12 English number idioms to make your writing count

  • From ‘zeroing in’ to ‘a dime a dozen’, these easy phrases will ensure your next essay is one of a kind
  • We’ve also included a bonus saying in Cantonese slang that is all about the numbers
Kelly Fung |

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There are a number of phrases you can use from this list. Photo: Shutterstock

Numbers are one of the first subjects we are taught as children, and knowing basic mathematics is essential for everyday life. So let’s get back to the basics and learn some interesting phrases about numbers. Using these idioms will be as easy as one-two-three.

1. Zero in on

Meaning: to direct all your attention towards one thing

Example: The best way to address the problem of poverty is to zero in on its roots – low wages and high cost of living.

2. It takes two to tango

Meaning: refers to the need for cooperative effort, or describes how a difficult situation or conflict involves two parties who are both responsible for it

Example: It takes two to tango – both Shelley and Peter said hurtful things to each other during the argument.

3. Three square meals a day

Meaning: three nutritionally complete meals a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner

Example: If you want to keep your mind and body healthy, don’t forget to have three square meals a day.

A balanced diet should include plenty of fruits, vegetables and protein. Illustration: Shutterstock

4. Fire on all four cylinders

Meaning: to operate as powerfully and effectively as possible

Example: After 26 weeks of training, Mavis is ready to fire on all four cylinders.

5. Five-finger discount

Meaning: refers to taking an item from a shop without paying for it

Example: Lily was shocked to see her daughter eating an ice lolly after they had left the supermarket – the toddler had used her five-finger discount.

6. At sixes and sevens

Meaning: in a state of confusion or disarray

Example: The party is not confirmed yet as the organisers are still at sixes and sevens over where to host the event.

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7. Seven-day wonder

Meaning: someone or something that generates interest for only a short amount of time

Example: My brother’s interest in music is likely to be another seven-day wonder – he will probably quit learning violin after two weeks.

8. Behind the eight ball

Meaning: describes someone who is at a disadvantage in a difficult situation and is unlikely to escape it

Example: You are putting your children behind the eight ball if you berate them for every mistake they make.

9. On cloud nine

Meaning: describes someone who is extremely happy and excited

Example: My sister has been on cloud nine ever since she successfully bought tickets to see her favourite band.

Getting good marks on your essay can make you feel like you’re on cloud nine. Illustration: Shutterstock

10. Ten a penny

Meaning: refers to something so common that it has become worthless

Example: Cartoons like this are ten a penny – this company has stopped caring about the quality of its shows.

11. At the eleventh hour

Meaning: at the last possible moment

Example: The venue informed the art fair at the eleventh hour that it would not be allowed to host the event.

12. A dime a dozen

Meaning: refers to things that are plentiful, common or of very little value

Example: Students who can memorise material are a dime a dozen – we’re looking for pupils who can think outside the box.

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Here’s a phrase in Cantonese slang ...

走數 zau2 sou3 (jau-sou): “drop the numbers”

Meaning: to not follow through after saying you would do something

In English: to break one’s promise; to fail to keep one’s word

Example: It is not a surprise any more that Peter jau-sau again and failed to clean the dishes.

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