KA WORDCAST: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 20 CATCH MY BREATH

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KA WORDCAST: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs


Catch My Breath- Kelly Clarkson

In this season of KA Wordcast, we’ve been introducing you to important idioms, phrasal verbs, and other common English expressions.  And we’ve been showing you how to put the phrases to good use in your own writing and conversation.  Today, we’ll focus on various “CATCH”-based phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions.  There are many such expressions in English, some of which we have covered in previously aired Wordcasts.  But for this lesson, we will take a look at only the most common—the ones you are most likely to come across on TV and in movies, in books and magazines, and in everyday conversation: the ones you will want to try out for yourself right away.

This lesson is available to download in PDF format.  To test your knowledge of today’s phrases before the lesson begins, try taking the quick “pre-test” that is downloadable from our website.  Then, after the podcast, you can use the answer sheet to see how well you did and how much you have learned.  Remember that reviewing and practicing over and over again is the best way to “build up” your English speaking and writing skills.  And that is exactly what these Wordcasts are all about.

As explained in previous Wordcasts, a phrasal verb is an idiomatic phrase made up of a verb and another element such as a particle, preposition, or combination of both, while an idiom is a combination of words that has a figurative meaning separate from its literal or real meaning.  (If you’re joining us today for the first time, you can check out KA Wordcast: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, Lessons 1 through 9 for more detailed explanations.)

“Catch my breath, no one can hold me back, I ain’t got time for that

Catch my breath, won’t let them get me down, it’s all so simple now.”


1.   CATCH one’s BREATH

In the lyrics above, to CATCH one’s BREATH is used figuratively to mean to stop what you are doing for a short time to think carefully about something.  Deliberate, reflect, and think over are possible substitutes.

Take a moment or two to CATCH your BREATH.  You don’t want to make any rash, irrevocable decisions.

While writing my essay, I got carried away and had to stop and CATCH my BREATH to make sure I was on the right track and really saying what I wanted to say.

We also often use to CATCH one’s BREATH to mean to be taken aback or forced to pause because something shocks, frightens, or upsets us. Collect oneself and compose oneself are close equivalents.

It took a moment or two for Will to CATCH his BREATH and regain his composure after he realized that he had won the lottery.

I’d been told how badly injured Shawn was after his cycling accident, but when I saw him lying on the hospital bed bandaged from head to foot, I had to CATCH my BREATH.

We all CAUGHT our BREATH when Mr. Dorman came into the classroom and began shouting about how low our scores on the national assessment test were. 

More commonly and literally, however, to CATCH one’s BREATH means to rest for a moment or two after doing some exercise or strenuous physical activity.

The famous temple was at the top of a long, steep flight of winding wooden stairs, and I had to stop two or three times to CATCH my BREATH.

“Take a few moments to CATCH your BREATH and get a drink of water,” the fitness trainer said after a vigorous workout. “We’ll be tackling the obstacle course next.”



 2.   CATCH ON

Perhaps the most commonly used of all the “CATCH” phrases is to CATCH ON, which means to figure out or understand something, often without words or explanation.  Get the point, get the picture, get the message, and learn are some words and phrases you can use instead.

President:     How’s your new assistant working out?

Manager:       Great.  She CATCHES ON very quickly.              

My students finally CAUGHT ON that to do well on a vocabulary test, they not only need to know the definition of a word, but they must also be able to use it correctly in a sentence. 

Carrie didn’t understand at first, but after Gary explained the offside rule in soccer to her using chess pieces and diagrams, she finally started to CATCH ON.

Elizabeth:      Laurie doesn’t know that her sister Christine is flying in from Houston to be at Laurie’s birthday party.  It’s supposed to be a big surprise.

Joey:               I CAUGHT ON to that when you kept kicking me under the table.  I hope I didn’t spoil anything. 

CATCH ON has another even more idiomatic meaning and use.  When speaking about a fashion trend or practice, CATCH ON means to become popular.  Take off, come into fashion, become trendy, and to be all the rage are some near equivalents.   The phrase can be used on its own, as in the first two sample sentences below, or it can be followed by “with” and an object (person, group, target audience, etc.), as in the last two sentences.

The idea of “flipped schools,” where homework is done in the classroom with the teacher’s guidance and lectures are viewed at home via the Internet, is beginning to CATCH ON.

Rainbow Looms, a plastic pegboard used to make colorful elastic band bracelets, are really CATCHING ON at my children’s school.

Every smartphone app creator hopes that his or her new app will CATCH ON WITH the masses, but only a few people actually make any money from their creation. 

Jeffery:           I hope our new “Wizards vs. Aliens” video game CATCHES ON WITH our target age group. 

