The most Common Idioms to Boost Your IELTS Score – Topic : Honesty and fairness

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Honesty and fairness

above board

If a situation or business is above board, it is honest and legal.

NOTE: This expression comes from card games in which players place their bets on a board or table. Actions above the table, where other players can see them, are probably fair.

Anyone who wants to inspect our books can see for themselves that we are totally above board.

not beat around the bush or not beat about the bush

If you don’t beat around the bush or don’t beat about the bush, you say what you want to say clearly and directly.

NOTE: In organized hunting, someone will drive birds or small animals out of the undergrowth by beating it with a stick. They may have to do this cautiously as they do not know exactly where the birds or animals are.

Let’s not beat about the bush. I think these letters are worth a lot to you.

below the belt

If someone says something that is below the belt, they say something cruel and unfair.

NOTE: In boxing, it is against the rules to hit an opponent below the level of their belt.

He made a joke about her divorce which I thought was a bit below the belt.

by fair means or foul

If someone tries to achieve something by fair means or foul, they use any possible method to achieve it, not caring if their behaviour is dishonest or unfair.

They will do everything they can to win, by fair means or foul.

call a spade a spade

If you call a spade a spade, you speak honestly and directly about a subject even if it offends people.

NOTE: In a play by the Ancient Greek dramatist Menander, one of the characters says ‘I call a fig a fig, and a spade a spade’.

In the meantime, Whyte is an outspoken voice who is willing to call a spade a spade.

come clean

If you come clean about something, you tell the truth about it.

I had expected her to come clean and confess that she only wrote these books for the money.

fair and square

If someone wins a competition or does something fair and square, they do it without cheating or lying.

My father bought them fair and square fifty years ago. We’ve still got the receipts.

keep your nose clean

If you keep your nose clean, you behave well and avoid trouble. [INFORMAL]

He’d worked hard and kept his nose clean for all those years.

lay your cards on the table or put your cards on the table

If you lay your cards on the table or put your cards on the table, you tell someone the truth about your feelings, opinions, or plans.

NOTE: Referring to when players in a card game lay their cards face up for the other players to see.

I’ll lay my cards on the table: I think the new design is terrible.

I’m going to put my cards on the table and make you an offer.

a level playing field

A level playing field is a situation that is fair and where no one has an advantage over other people.

Trade with these nations must be conducted on a level playing field.

NOTE: You can also use even or uneven instead of level.

Given an even playing field, girls tend to do better at school than boys.

move the goalposts

If someone moves the goalposts, they change the rules or aims in a situation or activity, in order to gain an advantage and to make things more difficult for the other people involved.

They seem to move the goalposts every time I meet the required conditions.

NOTE: You can also say that someone shifts the goalposts.

The administration is shifting the goalposts and changing its demands.

on the level

Someone or something that is on the level is honest or true.

Wait a minute, something’s odd here – is this guy on the level? Can we trust him?

stab someone in the back

If someone that you trust stabs you in the back, they secretly do something which hurts and betrays you.

She was incredibly disloyal. She would be your friend to your face, and then stab you in the back.

to someone’s face

If you say something, especially something critical or unpleasant, to someone’s face, you say it directly to them.

He was too old and he had to step aside. But who was going to say so to his face?


Exercise 1

Complete the sentences with the words in the box.

clean                board               level                 belt                  bush

table                means              nose

1          He’s a good man who works hard and keeps his ­­­­­­­­­­_________ clean.

2          I’ve decided I’m going to get that contract by fair _________ or foul.

3          I can offer you something better than that, and all on the _________.

4          I’ll lay my cards on the _________: we’ve run out of money.

5          We suspect their deal was not entirely above _________.

6          She decided to come _________ and tell them exactly what had happened.

7          We feel these financial cuts are below the _________.

8          He’s always very direct and never beats about the _________.

Exercise 2

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

1          If you lay your cards on the table, you are telling the truth.

2          If something is above board, it’s dishonest.

3          If someone is on the level, you can’t trust that person.

4          If you move the goalposts, you make things easier for people.

5          If you call a spade a spade, you are being direct.

6          If you beat around the bush, you tell the truth immediately.

7          If someone wins by fair means or foul, they are careful not to cheat.

8          If a remark is below the belt, it is possibly true, but nevertheless painful. □

Exercise 3

Match sentence halves 1-8 with A-H to make complete sentences.

1 I’ll lay my cards on the table

2 I can never please my manager –

3 The other candidates have more money than me

4 He won’t say it to my face

5 It was horribly disappointing

6 If you keep your nose clean

7 He felt betrayed,

8 We should be honest

A  because he’s scared of me.

B  and call a spade a spade.

C  he always seems to be shifting the goalposts.

D  and tell them that I’ve done all I can do.

E   but we were beaten fair and square.

F   as though his son had stabbed him in the back.

G  you’ll progress quickly in this company.

H  so it’s not a level playing field.

Exercise 4

Correct the idioms in these sentences.

  1. I can guarantee that these are genuine. I bought them square and square from an antique dealer.
  2. Stop beating around the field and tell the truth.
  3. I think that comment about her personal life was below the bush. You should apologise to her.
  4. Everyone should start from the beginning. That way, we have a level playing card for everyone.
  5. If you have something to say, just be honest and say it to my back.
  6. When his boss gave him a bad reference after all his hard work, it was a real stab in the face.
  7. The deal was all legal and above the table.
  8. His ambition is to get the top job, by square means or foul.

Exercise 5

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

  1. In all industries you need __________ to compete fairly with your competitors.
  2. The world will never believe that he won that election __________
  3. Let’s __________ , we have to tell them exactly how we see it.
  4. He needed to know to the truth, so she was going to go to his office and tell him __________
  5. If you __________ and tell us the truth, then it’ll be a lot easier for you.
  6. As soon as we reach a target, the management __________ and comes up with new demands.
  7. ‘You’ll be okay if you shut up and __________ .’ he said.
  8. She’s determined to catch that criminal __________.

Exercise 6

Complete the table with idioms from this unit.

being direct 1 ________________________________

2 ________________________________

3 ________________________________

4 ________________________________

being fair or honest 1 ________________________________

2 ________________________________

3 ________________________________

4 ________________________________

5 ________________________________

6 ________________________________

not being fair or honest 1 ________________________________

2 ________________________________

3 ________________________________

Your turn!

Think about your life recently. Use the idioms in this unit to describe your experiences with other people – when someone has or hasn’t been very honest or fair, or when you have or haven’t been very direct. For example:

When Carlo told me our class was cancelled, I wasn’t sure he was on the level.

I had to come clean and tell my boss that I was going to miss the deadline.


Exercise 1

1          nose

2          means

3          level

4          table

5          board

6          clean

7          belt

8          bush

Exercise 2                  

1 T       5 T

2 F       6 F

3 F       7 F

4 F       8 T

Exercise 3                  

1 D      5 E

2 C      6 G

3 H      7 F

4 A      8 B

Exercise 4

1          fair and square

2          beating around the bush

3          below the belt

4          level playing field

5          say it to my face

6          stab in the back

7          above board

8          by fair means or foul

Exercise 5

1          a level playing field

2          fair and square

3          not beat about the bush

4          to his face

5          come clean

6          moves the goalposts

7          keep your nose clean

8          by fair means or foul

Exercise 6

being direct not beat about the bush

lay your cards on the table

to someone’s face

call a spade a spade

being fair and honest come clean

above board

on the level

a level playing field

fair and square

keep your nose clean

not being fair or honest stab someone in the back

move the goalposts

below the belt


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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