KA WORDCAST: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 5: Back to School

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 Back to School Again  The Four Tops

For the past few weeks, we have been looking at all kinds of important English idioms, phrasal verbs, and other useful, everyday expressions.

The dictionary defines an idiom as a combination of words that has a figurative, that is, a metaphorical or symbolic, meaning separate from its literal or real meaning: “to bark up the wrong tree,” “when pigs fly,” and “raining cats and dogs” are fun examples we’ve looked at so far.   A phrasal verb, on the other hand, is an idiomatic phrase made up of a verb and another element such as a particle, preposition, or combination of both.  The verb for this sentence, “made up of,” which means “consisting of,” is a good case in point.

Here’s another good example of an idiomatic phrase that probably looks and sounds very odd to you: “hit the books.”

Obviously, to “hit the books” does not mean to literally hit a book; that would be silly (although if what the author had to say really “got your goat,” you might feel like giving the book a good punch!) No, when a student says “I can’t go out tonight.  I have to HIT THE BOOKS,” she means that she has to study very hard for a big exam.  The closest equivalent is to cram.   Here are two more examples.

Susie spent the weekend HITTING THE BOOKS to prepare for the physics final on Monday.

I really want to go see the new Hunger Games movie with you guys, but I should HIT THE BOOKS.

“Brush up” and “brush off” are two more examples of phrasal verbs (we’ve looked at several others in previous lessons) that show how important it is to use the correct combination of verb and other element. “Brush up” means to improve a skill that has become “rusty” because you haven’t used it for a long time.  Here’s an example.  (Note how the phrase is followed by “on” and then the skill that needs to be renewed and improved.)

I’ll have to BRUSH UP on my Japanese before I visit Japan again this summer. 

“Brush off,” meanwhile, means something totally different.  When you “brush a person off,” you suddenly, coldly dismiss that person, and then ignore him.  In other words, you “give him the cold shoulder,” which, just as it sounds, isn’t a very nice thing to do!

Mindy really wanted to help with the decorating, but the president of the prom committee just BRUSHED her OFF, saying tersely, “I’ve got all the help I need.”    

Because of these subtle differences in meaning, phrasal verbs, like idiomatic phrases, must be memorized or “learned by heart” (more on this phrase later).  You can’t usually “figure out” what an idiom means just by looking at it (though its context might help to “give it away”).

In this new season of KA Wordcast: Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, each week we examine a number of useful idiomatic expressions and word combinations that you hear and see all the time in American and British English.   We give you detailed explanations of and several sample sentences for each new idiom or phrasal verb, as well as some useful synonyms and equivalents.  We want to make sure that you understand each and every expression so well that you can immediately put it to good use in your own writing and everyday conversation.

Today, as our opening song “Back to School Again” by The Four Tops suggests, we will look at twelve phrases that “come in handy” for talking about school and learning.  This lesson is available to download in PDF format for your reference.  There is also an exercise sheet with a “pre-test” exercise that you can download from the website to test your knowledge before the lesson begins.  Then, after the podcast, you can check to see how well you did and how much you have learned.  We’re sure that you’ve heard it many times before, but it’s always worth repeating: diligently “hitting the books” and constantly “brushing up” what you’ve learned are the keys to improving your English.


To COVER A LOT OF GROUND literally means to travel over a great distance or to search or investigate a wide area of land, as in:

We made good time and covered a lot of ground, arriving in Los Angeles almost three hours earlier than we expected.

Searching for the missing mountain climbers, the rescue team spread out in order to COVER A LOT OF GROUND, and finally found the four men and women just before nightfall.

But to COVER A LOT OF GROUND (or, to HAVE A LOT OF GROUND TO COVER) is also used figuratively in the classroom to mean to deal with or go over a lot of information or subject matter during a lesson or over the length of a course.  Look at the following examples.

Class, please open your biology book to Chapter 8.  We have to COVER A LOT OF GROUND this week to prepare you for your mid-term exams next Monday. 

Student:         A year’s worth of algebra in four weeks!  How is that possible, Mr. Owens!

Teacher:        Well, Robert, that’s what summer school is all about.  We HAVE A LOT OF GROUND TO COVER every day, so let’s not waste any time and get started.

During today’s morning session of my screenwriting seminar, our instructor COVERED A LOT OF GROUND, going over everything from preferred formats to how to find a literary agent.

British journalist Andrew Marr COVERS A LOT OF GROUND, sometimes three or four centuries, in each one-hour episode of his BBC documentary, History of the World



The phrasal verb TAKE UP is often used in place of to study or major in.  It just means to decide on a course of study, usually in university or in a technical school, or as a career.

