The most Common Idioms to Boost Your IELTS Score – Topic : Success and failure

3 1

 Success and failure

back to the drawing board

If you have to go back to the drawing board, something you have done has not been successful and you have to try another idea.

NOTE: Drawing boards are large flat boards, on which designers or architects place their paper when drawing plans.

His government should go back to the drawing board to rethink their programme.

bring the house down

If a person or their performance brings the house down, the audience claps and cheers loudly for a long time because they liked the performance so much.

NOTE: In this expression, the ‘house’ means a theatre.

We had just one rehearsal and I was very nervous but the show brought the house down.

come up in the world

If someone has come up in the world, they are richer or more powerful than they used to be and have a higher social status.

A polite and pleasant young man, he was an ordinary worker who had come up in the world.

NOTE: You can also say that someone has gone up in the world or moved up in the world.

fall flat on your face

If someone falls flat on their face when they try to do something, they fail or make an embarrassing mistake.

He was trying to introduce changes in the prison system but he fell flat on his face.

be fighting a losing battle

If you are fighting a losing battle, you are trying to achieve something, but you are very unlikely to succeed.

The theatre has to compete with the movies and DVDs and it’s fighting a losing battle.

go belly-up

If a company goes belly-up, it fails and does not have enough money to pay its debts. [INFORMAL]

NOTE: This expression may refer to dead fish floating upside down near the surface of the water.

Factories and farms went belly-up because of the debt crisis.

go pear-shaped

If a situation or activity goes pear-shaped, it starts to fail or have problems. [BRITISH, INFORMAL]

He is always asked to comment when the global economy goes pear-shaped.

hit the nail on the head

If you hit the nail on the head, you describe a situation or problem very precisely.

Smith hit the nail on the head when he said that the Prime Minister promised so much and yet changed so little.

plain sailing

If an activity or task is plain sailing, it is easy to do or achieve. [BRITISH]

NOTE: ‘Plain sailing’ is sailing in good conditions, without any difficulties. However, the expression may have come from ‘plane sailing’, a method of working out the position of a ship and planning its route using calculations based on the earth being flat rather than round. This is a simple and easy method which is fairly accurate over short distances, especially near the equator.

Once I got used to the diet it was plain sailing and I lost six kilos over four months.

save the day

If someone or something saves the day in a situation which seems likely to fail, they manage to make it successful.

After a disastrous first night for the show, it was Biggs who stepped in to save the day.

touch and go

If it is touch and go whether something will happen, you cannot be certain whether it will happen or not.

I thought I was going to win the race, but it was still touch and go.

win hands down

If you win a contest hands down, you win it easily.

NOTE: This expression was originally used in horse racing to describe jockeys who won their races very easily and could cross the winning line with their hands lowered and the reins (=thin leather straps attached around a horse’s neck) loose.

We have been beaten in some games which we should have won hands down.

NOTE: You can also say that you beat someone else hands down.

When he said he would beat me hands down, I didn’t know he could run that fast!

with flying colours

If you achieve something, such as passing an examination, with flying colours, you achieve it easily and are very successful.

NOTE: The image here is of a ship that has won a battle, sailing back into port with its colours (= a military flag) flying.

She passed the entrance exam with flying colours.

work like a charm

If something works like a charm, it is very successful or effective.

Our little arrangement worked like a charm.


Exercise 1

1          I’m sure you’ll pass your final exam with flying ­­­­­­____________.

a          flags                b          colours             c          sails

2          She guessed – and hit the ____________ on the head first time.

a          nail                  b          board               c          hammer

