          I wish she wouldn’t keep going off ____________ a tangent.

3          We heard a rumour ____________ the grapevine.

4          Let me put you ____________ the picture.

5          I heard all this straight            the horse’s mouth.

6          I think they were arguing ____________ cross purposes there.

7          She promised me she wouldn’t let the cat____________ of the bag.

8          She really came ____________ of her shell when the singing started.

Exercise 3

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

1          true / it must be / here in black and white / because it’s

2          as you develop / keep me / the idea / in the loop

3          every week to / touch base / we meet / have lunch and

4          was moving / that the discussion /off on a tangent / I thought

5          she was doing / she asked him / on how / to keep her posted

6          paid / the office cleaner to / the newspaper reporter / spill the beans

7          the issue of / find common ground on / they managed to / rates of pay

8          going away / the family agreed that / would bring him out of his shell / to university

Exercise 4

Make sentences 1 -6 less formal. Replace the underlined words with the correct idioms A-F.

  1. I haven’t heard any news yet, but I’ll inform you.
  2. It was meant to be a surprise, but someone gave the secret away.
  3. I heard a rumour that Penny and Alan are getting married.
  4. It must be true. I heard it from a reliable source.
  5. Let’s meet up next week just to make contact again.
  6. They support different teams but they agreed with each other when someone mentioned the off-side rule.

Exercise 5

Match idioms 1-6 with situations A-F.

  1. Jo and Dee learnt that Bud was being fired when Baz told them what he’d heard from Amit.
  2. First the professor was talking about dinosaurs, then somehow it was the price of oranges!
  3. This diamond was found by a workman on a building site. He told me about it himself.
  4. I think we should tell Lee that the time of the meeting has been changed.
  5. I thought we were going to the cinema and he thought I was cooking him dinner!
  6. Nobody knew about the baby until Suzi mentioned maternity leave.

A let the cat out of the bag

B heard on the grapevine

C keep you posted

D found common ground

E heard it straight from the horse’s mouth

F touch base

Exercise 6

Complete the table. Put the idioms in the correct groups.

keep someone in the picture

go off at/on a tangent

hear something on the grapevine

keep someone posted

let the cat out of the bag

get your wires crossed

in the loop

touch base

from the horse’s mouth

at cross purposes

spill the beans

in black and white

communicating badly 1 _________________________________

2 _________________________________

3 _________________________________

maintaining communication 1 _________________________________

2 _________________________________

3 _________________________________

4 _________________________________

revealing a secret 1 _________________________________

2 _________________________________

trusting information 1 _________________________________

2 _________________________________

3 _________________________________

Your turn!

Think about the way you’ve communicated with people around you recently. Use the idioms from this unit to describe a situation from the last few days. For example:

My teacher went off on a tangent and started telling us about her holiday.

I heard on the grapevine that Petra’s getting married.


Exercise 1

1 C                  5 D

2 H                  6 B

3 G                  7 A

4 F                   8 E

Exercise 2

1 in                  5 from

2 at/on             6 at

3 on                 7 out

4 in                  8 out

Exercise 3

1          It must be true because it’s here in black and white.

2          Keep me in the loop as you develop the Idea.

3          We meet every week to have lunch and touch base.

4          I thought that the discussion was moving off on a tangent.

5          She asked him to keep her posted on how she was doing.

6          The newspaper reporter paid the office cleaner to spill the beans.

7          They managed to find common ground on the issue of rates of pay.

8          The family agreed that going away to university would bring him out of his shell.

Exercise 4                  

1 C                  4 E

2 A                  5 F

3 B                  6 D

Exercise 5                  

1 D                  4 E

2 F                   5 A

3 B                  6 C

Exercise 6

Possible answers

Communicating badly go off at/on a tangent

get your wires crossed

at cross purposes

Maintaining communication keep someone in the picture

keep someone posted

in the loop

touch base

revealing a secret let the cat out of the bag

spill the beans

Trusting information

hear something on the grapevine

from the horse’s mouth

in black and white


Written By

Syed Monif is a professional content marketer and IELTS Trainer by day, and a bookworm by night, and sometimes during the day too! He currently works on creating extremely user-friendly and engaging content for the online portal His work involves creating and editing content while making sure they're super interesting and easy to read! And also as a master procrastinator, right now he's probably googling something so arbitrary like 'How rich is Scrooge McDuck?' without realizing that his lunch break is almost over.

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