Dad:    High school graduation is coming up soon, son.  Have you thought about what you’re going to study in college?

Fred:  I know you would like me to major in law or medicine, Dad, but I’m thinking of TAKING UP acting and trying to get into the Drama School.  I hope you’re not too disappointed.

Many young people today are forgoing college and TAKING UP careers in IT by either going to a trade school or joining a company and getting on-the-job training.



To TOUCH ON means to deal with, mention, or to talk about a subject very briefly or not very deeply or thoroughly.  The phrase is often followed by one of these nouns as its object:  aspect, issue, matter, point, problem, question, and subject.  These examples will show you how to use the phrase correctly.

I didn’t do very well on the standardized math test, but it wasn’t exactly my fault.  My teacher, Mr. Baldwin, had barely TOUCHED ON some of the concepts that were on the test.

We will examine nature-vs-nurture issues in the first few weeks of this Introduction to Psychology course, as well as TOUCH ON various psychological disorders. 

Danielle:                    How was the book club meeting?

Daniel:                       Well, as usual, we only TOUCHED ON the novel we were supposed to read and spent most or our time talking about sports.

During the job interview, the Human Resources manager only TOUCHED ON the salary package I could expect to receive if I get the job. 



The opposite of to TOUCH ON is to EXPAND ON, which means to discuss a subject in great detail or to provide additional information about something that has been mentioned briefly.  Go into detail, be more specific, and to fill out are close equivalents.

Student:         You only touched on the fact that King Henry VIII injured his leg in a jousting accident.  Can you EXPAND ON that?

Teacher:        Historians believe that the injury, which happened when he was 44 years old, is what turned him into the tyrant he was in his latter years.

Ellen said that Hayden will need to work very hard to boost his TOEFL score, but she didn’t EXPAND ON which areas he should be concentrating. 

Albert:           Are you still working?  Why don’t you come watch TV with me?

Mamie:           I’d love to, but my boss asked me to EXPAND ON my proposal, and I have to have it finished by tomorrow morning.

Detective:      We now believe the victim died an accidental death.  No foul play was involved.

Reporter:      I don’t quite understand.  Could you EXPAND ON that a little for our viewers?

FOR YOUR INFORMATION: Although not technically an idiomatic phrase, ELABORATE ON is an excellent synonym for EXPAND ON and is used in the same way and in similar situations. (As a verb on its own, ELABORATE means to explain fully; as an adjective, it means intricate, detailed, or ornate.)

Bill:                I’m sorry, Professor Turner, but I’m not sure what you mean by “minimalism.” 

Professor:     OK, let me ELABORATE ON that a bit for you.  In literature, minimalism simply means saying the most in the fewest and simplest words possible.


5. PICK UP/PICK something UP

Most commonly, to PICK UP or to PICK something UP means to actually pick or lift something off the ground, the floor, a table, and so on.  But idiomatically and figuratively speaking, and in line with our “back to school” theme for this week, PICK UP means to learn something, such as a new language or an instrument, by practicing it or just overhearing it, rather than being taught it.

Kazumi PICKED UP a few Swedish phrases while visiting her friend in Stockholm last summer. 

Rachel:        Where did you learn to play the guitar?

Toby:        I PICKED it UP from my brother Jarod, who plays lead guitar in a rock band. 

You’ll find the software manual quite boring and confusing, so don’t worry about reading it too carefully.  You’ll PICK UP how to use the software as you go along.

Another idiomatic meaning and usage of to PICK UP or to PICK something UP is to start a (often bad) habit or to do something in a new (often bad) way, without intending to do so.

Don’t use that kind of language in front of the children.  I don’t want them PICKING UP your bad habits.

We may be our most productive and focused while at the office, but at the same time we often PICK UP some bad habits like squinting and poor posture that can carry over into our everyday life. 


6. LEARN something BY HEART / BY ROTE

We have lots of ways to learn new things.  One is to LEARN something BY HEART, which means to learn it so well that we are able to write, recite, or repeat it word for word, note for note, detail by detail. To memorize and to commit to memory are good synonyms.

Up until recently, LEARNING BY HEART was the main focus of education, but now, with so much information so easily available on the Internet, such memorization is becoming obsolete.

Teacher:        Since you can’t have notes with you, you’d better LEARN your speech BY HEART.

Student:         But what if we get nervous and forget what to say?