Leesa:             There’s no reason it shouldn’t.  Kids these days love anything to do with magic and battles.



 3.   CATCH UP

The phrase CATCH UP has several common and very useful meanings.  First, to CATCH UP means to speed up or to go faster in order to reach or pull even with the person or vehicle in front of you.

As the runners took their final lap around the field, Kelly picked up her pace, eventually CATCHING UP with and overtaking the lead runner.

Dom:              Where are you?  I stopped to take a photo of the view, and when I turned around, you were gone.

Cindy:             We’re just about to reach the summit.  You’d better hurry if you want to CATCH UP.

Tanya and Andy left for the seaside about an hour before me, but I CAUGHT UP with them at a service area just outside of Brighton. 

CATCH UP can also mean to improve in order to reach the same standard, quality, or rate as someone or something else.

Your son’s English is a little behind that of the other kids in his class, so I think it would be a good idea for him to have a private tutor for a while until he can CATCH UP.

After having her leg in a cast for six weeks, Annie battled to CATCH UP with the rest of her netball team as far as fitness was concerned.

CATCH UP can also mean to do something that should have been done or completed before.

I’m really struggling to CATCH UP with all the work that piled up on my desk while I was on vacation.

We’ve got a backlog of orders to fill, so the staff will have to work this weekend to CATCH UP.

Finally, CATCH UP means to talk to someone you have not seen for some time and to find out what he or she has been doing since the last time you met.

Jo:                   It seems as if we haven’t spoken for ages.  I really miss our chats, Angie.

Angie:             Well, why don’t you come over sometime next week so we can CATCH UP?

I’m really busy and can’t talk right now, but we can CATCH UP tomorrow when I see you at school. 



 4.   CATCH UP WITH (a person)

We often keep on doing things like working too hard or not getting enough sleep even though we know it’s not good for us and will eventually cause us problems.  That’s exactly what CATCH UP WITH means.  Look at these sentences.

I was burning the candle at both ends, working during the day, going to law school at night, and coaching soccer on weekends, but it finally CAUGHT UP WITH me, and I became seriously ill.

Recent studies have shown that not getting enough sleep at night can eventually CATCH UP WITH you and cause a variety of health problems.

Being promoted to manager was too much for me.  It finally CAUGHT UP WITH me, and I had to admit defeat and go back to my old assistant’s job.

Telling too many lies can also CATCH UP WITH you and eventually get you in trouble.

All of Mark’s lies finally CAUGHT UP WITH him, and he had to confess that he’d been skipping school and hanging out in the skate park with an older group of boys.




To CATCH UP ON means to spend extra time doing work, chores, assignments, or other things that should have been done earlier.

Henry missed two weeks of school because of illness and had a hard time CATCHING UP ON all the homework assignments he had missed during that time.

Ian:                 Welcome back, Heather!  Do you want to join us for a drink after work?  We’d love to hear all about your trip to Brazil.

Heather:        I’m sorry, but I’ve got so much work to CATCH UP ON.   Let’s make it some other time.

I’d been working late all week, so I spent most of last weekend CATCHING UP ON the household chores I’d been putting off.

Sam stayed up late every night for two weeks studying for his finals, but now, with the exams out of the way, all he can think about is CATCHING UP ON his sleep.

When you CATCH UP ON something such as news or gossip that happened while you were away or that you missed for some reason, you learn or hear about it later.

What is my worst habit?  I would say that it is switching on my smart phone first thing every morning to CATCH UP ON all that has been happening on Facebook while I was asleep.   

Every spring, Jeff spends a week in the wilderness without any form of technology, but as soon as he gets back home, he is glued to the television, CATCHING UP ON all the news he’s missed. 

I often get together with the other mothers at a coffee shop on Tuesday mornings to chat and CATCH UP ON all the school gossip.




When you are or get CAUGHT UP IN an unpleasant or difficult situation, you have unexpectedly become involved in it and are unable to escape from it.

When Sam started hanging out with Larry, he had no idea what he was GETTING CAUGHT UP IN.  Larry, it turned out, was not a very nice boy.

Britain’s tourism minister Helen Grant has suggested that those people who are CAUGHT UP IN the recent passport backlog should take the opportunity to spend their holiday in England.

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who GOT CAUGHT UP IN a scandal that shocked the nation for the ugly, racist remarks he made, has been banned for life by the NBA.

When you are or get CAUGHT UP IN an activity or emotion, you are so absorbed or engaged in it that you forget or overlook everything else.

I have a tendency to GET CAUGHT UP IN my work and to neglect my other obligations and responsibilities.

