Common Idioms to Improve Your IELTS Score – Topic : Priorities and decisions


Priorities and decisions

the bottom line

In a discussion or argument, the bottom line is the most important and basic fact about what you are discussing.

NOTE: A reference to the last line in a set of accounts, which states how much money has been made.

The bottom line is that the great majority of our kids are physically unfit.

cross that bridge when you come to it

If you say ‘I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it’, you mean that you will deal with a problem when, or if, it happens.

‘You can’t make me talk to you՛. ‘No, but the police can’. Til cross that bridge when I come to it’.

cut to the chase

If you cut to the chase, you start talking about or dealing with what is really important, instead of less important things.

NOTE: In films, when one scene ends and another begins the action is said to ‘cut’ from one scene to the next. If a film ‘cuts to the chase’, it moves on to a car chase scene, which is usually fast-moving and exciting.

I’ll cut to the chase – we just don’t have enough money for the project.

the icing on the cake

If you describe something as the icing on the cake, you mean that It is an extra good thing that makes a good situation or activity even better.

To play for one’s country is the ultimate experience. To be in a winning team is the icing on the cake.

in two minds

If you are in two minds about something, you are not able to reach a decision or opinion about something.

Roche was in two minds whether to make the trip to Oslo.

make a mountain out of a molehill

If someone makes a mountain out of a molehill, they talk or complain about a small, unimportant problem as if it is important and serious.

Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill – it’s really not a big deal.

on the back burner

If you put a project or issue on the back burner, you decide not to do anything about it until a later date.

People’s dreams have once again been put on the back burner as they concern themselves with surviving from one day to the next.

NOTE: Different prepositions allow you to use the back burner in other ways with a similar meaning.

Healthcare workers worry that the expense will push this issue onto a back burner.

In this climate, website development is an obvious candidate for the back burner.

play it by ear

If you play it by ear, you deal with things as they happen, rather than following a plan or previous arrangement.

NOTE: If someone plays a piece of music by ear, they play it without looking at printed music.

‘Where will we stay in Gloucestershire?’ ‘Oh, I’m not sure yet. We’ll have to play it by ear’.

sit on the fence

If you sit on the fence, you refuse to give a definite opinion about something or to say who you support in an argument.

NOTE: The fence referred to is one that separates two properties or territories and someone sitting on it is unable or unwilling to make a decision about which side to stand on.

Which do you prefer: chocolate or vanilla ice-cream? You can’t sit on the fence and say you like both of them equally.

NOTE: Verbs such as stay and be can be used instead of sit.

Democrats who’d been on the fence about the nomination, in the end all voted for him.

split hairs

If someone splits hairs, they argue about very small details or find very small differences between things which are really very similar.

Many of the cases the reporter mentioned were not, in fact, on the original list, but let’s not split hairs.

stick to your guns

If you stick to your guns, you refuse to change your decision or opinion about something, even though other people are trying to tell you that you are wrong.

NOTE: Think of soldiers remaining in position, even though they are being attacked by the enemy.

Once you have decided what is and isn’t acceptable, stick to your guns despite your child’s protests.

take a back seat

If you take a back seat, you allow other people to have all the power, importance, or responsibility.

I was happy to take a back seat and give someone else the opportunity to manage the project.

the tip of the iceberg

If something is the tip of the iceberg, it is a small part of a very large problem or a very serious situation.

NOTE: Only about one tenth of an iceberg is visible above the water. Most of it is below the surface.

We get about 2,000 complaints every year and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

up in the air

If an important decision or plan is up in the air, it has not been decided or arranged yet.

At the moment, the fate of the Hungarian people is still up in the air.

Also check :


Exercise 1

Complete the sentences with the words in the box.

by        of         to         in         on

1          We’re just going to play it __________ ear.

2          This is just the tip __________ the iceberg.

3          Let’s put that decision __________ the back burner for now.

4          I’m __________ two minds about spending all that money at once.

5          He stuck __________ his guns in spite of their grumbling.

6          We’ll cross that bridge when we come __________ it.

Exercise 2

Match sentence halves 1-6 with A – F to make complete sentences.

