The most Common Idioms to Boost Your IELTS Score – Topic: Progress



be barking up the wrong tree

If someone is barking up the wrong tree, they are following the wrong course of action because their beliefs about something are not correct.

NOTE: This expression comes from raccoon (= a small long-tailed animal in North and Central America) hunting, which takes place at night. Dogs that are trained to show where raccoons are by barking sometimes indicate the wrong tree.

Scientists in Switzerland realized that most other researchers had been barking up the wrong tree.

be flogging a dead horse

If someone is flogging a dead horse, they are wasting their time trying to achieve something that cannot be done. [BRITISH]

After all our hard work, we don’t seem to be making any progress. It feels like we’re flogging a dead horse – it’s all very discouraging.

gain ground

If something or someone gains ground, they make progress and become more important or more powerful.

His ideas on nutrition have been gaining ground in recent years.

NOTE: The opposite of gain ground is lose ground.

get to grips with something or come to grips with something

If you get to grips with or come to grips with a problem or task, you start to deal with it effectively, usually by making an effort to understand it.

The present government has completely failed to get to grips with our economic problems.

I must come to grips with this new system.

get your act together

If you get your act together, you organize yourself effectively so that you can deal successfully with things. [INFORMAL]

We’re going to be 22 points behind by Monday and we’ve got to get our act together.

go around in circles or go round in circles

If someone goes around in circles or goes round in circles, they achieve little because they repeatedly deal with the same point or problem.

This was one of those debates which simply went round in circles.

My mind was going around in circles, worrying, but I knew that no news was good news.

in the doldrums

If a person, organization, economy, etc. is in the doldrums, they are not successful and are not making any progress.

NOTE: This expression relates to the Doldrums, which is an area of sea near the equator where there is often little or no wind. This meant that sailing ships could be stuck there for long periods.

The restaurant business, like many other businesses, is in the doldrums.

in the pipeline

If something is in the pipeline, it is being planned or developed.

NOTE: A pipeline is a large pipe that carries oil or gas over a long distance, often underground.

Another development in the pipeline is closed-circuit TV cameras in most stores.

light at the end of the tunnel

If there is light at the end of the tunnel, there is hope that a difficult situation might be coming to an end.

After a very difficult time we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

make headway

If you make headway, you make progress with something that you are trying to achieve.

A spokesman said the two sides have made headway on some issues.

on a roll

If you are on a roll, you are making great progress and having a lot of success.

NOTE: This expression probably comes from surfing.

I’d done my first deal and I was on a roll, I couldn’t see anything going wrong.

NOTE: You can say that someone gets on a roll.

Once you get on a roll you feel as though you’re unbeatable.

on the right track

If someone or something is on the right track, they are acting or developing in a way that is likely to be successful.

We are finding that guests for lunch and dinner are returning in increasing numbers – a sure sign that we are

on the right track.

NOTE: The opposite of on the right track is on the wrong track.

put something on hold

If you put something on hold, you decide not to do it or deal with it until a later time.

NOTE: This expression is probably from the term used in the past when someone making a telephone call waited for the operator to connect them.

We’ll have to put the project on hold until we get some more money.

NOTE: You can also just say that something is on hold.

A few months later it was announced that the deal was on hold, perhaps permanently.


Exercise 1

Complete the sentences with the words in the box

doldrums | hold | horse | track | ground | act
  1. I was bored and my career was in the ______________
  2. Yoga for children is something that seems to be gaining ______________
  3. He has had no success with this idea. I think he’s flogging a dead ______________
  4. At least this result tells us that we’re on the right ______________
  5. If we want this plan to succeed we must get our ______________ together right now.
  6. The building development has been put on ______________because of financial problems.

Exercise 2

Choose the best definition for each sentence.