When I was in high school, we had to LEARN Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech The Gettysburg Address BY HEART and recite it word for word in front of the class. 

Michelle:       You had a lot of lines in the play and never missed a cue!  I’m impressed!

Peter:             Well, I didn’t just memorize my own lines, but I LEARNED the entire play BY HEART so I wouldn’t forget to come on when I’m supposed to.

Danni only has to hear a song once to LEARN all the lyrics BY HEART, an amazing talent.

To LEARN something BY ROTE means much the same as to LEARN something BY HEART, but with a subtle difference.  When you LEARN something BY HEART, you fully understand what you have learned—it has been “internalized” and become a part of you.  When you LEARN something BY ROTE, it has more to do with how you learned it than what you learned.  You may be able to “automatically” recite or write or repeat a list of words, facts, numbers, etc., but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you fully understand what you have learned.

I LEARNED the Periodic Table BY ROTE, but I couldn’t tell you what would happen if you mixed barium with lithium. 

According to my math teacher, the best way to LEARN the times tables is BY ROTE. 

I dropped out of Spanish because all we ever did was LEARN how to conjugate verbs BY ROTE, which I found mind-numbingly boring. 

With certain material such as a list of vocabulary words, LEARNING BY ROTE can be an effective way to learn something in a short amount of time. 

Hint: Once you have LEARNED something BY HEART, you can say that you KNOW it BY HEART.  But the same doesn’t hold for LEARN BY ROTE.  You should never say you KNOW something BY ROTE.  Here are some good examples of how to use KNOW BY HEART.

I’ve taught Hemingway’s story “The Killers” to students so many times over the last ten years that I KNOW IT BY HEART.

Lucy had to go over her lines in the school play a hundred times before she finally KNEW them BY HEART. 

I used to KNOW all the important telephone numbers BY HEART, but these days, I rely on my mobile phone so much that I don’t even know my own number. 



CATCH UP has many uses and meanings, but for this lesson, let’s just look at those that have to do with school and learning.   To CATCH UP means to improve so as to reach the same standard, level, or grade as someone or something else.

Paul has missed so much school this term that he’s going to find it hard to CATCH UP with the rest of his class.

Parent:           How’s my son Jay doing?

Teacher:        Well, since he is the youngest in his class, it’s taken him a while to CATCH UP as far as maturity is concerned.  But that’s normal and nothing to worry about.

After my knee injury and being laid up for a couple of months, I had to struggle to CATCH UP to my softball teammates in terms of fitness.

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

Dad:                Are you still behind on your schoolwork?

Daughter:      No, I’m all CAUGHT UP.  Thanks for hiring that tutor for me.

Maki:              I’m sorry I didn’t make it to class yesterday.  What do I need to do to CATCH UP?

Teacher:        Just read pages 78 to 85 in the text, and make sure you understand the key vocabulary words before next Monday’s lesson.

The deadline for the school newspaper is tomorrow, and we still have most of the layout and editing to do.  How are we ever going to CATCH UP?


8. HAND something IN

At school, to HAND something IN means to submit an assignment or report or to a teacher.

Please make sure you write your name at the top of your test sheet before HANDING it IN. 

Jerry:              Have you HANDED IN your book report yet?

Maggie:          Not yet.  I have until tomorrow, so I’m going to work on it tonight.  I just have to decide what book to do it on.

Teacher:        You’ll need to HAND IN your 1,000-word essay on the lifecycle of an insect by no later than this Friday.

Student:         Is it okay if we HAND it IN earlier?

Other things can be HANDED IN at school as well—permission slips, for example, or notes from parents or doctors.

If you miss more than a week of school because of illness, you must HAND IN a doctor’s report to the office when you return.

I forgot to HAND IN my permission slip from my mom, and now it’s too late for me to go on the field trip to the museum. 

The chiefly American phrase, to TURN something IN, is almost an exact synonym.

Teacher:        Gabe, when can I expect to see your homework assignment on my desk?  You’re already two days late.

Gabe:              I’ll TURN IT IN tomorrow, I promise.  I swear, I accidentally lost it, or left it on the train, or tossed it away by mistake, and had to do it completely over.

HAND IN has uses outside of school as well, as in these examples:

When you submit your visa renewal application, please HAND IN your most recent income tax report and your Proof of Employment letter with your application.

Manager:       Camille, have you TURNED IN the profits and loss accounts report to the tax accountant yet?

Camille:         Yes, but I forgot to include one key document and will have to resubmit the report tomorrow.