1 The bottom line is simply

2 We’re going to play it by ear

3 You will have to stop sitting on the fence

4 The answer should have a capital letter

5 Let’s skip the introductions

6 We can’t ignore this issue

A and cut straight to the chase.

B but let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill.

C but I won’t split hairs.

D and see how the next 24 hours go.

E that business is about money.

F and show where your loyalty lies.

Exercise 3

Choose the best answer to complete the sentences.

  1. ‘They really believe in what I do and they want to enable me to do it.’ She went on to explain her success: ‘I’m very good, that’s ______________ .’

a the bottom line                     b the tip of the iceberg            c the back burner

  1. Then he became really ill and had to put all his plans ______________

a up in the air                          b on the fence                         c on the back burner

  1. ‘What if you need another operation after this one?’ – ‘I’ll ______________ .’

a make a mountain out of a molehill

b cross that bridge when I come to it

c stick to my guns

  1. The President accused his critics of being oversensitive and of ______________

a playing it by ear

b cutting to the chase

c making a mountain out of a molehill

  1. For four hours of questioning, Grommek ______________ , but by five o’clock he had changed his story.

a played it by ear                     b cut to the chase        c stuck to his guns

  1. She was ______________ about whether or not to turn back.

a splitting hairs                        b in two minds                        c up in the air

Exercise 4

Correct the idioms in these sentences.

  1. The dates for the summit meeting are still up on the fence at the moment.
  2. The police say that these numbers could just be the top of the iceberg.
  3. He’ll do what he can to make you change your mind, but you stick on the back burner.
  4. I’d don’t want to retire when I’m sixty years old but I’ll cut to the bridge when I come to it.
  5. She forgot her notes so she had to play it by air at the interview.
  6. There just isn’t any more money and that sits on the bottom line.
  7. After he retires, Ken will be able to sit in the back seat in the family business.
  8. I was proud to work for Ferrari, and to drive their fantastic cars was the icing in the cake.

Exercise 5

Complete the sentences with idioms in this unit, changing the verb forms if necessary.

  1. I was so pleased just to have passed the exam; coming first was ________________
  2. I can’t really say too much about who else I’m going to be working with at the moment because it’s all very much ________________ and anything could happen.
  3. I never really had a plan for my life. I just ________________. Neither of us is very ambitious and we have enough money.
  4. She introduced herself and then said ‘I’ll ________________ : I have all the evidence I need to put you in prison for the next ten years’.
  5. This is a misleading figure. There will be many hidden costs that we will discover as this project develops. I suggest that £1.4 billion is only ________________
  6. Yet on this key issue, the government has chosen to ________________ , saying that schools must decide for themselves.
  7. He warned reporters not to ________________. ‘I’m disappointed, but it’s not heartbreaking’, he said. ‘It was far worse in 1996.’
  8. I’m fed up with being the boss so I’m going to ________________ and let other people do the hard work for a while.

Exercise 6

Complete the table with idioms from this unit.

emphasizing something important 1 ______________________________

2 ______________________________

showing that something is less important 1 ______________________________

2 ______________________________

3 ______________________________

4 ______________________________

a decision not yet made 1 ______________________________

2 ______________________________

3 ______________________________

4 ______________________________

Your turn!

Have you had to decide how important something is in your life recently? Use the idioms in this unit to talk about it. For example:

I stuck to my guns told my parents I wanted to go travelling.

I don’t know what I’ll do after my exams – I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. 


Exercise 1

1 by     4 in

2 of      5 to

3 on     6 to

Exercise 2                  

1 E       4 C

2 D      5 A

3 F       6 B

Exercise 3                  

1 a       4 c

2 c       5 c

3 b       6 b

Exercise 4

1          up in the air

2          tip of the iceberg

3          stick to your guns

4          cross that bridge

5          play it by ear

6          is the bottom line

7          take a back seat

8          the icing on the cake

Exercise 5

1          the icing on the cake

2          up in the air

3          play it by ear

4          cut to the chase

5          the tip of the iceberg

6          sit on the fence

7          make a mountain out of a molehill

8          take a back seat

Exercise 6

Emphasizing something important the bottom line

cut to the chase

showing that something is less important make a mountain out of a molehill

split hairs

on the back burner

the icing on the cake 

a decision not yet made play it by ear

sit on the fence

up in the air

in two minds


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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