Common Idioms to Improve your IELTS Speaking Score – Topic : Trouble and Difficulty

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Trouble and Difficulty

be asking for trouble

If someone is asking for trouble, they are behaving in a way that makes it very likely that they will have problems.

Riding a bicycle in town after dark without lights is just asking for trouble.

bite off more than you can chew

If you bite off more than you can chew, you try to do a task that is too big for you or too difficult.

I didn’t know if I could memorize a text of that length and started to worry that I had bitten off more than I could chew.

Also check : IELTS Speaking

a Catch 22

A Catch 22 is an extremely frustrating situation in which one thing cannot happen until another thing has happened, but the other thing cannot happen until the first thing has happened.

NOTE: This expression comes from the novel Catch 22 (1961), by the American author Joseph Heller, which is about bomber pilots in the Second World War. Their ‘Catch 22’ situation was that any sane person would ask if they could stop flying. However, the authorities would only allow people to stop flying if they were insane.

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There’s a Catch 22 in finding a job. You need experience to get work and you need work to get experience.

NOTE: You can also talk about a Catch 22 situation.

It’s a Catch 22 situation here. Nobody wants to support you until you’re successful but without the support, how can you ever be successful?

a/the fly in the ointment

If someone or something is a fly in the ointment they prevent a situation from being as successful or happy as it would be without them.

NOTE: Ointment is a creamy medicinal substance for treating pain or wounds.

The only fly in the ointment is Bella’s lack of concentration.

not have a leg to stand on

If someone does not have a leg to stand on they are in a very weak position, because they cannot prove a claim or statement they have made.

You’d never win if you went to court. Our lawyers said you wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.

in over your head

If you are in over your head you are in a situation that is too difficult for you to deal with.

NOTE: Here, the reference is to getting into water that is too deep to stand up in.

He realized that he was in over his head, and that only his family could help him.

NOTE: You can also say that someone gets in over their head if they get into a situation that is too difficult for them.

Kelly told the hearing he got in way over his head and became afraid after the prisoner threatened him and his family.

out of the frying pan into the fire or from the frying pan into the fire

If someone has gone out of the frying pan into the fire or from the frying pan into the fire, they have moved from a bad situation to an even worse one.

I was hoping to get my career back on track after a bad time, but as it turned out, I’d gone out of the frying pan into the fire.

an own goal

An own goal is a course of action which is intended to bring you an advantage and which instead causes a problem for you. [BRITISH]

NOTE: In sports such as football and hockey if someone scores an own goal, they accidentally score a goal for the team they are playing against by knocking the ball into their own net.

It was a classic own goal by the fashion house. They brought their prices down to attract more customers but lost the high-end customers that they already had.

put your foot in it

If you put your foot in it you say something which embarrasses or offends the person you are with, and embarrasses you as a result.

I put my foot in it straight away, referring to folk music. Tom sat forward and glared. ‘It’s not folk music, man. It’s heritage music.’

a stumbling block

If you describe something as a stumbling block you mean it is a problem which stops you from achieving something.

It’s her attitude that’s the biggest stumbling block.

teething problems or teething troubles

Teething problems or teething troubles are problems in the early stages of something. [BRITISH]

NOTE: When babies are teething their teeth are starting to appear through their gums, often causing them pain.

There are bound to be teething problems in a new marriage.

Some teething troubles aside, the new computer system works well.

a vicious circle

If you describe a difficult situation as a vicious circle you mean that one problem has caused other problems which, in turn, have made the original problem even worse.

NOTE: It is impossible to prove the truth of one statement by a second statement, which in turn relies on the first for proof. The expression is a translation of the Latin ‘circulus vitiosus’, meaning ‘a flawed circular argument’.

The economy couldn’t create jobs because consumers weren’t spending. Consumers weren’t spending because the economy wasn’t creating jobs. And this was the vicious circle we were caught in.


Exercise 1

Complete the sentences with the words in the box

fly | block | circle | trouble | goal |  leg  | foot|  head
  1. He put his ____________ in it by asking if she was going to marry Craig.
  2. I’m in over my ____________ with debt just now.
  3. The cost of the solution is the biggest stumbling ____________
  4. I haven’t got a ____________ to stand on because I have no witnesses.
  5. So often with many health problems, a vicious ____________ is established.
  6. The suspect scored an own ____________ by making a phone call that the police recorded.
  7. If you post that picture on the Internet you’re asking for ____________
  8. The ____________ in the ointment was that the sound system was not powerful enough.