Chuck:            Have you heard?  Bill HANDED IN his resignation letter to Mr. Cochran last week. He leaves at the end of this month.

Hillary:          What a shame!  He’s such a great teacher, and the students will really miss him.



When you take a test or exam and PASS WITH FLYING COLORS, it means that you did very well.  Exceptionally well, in fact.  The phrase comes from the practice of a victorious naval fleet sailing into port with colorful flags flying from all the mastheads.   By the early eighteenth century, to PASS WITH FLYING COLORS and its equivalent, to COME THROUGH WITH FLYING COLORS, were used figuratively to signify any kind of triumph.  These days, the phrase means to succeed at something quite easily.  Similar expressions include breeze through, ace, sail through, and nail.

Mom: How did you do on your spelling test today?

Chris: I PASSED WITH FLYING COLORS, Mom.  I got ten out of ten.

Grace took her Tokyo University Department of English entrance exam in December and, thanks to studying at a leading cram school, PASSED WITH FLYING COLORS.

Scott PASSED his driving test WITH FLYING COLORS, despite only having had a half dozen driving lessons.

The police officers’ training was grueling, but David CAME THROUGH WITH FLYING COLORS and is now a detective with the New York City police department.



Literally, to MAKE THE GRADE means to do well or to get good marks (grades) in school. But it can also be used more generally in various situations to mean to do well, to succeed, or to meet expectations or standards.  Some similar expressions include perform up to par, be up to scratch, be good enough, and be up to standard.  Note that it is often used in the negative.

Joseph had hoped to get into medical school and become a surgeon, but he failed to MAKE THE GRADE.  He is now a nurse, however, and loves it.

John:   I’m sorry, Nicki, but your feature story doesn’t quite MAKE THE GRADE. I won’t be able to run it in our next issue.

Nicki: But I really want to be included this time.  What can I do to get it up to scratch? 

If you ask me, Jodi Piccoult’s newest book, The Storyteller, doesn’t quite MAKE THE GRADE. But then I’ve never cared much for her writing style anyway. 

More than half of the schools in the state have failed to MAKE THE GRADE since tougher school standards and inspections were put in place last year.

Chef Sagan:    Not only does your lobster bisque MAKE THE GRADE, Susan, it’s absolutely delicious!   I’m sure you’ll go far in this business.

Susan:                        Really?  Oh, thank you, Chef.  I couldn’t have done it without you.



Although not technically an idiom, this very useful phrase is one you should know and use.  To MEET THE REQUIREMENTS FOR something means to do what is necessary to achieve or complete it.  This phrase can be used, for example, to talk about having the necessary grades to be accepted into a particular school, or to being tall enough to qualify as a police officer or airline cabin attendant.  Fulfill, satisfy, comply with, achieve, and attain are close equivalents.

Heather couldn’t MEET THE REQUIREMENTS to get into the University of Washington, so she spent two years at the local community college earning transfer credits and an Associates Degree. 

Amusement Park Attendant:         Sorry, kid.  You don’t MEET the height REQUIREMENTS to get on the Stealth.

Adam:                                                          How tall do I have to be?

Attendant:                                                 At least 1.4 meters, and you don’t even come close. 

Adam:                                                          What if I stand on my tiptoes?

Of all the candidates, Dean was the only one who MET the necessary education and experience REQUIREMENTS.  He’s to report to his new job on Monday morning. 



So, what if you are already in school and don’t MAKE THE GRADE or MEET THE NECESSARY REQUIREMENTS or can’t CATCH UP to the other students?  You may be forced to DROP OUT, or leave school before you graduate.  When you DROP OUT, you do it because you have to for various personal reasons, some understandable and some not so understandable, as the examples below will show you.  (This is very different from being “kicked out,” or expelled, because you broke some rules.)

Yuriko had never lived away from home before and became so busy with partying and enjoying campus life that her grades suffered and she had to DROP OUT. 

The sudden death of his father meant that Xavier had to DROP OUT of college and return to his hometown to run the family business.

I don’t really see the point of college.  I’m thinking of DROPPING OUT and starting up my own Internet business.

In Japan, college students rarely DROP OUT, because once you get in, which is quite difficult, graduation is almost automatic.  In America, on the other hand, getting in is quite easy, but graduating is very difficult, which is why nearly half of all American college kids DROP OUT.



Now that you have a good understanding of the twelve key idioms and phrasal verbs we have examined today, you can go back and check out your score on the “pre-test” exercise (we’ve provided answer sheets).  How did you do?


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

KA Wordcast Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Lesson 5 ANSWER SHEET