1          He’s on a roll.

a making progress and having success            b getting confused

2          Video conferencing is gaining ground in the workplace.

a becoming less popular                                  b becoming more popular

3          Could you read my draft essay and tell me if I’m on the right track?

a developing it in the right way                      b got everything right first time

4          We’re going round in circles on this issue.

a coming to a conclusion                                 b not making any progress

5          I’m struggling to get to grips with this equipment.

a can’t hold it correctly                                   b don’t understand it properly

6          After a lot of research we came to the conclusion that we’d been barking up the wrong tree.

a misunderstanding the situation                    b doing too much work

Exercise 3

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

1 Of course you can try to get a refund

2 I know the future looks depressing right now

3 They put the photo-story on hold for a while

4 Everyone gave the same answers

5 A lot of exciting things are in the pipeline

6 The polls indicate that our man is making headway

A and decided just to do an interview.

B but I think you’re flogging a dead horse.

C and I felt that I was going round in circles.

D but nobody I know supports him.

E but there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.

F but the details are all confidential at this stage.

Exercise 4

Choose the best answer to complete the sentences.

1          It appears that the police are beginning to ___________ in the investigation.

a          get to grips     b          bark up the wrong tree            c          make headway

2          We had to put our lives ___________ until we were both healthy again.

a          on hold            b          in the doldrums           c          on a roll

3          As these new ideas ___________ attitudes started to change.

a          went round in circles   b          got on a roll                c          gained ground

4          I wish you would stop wasting time and ___________

a          lose ground                 b          get your act together   c          go round in circles

5          Your book needs a bit of editing but I think you’re ___________

a          on the right track         b          in the pipeline              c          barking up the wrong tree

6          We are genuinely looking forward to the changes that are ___________

a          in the pipeline             b          getting to grips            c          going round in circles

Exercise 5

Replace the underlined words in sentences 1-8 with idioms A-H.

  1. We may as well stop trying to achieve victory on this issue – we’re just wasting time.
  2. You need to organize yourself and start studying for your final exams.
  3. It’s been a difficult project but I feel that we are progressing, at last.
  4. I’m afraid plans for an extension have to be postponed until we have enough money.
  5. Things are still financially difficult for the company but we can see the possibility of success, at least.
  6. Plans for a new tourist information office are in development, as well as a new shopping centre.
  7. The detectives admit that they’ve been following the wrong tree for some time.
  8. The industry has been suffering a period of inactivity with sales down 15 per cent on last year.

A         in the pipeline

B         in the doldrums

C         barking up the wrong tree

D         flogging a dead horse

E          see light at the end of the tunnel

F          get your act together

G         put on hold

H         making headway

Exercise 6

Correct the idioms in these sentences.

1          We have taken action to put the industry back on the right side of the track.

2          There are nearly 350 new hospital schemes going through the pipeline.

3          People feel hopeless. They don’t see any light at the end of the pipeline.

4          The decision to buy the car was on a roll until we could sell our old one.

5          This new evidence suggests that we may be barking up a dead tree.

6          As a company, we are trying hard to put our act together on customer service.

7          Many of these firms are losing grips to new web-based businesses.

8          I was busy trying to get to hold with the new database.

Your turn!

Have you made any progress in your life or your work recently? Use the idioms in this unit to describe any of your experiences. For example:

I finally got to grips with uploading music to my phone.

I’m making headway with idioms and usually manage to use one every day.


Exercise 1

1          doldrums

2          ground

3          horse

4          track

5          act

6          hold

Exercise 2      

1 a       4 b

2 b       5 b

3 a       6 a

Exercise 3      

1 B      4 C

2 E       5 F

3 A      6 D

Exercise 4      

1 c       4 b

2 a       5 a

3 c       6 a

Exercise 5      

1 D      5 E

2 F       6 A

3 H      7 C

4 G      8 B

Exercise 6

1          on the right track

2          in the pipeline

3          light at the end of the tunnel

4          on hold

5          be barking up the wrong tree

6          get our act together

7          losing ground

8          get to grips

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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