Exercise 2

Answer the questions.

  1. Does a fly in the ointment lead to or prevent a successful outcome?
  2. Isa stumbling block something that stops or helps you from reaching your goals?
  3. Are teething troubles temporary or permanent problems?
  4. If you are in something over your head, are you able or unable to cope with a situation?
  5. Is a person usually pleased or offended if you put your foot in it when you say something to them?
  6. Does a vicious circle usually have a definite good outcome or not?

Exercise 3

Complete the sentences. Choose the correct idioms.

  1. I really don’t think you should attempt all that in one day. You’re putting your foot in it. / It’s biting off more than you can chew. / It’s a stumbling block.
  2. I’m sure things will improve. Everyone has a fly in the ointment / a vicious circle / teething problems when they first start a new job.
  3. I can’t get a teaching job without a qualification and I can’t get a qualification without some teaching experience. It’s a Catch 22 situation. / a stumbling block. / an own goal.
  4. I really didn’t have a leg to stand on / put my foot in it /was in over my head when I asked her how her husband was. I didn’t realise they’d separated.
  5. I wouldn’t leave one bad situation to go into another, even worse one. It’ll be a fly in the ointment, /putting your foot in it. / going from the frying pan into the fire.
  6. The only stumbling block / vicious circle / teething troubles to my chances of getting a promotion is my lack of experience in the field.

Exercise 4

Correct the idioms in these sentences.

  1. I found myself in a ridiculous Circle 22 situation.
  2. It’s a vicious round because the fear gets worse each time she sees a cat, and now she’s afraid of the fear itself.
  3. This job is really too difficult for US now – we’re in up to our legs.
  4. I scored my own goal when I told my boss I didn’t really need a pay rise.
  5. The block in the ointment is the fact that you really need a fast broadband Internet connection to play these games properly.
  6. You might have bitten off more trouble than you can chew with this project.
  7. Restaurants inevitably suffer tooth troubles when they are establishing themselves.
  8. Letting a child near a can of spray paint is just asking for troubles.

Exercise 5

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

  1. A politician can score __________ if a publicity photo makes him look ridiculous.
  2. After some initial __________ , the business began to do well.
  3. Having finally left one bad relationship, she jumped __________
  4. You don’t have a formal contract with the company so I’m afraid you haven’t really got __________.
  5. Leaving valuable possessions in a car is asking __________
  6. Here is a ten-point guide to help you avoid putting __________ when you meet your girlfriend’s father.

Exercise 6

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

a stumbling block | a Catch 22  | a vicious circle | the fly in the ointment | an own goal

bite off more than you can chew |  put your foot in it in over your head |

not have a leg to stand on | out of the frying pan into the fire

causing difficulty 1 _________________________________________

2 _________________________________________

3 _________________________________________

4 _________________________________________

5 _________________________________________

a difficulty situation 1 _________________________________________

2 _________________________________________

3 _________________________________________

4 _________________________________________

5 _________________________________________

Your turn!

Use the idioms in this unit to describe any troublesome or difficult situations you have experienced recently. For example:

It’s great that we have a day off next week. The fly in the ointment is that I’ll have to revise for my exam the next day.

My friend Jose is always putting his foot in it but he’s a really nice person.

Answer Key

Exercise 1

1 foot              5 circle

2 head             6 goal

3 block            7 trouble

4 leg                8 fly

Exercise 2

1 prevent         4 unable

2 stops             5 offended

3 temporary     6 not

Exercise 3

1          It’s biting off more than you can chew.

2          teething problems

3          a Catch 22 situation

4          put my foot in it

5          going from the frying pan into the fire

6          stumbling block

Exercise 4

1          Catch 22 situation

2          a vicious circle

3          in over our heads

4          an own goal

5          fly in the ointment

6          bitten off more than you can chew

7          teething troubles

8          asking for trouble

Exercise 5

1          an own goal

2          teething troubles/problems

3          out of/from the frying pan into the fire

4          a leg to stand on

5          for trouble

6          your foot in it

Exercise 6

causing difficulty a stumbling block

the fly in the ointment

an own goal

bite off more than you can chew

put your foot in it

a difficult situation

a Catch 22

a vicious circle

in over your head

not have a leg to stand on

out of the frying pan into the fire


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.

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