Can You Pass This Difficult Common Phrases Test?


By: Olivia Cantor

6 Min Quiz

Image: Izusek / E+ / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Will you draw a blank upon seeing these common phrases' missing components, or can your bag of tricks supply you with the necessary answers? 

Taking this quiz down the road, you might discover that these common phrases sound familiar because most of them are spread by word of mouth. Perhaps you also fell head over heels with some of them, even used them to no end, until you drove other people nuts! Don't get carried away too much; you can't really twist their arms about this issue.

But for grammar nerds, this is quite understandable. Maybe you're a bit frustrated since there are people unfamiliar with some of these supposedly common phrases. But you don't really need to be at loggerheads with such people, even if you are at your wit's end. If they don't know jack, then so be it. You don't have to lift a finger to convert them or convince them to learn more. That's like chasing rainbows, and they can drop you like a hot potato if they're your close friends. Just give them the benefit of the doubt, and go with the flow to avoid conflicts.

For now, just open up this quiz and have fun with it. Show us your Midas touch!

"Once bitten, ____ shy" shows someone already learned their lesson.

A person who is "once bitten, twice shy" now exercises much more caution than before. This means the person already learned a valuable lesson​ and is now being careful not to commit the same mistake again in parallel circumstances.


When deciding on which track to pursue, be sure not to "throw the ____ out with the bath water."

To "throw the baby out with the bathwater" means a good idea or option is in danger of being discarded along with dismissing a bad idea or option, like an unintended consequence. It is said that the idiom first appeared in the 1500s and originated in German culture.


Be careful in dealing with that person, or else you'll end up dead and you'll "sleep with the __."

The threat of "sleep with the fishes" refers to being murdered, plain and simple. It can allude to the dead person being thrown into a body of water for disposal, so the body will literally "sleep" with the fishes there.


If you want to "have your __ and eat it, too," you should have two great options available to you at the same time.

To "have your cake and eat it, too" means you are very lucky to have access to two great things at the same time, when those two things are oftentimes difficult or impossible to access at the same time. The phrase alludes to having tremendous privilege or luck to have this kind of access.


"Throw __ the gauntlet" and challenge your opponent to be heard!

Medieval knights were known to "throw down the gauntlet" at each other, which pertains to their metal gloves used as a symbol of a challenge. Today, we use the phrase in a parallel manner, especially when you want to challenge someone, but, of course, without the metal gloves component.


Anything you dislike but you still have to accept is indeed a "bitter __ to swallow."

A "bitter pill to swallow" involves anything that gives you difficulty, pain, sorrow or any other negative feeling, yet you still need to accept it despite that fact. The phrase can apply to many situations in life.


All they have now is animosity between them, so it's true that there's "no __ lost between the two."

When referring to two parties and saying that there's "no love lost between the two," it means both parties don't want anything to do with the other, since they hate each other's guts. This appearance of ill will toward one aother is also obvious to people around them.


"Tell it to the __" if you have an unbelievable and incredulous story to share!

When someone says "tell it to the marines," it implies they are not buying the story being sold to them, so the speaker needs to tell it to people who are likely to believe it. In olden times, marines in this context referred to the British Marines, once uncharacteristically dismissed as gullible people.


When you completely fail or completely overcome a challenge, that's "sink or __" type of survival.

To "sink or swim" means either you fail or lose in a situation, or you overcome the challenge and come out a winner. This phrase often pertains to a person's survival instinct, so losing or winning is solely up to that person and can't be attributed to outside factors.


You "beat someone to the __" when you can accomplish a task faster than others.

You are a fast worker if you "beat someone to the draw" because you were able to accomplish a task faster than your colleagues. However, this doesn't necessarily mean you are efficient in the task, since you may have committed mistakes during the rush.


You know you're not too important when you only "play second __" to someone else.

To "play second fiddle" to someone else means you are in a supporting role of sorts, or you're not as important as the first person. They say the phrase originated in the music world and refers to how a second violinist doesn't have that huge of a role when compared to the first violinist in an orchestra.


Something is "par for the __" when an unpleasant situation occurs, as expected.

"Par for the course" is a phrase you would say when you heard something had happened but you weren't necessarily surprised by the outcome. In fact, it was to be expected, given those circumstances and the nature of its source.


Being "footloose and fancy-__" means being liberated from any attachments, so one is open to do the things they want.

To be "footloose and fancy-free" is a state of being when one is unattached, meaning a person does not answer to a partner, spouse, or even a loved one, like a family member. If there are no such attachments, that person can do whatever they want in a carefree manner. It can also apply to any kind of attachment or responsibility, like a job.


"__ wasn't built in a day," so if you want to see great work done, have patience, since it takes time.

"Rome wasn't built in a day" is a phrase one uses when there is a need to emphasize the longevity of a project or task, and also the implication of cultivating patience to go along with it. Rome here pertains to the grandeur of ancient Rome, which took a long time to build.


To be utterly exhausted yet still plodding on is like "__ on fumes."

To be "running on fumes" means you're still working hard even though you're already exhausted from working. The origin of this phrase is an automotive one, as it refers to a car's capacity to still run when it's nearly empty of fuel.


When two people are guilty of the same mistake but one of them criticizes the other about it, that's like the "pot calling the kettle __."