When you are young, sometimes you get CAUGHT UP IN the thrill of the moment and don’t always think about consequences.

On the flight to Tokyo, I was so CAUGHT UP IN the excitement of finding myself sitting next to my favorite actor that I acted like a giddy, star-struck teenager.  How embarrassing!



 7.   CATCH A WHIFF OF something

A WHIFF is a slight smell of something.  So literally speaking, when you CATCH A WHIFF OF something, you smell it, usually only very briefly.

I CAUGHT A WHIFF OF smoke coming from upstairs and immediately called the fire department. 

April:             I hope you’re hungry, Tom.  I’ve cooked up a traditional Indian dinner tonight. 

Tom:              I thought I CAUGHT A WHIFF OF curry when I came in.  It smells delicious.

More figuratively, when you CATCH A WHIFF OF something (rumor, gossip, secret information), you hear or learn about it, usually from an undisclosed or unofficial source.

Deena:            Have you heard anything about the new curriculum?

Gary:              Well, not directly, but I CAUGHT A WHIFF OF what it might be as I walked past Ms. Olsen’s office and heard her talking about it on the phone.

If Counselor Steve CATCHES A WHIFF OF our plans to sneak out and go across the lake to Camp Beaverbrook, he’ll send all of us home for sure.  So please, keep it quiet. 

Mr. Hunt CAUGHT A WHIFF OF some of the problems the Sales Department’s been having, and he’s sending in a consultant to sort them out. 



8.   CATCH WIND OF something

To CATCH (or, often, GET) WIND OF is similar in meaning to the second usage of to CATCH A WHIFF OF.  It means to accidentally hear or learn about something that someone else is trying to keep secret.

The police CAUGHT WIND OF an illegal import deal from an undisclosed source and have been staking out the warehouse near the docks for the past couple of nights.

Willem doesn’t want his boss to GET WIND OF the fact that he’s thinking about quitting his job and moving back to America, so he hasn’t told anyone about it.



 9.   CATCH A GLIMPSE OF something

To CATCH (or GET) A GLIMPSE OF means to see someone or something briefly or only partially.  (A GLIMPSE is a brief look at something.)

Gerry:             Is Karen in school today?  I haven’t seen her yet.

Mel:                I CAUGHT A GLIMPSE OF her as I came in.  She was sitting outside the principal’s office.

Julie and Leigh waited for hours outside the arena to get their favorite player’s autograph, but they only CAUGHT A GLIMPSE OF him as he ran out the door and disappeared into a waiting limo. 

I only CAUGHT A GLIMPSE OF the intruder as he ran past my bedroom window, so I wouldn’t be able to identify him in a line-up.



10.                CATCH SOME Z’S

If you’ve had a particularly long and tiring day, you might want to go home to CATCH SOME Z’S, which means to get some sleep.  Take a nap, get some shut-eye, catch forty winks, and take a snooze are some near equivalents.  This is a slang expression, by the way, so use it carefully.

All I want to do is to go home and CATCH SOME Z’s.  Working all day with thirty preschool kids is exhausting.

Yuki:               How was your flight, Jason? 

Jason:             It was a bit long, but I managed to CATCH SOME Z’s, so I actually feel pretty good. 

Why don’t you CATCH SOME Z’s while I’m out? You’ve been putting in a lot of overtime, and I know you can use the sleep.



11.                CATCH (SOME) RAYS

On a particularly nice or sunny day, you may want to sit outside and CATCH (SOME) RAYS, which means to soak up some sunshine or to get a tan in the sun.  This is an informal phrase that should only be used when talking among friends or peers.

Myly and I spent most of the summer school vacation CATCHING RAYS down at Green Lake while talking about boys and movies.

Lilly:   Look at how white my legs are!

Don:    It’s supposed to be hot this weekend, so you should head down to the beach and CATCH SOME RAYS. 


12.                CATCH someone RED-HANDED

When you CATCH someone RED-HANDED, you discover him or her while he or she is doing something wrong, deceitful, or illegal.

Scott was sawing through the chain when the police drove by and CAUGHT him RED-HANDED trying to steal the bicycle.

Jack:               I had nothing to do with it, Officer, I swear!

Officer:          You can’t wriggle out of this one, Jack.  You were CAUGHT RED-HANDED spray-painting graffiti on the gymnasium wall.

Pam claimed to be vegetarian, so she was mortified when one of her dinner guests CAUGHT her RED-HANDED eating a slice of ham out of the fridge.



13.                CATCH IN THE ACT

Similar to CATCH RED-HANDED, when you CATCH someone IN THE ACT, you catch him or her doing something bad or illegal at the exact moment he or she is doing it.