3          It seemed like a good idea but I fell ____________ on my face.

a          down               b          belly-up           c          flat

4          I’m trying to learn Japanese but I think I’m fighting a losing ____________

a          fight                b          battle               c          face

5          That nail varnish remover you gave me worked like a ____________

a          charm              b          pear                 c          trick

6          We’ve done the hard work – it’ll be ____________ sailing from now on.

a          plain                b          flying               c          flat

7          The plan went ____________            -shaped almost from the very start.

a          belly                b          face                 c          pear

8          All my work over the last year has just gone  ____________!

a          belly-up           b          down               c          flat

Exercise 2

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

1          If a performance brings the house down, it is a complete failure.

2          If someone saves the day, they make it a success.

3          If something goes belly-up, it fails.

4          If something goes pear-shaped, it goes according to plan.

5          If you have to go back to the drawing board, you have to start again.

6          If something works like a charm, it doesn’t have the desired results.

7          If you hit the nail on the head, you are wrong about something.

8          If something is touch and go, the outcome is certain.

Exercise 3

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

  1. will win the final / we’re hoping / hands down / that our team
  2. to go belly-up / the exporters / it looks like / are likely
  3. for the launch of / all our arrangements / the new products / have gone pear-shaped
  4. move up in the world / can expect to / a keen young politician / who knows the right people
  5. be prepared to go / we have to / to fix these serious problems / back to the drawing board
  6. would be / it was touch and go / finished in time / whether my manuscript

Exercise 4

Correct the idioms in these sentences.

  1. Our presentation started off well, but then it all went flat-shaped at the end.
  2. That’s it! You’ve really hit the head on the nail.
  3. Being a student is not all plain playing – there’s a lot of hard work to do.
  4. He’s really come up in the face since his humble beginnings.
  5. Our team was far better than the competition and we won hands up.
  6. It was start and go as to whether he would survive the accident – but he’s made a full recovery.

Exercise 5

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

1          Once I’ve done the research, writing the report will be ______________ .

2          I agree with you entirely. I think you’ve ______________

3          We started well, but it all ______________ and we lost five matches in a row.

4          The medicine ______________and my life has greatly improved.

5          I told myself I was going to try even harder and I would not __________again.

6          The newspapers ______________ to maintain their sales figures.

7          Mr Cheng’s secretary finally found the missing documents and ______________

8          The audience loved her dancing and her performance ______________

Exercise 6

Complete the table with idioms from this unit.

success 1 _______________________________

2 _______________________________

3 _______________________________

4 _______________________________

5 _______________________________

6 _______________________________

7 _______________________________

8 _______________________________

failure 1 _______________________________

2 _______________________________

3 _______________________________

4 _______________________________

5 _______________________________

neither success nor failure 1 _______________________________


Your turn!

Use the idioms in this unit to describe any experiences of success or failure that you’ve had recently. For example:

I didn’t exactly pass my exam with flying colours but I did okay.

My flatmate beat me hands down at tennis yesterday.


Exercise 1

1          b

2          a

3          c

4          b

5          a

6          a

7          c

8          a


Exercise 2

1          F          5          T

2          T          6          F

3          T          7          F

4          F          8          F

Exercise 3

1          We’re hoping that our team will win the final hands down.

2          It looks like the exporters are likely to go belly-up.

3          All our arrangements for the launch of the new products have gone pear-shaped.

4          A keen young politician who knows the right people can expect to move up in the world.

5          We have to be prepared to go back to the drawing board to fix these serious problems.

6          It was touch and go whether my manuscript would be finished in time.

Exercise 4

1 went pear-shaped

2 hit the nail on the head

3 plain sailing

4 come up in the world

5 hands down

6 touch and go

Exercise 5

1          plain sailing

2          hit the nail on the head

3          went pear-shaped

4          worked like a charm

5          fall flat on my face

6          are fighting a losing battle

7          saved the day

8          brought the house down

Exercise 6

success come up in the world

hit the nail on the head

plain sailing

win hands down

with flying colours

work like a charm

bring the house down

save the day

failure back to the drawing board

be fighting a losing battle

fall flat on your face

go belly-up

go pear-shaped

Neither success nor failure touch and go


Written By

Misbah Kagad is a Content Marketing Specialist, currently working as IELTS Trainer at Experience Expert with a demonstrated history of working in the education management industry. Skilled in Copywriting, Web Content writing, Management, IELTS and Research. Strong professional with a Diploma focused in Computer Science... Currently helping aspirants to crack IELTS, with tips and tricks to score a bandwidth of 8 and more. Handles the ideation and creation of compelling content including content for IELTS website, writing e-books and solving previous IELTS question papers…

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