The "pot calling the kettle black" refers to these two kitchen items that turn black at the bottom when used, so they both appear dirty. Neither of them, therefore, has the right to criticize the other for being dirty. This phrase obviously originated in the kitchen, but when used in this context is applicable to people.


If you're trying to accomplish a big feat without the necessary skills or tools, then you will "fly by the seat of your __."

To "fly by the seat of your pants" means to push through with a hard task or difficult plan without having the necessary skills to accomplish it. As the phrase implies, it originated in the aviation world, and is similar in meaning to the phrase "to wing it."


"The die is __" when a decision that can't be undone has already been made.

"The die is cast" signifies a "point of no return" when a decision about something has already been made and can't be undone for any reason whatsoever. The phrase is connected to Julius Caesar, who was credited to have said this when crossing a forbidden stream, starting a civil war.


"Wake up and smell the __," and finally see the ugly truth of a situation.

Someone needs to "wake up and smell the coffee" when they need to open their eyes and see the ugly truth about a certain situation. This phrase is used with the implication that the parties involved aren't facing a certain situation because of its unpleasant reality.


A person can't "hold a __" to someone else when that someone is obviously greater in stature or skill.

In olden times, inexperienced apprentices were the ones who held the candles while working, so that the expert workers can complete their job. So "to hold a candle to" means being of lower stature or skill than the other person who's the recipient of the proverbial candle's light.


When someone wants to know the "__ figure," just give them a close numerical estimate.

"Ballpark figure" refers to a close estimate of the value of something. It is used if you can't give an exact number or amount at that moment. It's not really specified, but a ballpark figure can be a little under or a little over the exact numerical value.


If you want "to be a __ blanket," just disagree with your friends' idea of fun.

"To be a wet blanket" takes on an antagonistic stance against other people's idea of fun, like dismissing their happy plans or refusing to join in on their fun. This phrase may refer to an intentional action or an accidental one.


To "trip the __ fantastic," you need to learn how to ballroom dance.

"To trip the light fantastic" simply means to dance, and it's usually related to ballroom dancing, not just any kind of dance. The original phrase was longer, as "light fantastic" referred to "toe," but the reference to the part was later dropped when the phrase became more common in usage.


Getting a "five-__ discount" means you're getting an item illegally.

A "five-finger discount" refers to the act of stealing or shoplifting an item in a store, and it pertains to the five fingers of the thief picking up the item. The phrase is predominantly used within North America.


Learning something hard outside of school is like acquiring knowledge from the "school of __ knocks."

To be educated in the "school of hard knocks" means to learn life's valuable lessons from practical hands-on experience, as opposed to learning such lessons within a formal academic institution. In other regions of the world, the phrase "university of life" is used in the same manner.


A recovering alcoholic who drinks again is said to "__ off the wagon."

When someone "falls off a wagon," it means they failed to maintain a clean drinking record. This can also be applied to any addiction, although the genesis of this phrase involved drinking alcohol.


Going "on a __ expedition" means you're investigating to unearth information.

Someone going "on a fishing expedition" means an investigation or search is being undertaken, with the primary purpose of discovering or unearthing valuable information. "To fish" simply means to reel in something, or to get information, like the act of reeling in fish from the water.


Doing an action that's "beyond the __" means it crossed ethical boundaries.

To do something "beyond the pale" means propriety or suitable behavior was ignored, and lines to impropriety or unsuitable behavior were crossed. The act of doing so is usually intentional but can also be accidental in nature.


"Call a spade a __" if you want to be honest and tell it like it is.

To "call a spade a spade" means not to beat around the bush, and just tell it like it is without meandering too much. It also refers to telling the truth, even if it hurts to say it or will hurt others.


No result will be obtained by futile efforts, and that's just "beating a dead __."

"To beat a dead horse" suggests doing actions that will result to nothing, since these actions are just time-wasters, much like how one knows that a dead horse will not move anymore even if you flog it. It can also refer to making actions or decisions that will have no concrete outcome.


Say that you will "take a __check" when you want to reschedule and do something at a later date or time.

If you want to move a scheduled appointment to a later date, you simply say "take a raincheck" instead of dismissing it outright. It's a more polite way of getting out of a meeting, regardless of if you intend to really reschedule it or not.


"It's __ to me" when certain information is unclear.

When someone speaks using heavy jargon or tries to explain complicated information (like scientific or mathematical formulas) and the listener doesn't comprehend it, the latter can say, "It's Greek to me." It pertains to the information being foreign to a person, or the person simply can't understand it.


Don't "throw someone under the __" and let them suffer for your own personal gain.

To "throw someone under the bus" is a manifestation of betrayal since one person sacrifices their relationship with another person for personal advancement or gain. It usually happens behind someone's back but can also take place while the parties involved are in each other's company.


You're just "preaching to the __" when you're convincing people to side with you even though they already agree with you.

"Preaching to the choir" is a phrase that means selling an idea to someone who already supports or agrees with it. This phrase is largely American in origin. An earlier British counterpart is "preaching to the converted."


A person who just gave in to peer pressure demonstrated how to "__ the Kool-Aid."

To "drink the Kool-Aid" means to be pressured into following or doing something, or to be convinced to follow a persuasive person, especially one who has toxic ideas and dangerous objectives. Kool-Aid refers to the popular brand of American powdered juice drink invented in the late 1920s. The phrase originated after the Jonestown tragedy when followers of Jim Jones committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.


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