I was trying to glue the pieces of the vase I broke back together, but Mom came home early and CAUGHT me IN THE ACT.

You’d better think twice before shoplifting in any of the shops at the mall.  CCTV cameras will CATCH you IN THE ACT, and you’ll get arrested for sure.



 14.                CATCH someone OUT

To CATCH someone OUT means to discover the truth about that person’s lies or deceptions by using clever tactics or asking subtle questions.

Mari:  Do you have any idea why Henry was suspended from school?

Rick:   He plagiarized a writing assignment, but Mrs. Peters recognized the essay and CAUGHT him OUT.

My parents tried to CATCH me OUT about who I’d been out with, but I convinced them that I was with my friend Jill, and not with my boyfriend Ben. 

Good luck trying to CATCH the governor OUT.  He’s a master at deception and at covering up his lies and broken promises.



15.                to be CAUGHT SHORT

To be CAUGHT SHORT means to not have enough money on your person to pay for something that needs to be paid for straight away.

Dinner was more expensive than I thought, and I was CAUGHT SHORT of cash.  But then I remembered that I had enough credit on my Pasmo card to cover it.

You can’t afford to be CAUGHT SHORT when you are miles away from home on holiday, so make sure you take a credit card with you for those unexpected emergencies. 

CAUGHT SHORT can also mean to be unprepared for something, as in:

The City of London was CAUGHT SHORT of grit and equipment to clear the streets after the heavy, unexpected snowstorm. 

Business started to pick up all of a sudden, and we were CAUGHT SHORT of staff.



16.                CATCH someone’s EYE

When you CATCH someone’s EYE, you establish eye contact with that person, often to attract his or her attention.

Renee CAUGHT Adam’s EYE from across the room and signaled to him to follow her out on to the balcony.

When Oscar finally CAUGHT his daughter Jasmine’s EYE, he smiled at her and gave her a big thumbs-up for her performance in the school play.

If someone or something CATCHES your EYE, you find it or him or her attractive and worth paying closer attention to.

Of all the wonderful paintings at the National Gallery, it was Cezanne’s “Hillside in Provence” that really CAUGHT my EYE. 

I must have looked in a dozen shops for a dress to wear to my sister’s graduation ceremony, but nothing CAUGHT my EYE. 

As soon as I entered the room, the tall, dark, handsome man standing by the fireplace and flipping through the pages of a thick book CAUGHT MY EYE.




When you CATCH YOURSELF doing or saying something, you stop yourself from doing or saying it so as not to make a mistake or get in trouble.

I was on the verge of buying a big carton of chocolate ice cream when I CAUGHT MYSELF and put it back in the freezer.

Manny almost revealed the ending of the detective novel that Pamela was reading it, but he CAUGHT HIMSELF just in time.

I was angry and was about to say something that would have jeopardized my job, but I CAUGHT MYSELF and silently walked away.




18.    CATCH-22

This isn’t exactly an idiom, and it can be a bit difficult to understand, but it is such a commonly used expression these days that you should at least know what it means and, if possible, try to use it from time to time.  (The phrase comes from the hilarious 1961 World War II novel, Catch-22, by American author Joseph Heller.)  The Oxford Dictionary defines a CATCH-22 as “an unpleasant situation from which you cannot escape because you need to do one thing before doing a second, and you cannot do the second thing before doing the first.” Confused?  Perhaps the simplest way to explain CATCH-22 is to cite this quite common example:  Say you are applying for a job.  To even be considered for the job, however, you need to have some experience.  But you don’t have that experience and you can’t get it unless you get the job you are applying for.  That’s a CATCH-22!  These days, the term is used quite loosely to mean any kind of “catch”—that is, a tricky or disadvantageous condition that makes for a dilemma or tough situation that has no real satisfactory solution or outcome.  Here are a couple of examples.

Talk about a CATCH-22!  I can’t afford to pay my back taxes right now, but if I don’t pay them, I have to pay interest on them, so the longer I don’t pay them, the more I owe!

Frances is the most beautiful girl in school, and I really want to ask her out, but she says she’ll only go on a date with me if I do all her homework for her, but I would never cheat like that.

The reality of global politics puts the president in a CATCH-22 position where he has to carry out actions that go against his liberal, humanitarian principles.




Now that you have a good understanding of all the key phrases we have examined today, you can go back and check out your score on the “pre-test” exercise.  How did you do?

 KA WORDCAST Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 20 PRETEST

We’ll be back again next week with lots more useful phrasal verbs for you to study and get to know.

KA WORDCAST Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 20 PRETEST ANSWERS