Difference Wiki

Phrase vs. Idiom: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Published on January 5, 2024
Phrase is a group of words that express a concept and is a component of a sentence. Idiom is a phrase with a meaning that cannot be understood from the meanings of its individual words.

Key Differences

Phrases are groups of words that work together to convey a specific idea within a sentence, without necessarily forming a complete thought. They play various grammatical roles, like noun phrase, verb phrase, etc. Idioms, on the other hand, are phrases with meanings not deducible from the individual words. They are often culturally specific and their meanings are figurative, representing something beyond the literal interpretation.
Idioms often convey metaphorical ideas or principles through unique, sometimes quirky, combinations of words. Their meanings are usually established and recognized within a particular language or culture. Phrases, in contrast, can be straightforward and literal, contributing directly to the structure and meaning of a sentence without any hidden or figurative aspect.
The interpretation of phrases is generally straightforward, based on the dictionary meanings of the words. They can be understood in any language by translating the individual words. Idioms require cultural or contextual knowledge for interpretation, making them more challenging for non-native speakers to grasp.
In learning languages, understanding phrases is essential for constructing grammatically correct sentences. They form the building blocks of sentence structure. Idioms, while important for fluency and cultural understanding, are more about language nuance and depth, often used in informal contexts or to express complex ideas succinctly.
Phrases can be of different types like noun phrases, verb phrases, prepositional phrases, etc., each serving a specific grammatical function. Idioms, however, do not have such classifications, as their usage is based more on conveying an idiomatic, often culturally rooted, meaning rather than serving a grammatical purpose.

Comparison Chart


Literal, based on the words used
Figurative, not deducible from individual words


Structural, forms part of a sentence
Expressive, conveys a specific idea or concept


Universal, can be translated
Contextual, often culture-specific


Various (noun, verb, etc.)
Generally not categorized


Essential for sentence construction
Adds nuance and cultural flavor to language

Phrase and Idiom Definitions


A sequence of words that express an idea but do not form a complete sentence.
At high speed in The car was moving at high speed.


An idiom is an expression with a meaning different from the literal meanings of its individual words.
Kick the bucket means to die.


A grammatical unit at a level below the sentence, often consisting of a head word and its modifiers.
With great enthusiasm in He participated with great enthusiasm.


An expression whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up.
Let the cat out of the bag means to disclose a secret.


A phrase is a small group of words standing together as a conceptual unit.
Under the weather in She's feeling under the weather today.


A group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the individual words.
Break the ice means to initiate a conversation in a social setting.


A part of a sentence that functions as a single unit but does not contain a verb and its subject.
On the table in The book is on the table.


A set expression of two or more words that mean something other than the literal meanings of its words.
Spill the beans means reveal the secret.


A group of words that do not have a subject and a verb.
Near the park in The house near the park is mine.


A phrase that has a figurative, or sometimes literal, meaning.
Bite the bullet means to face a difficult situation bravely.


A sequence of words that have meaning, especially when forming part of a sentence.


A speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements, as in keep tabs on.


A characteristic way or mode of expression
An apt turn of phrase.


The specific grammatical, syntactic, and structural character of a given language.


What is an idiom?

An idiom is a phrase whose meaning isn’t obvious from the individual words.

Are idioms used in formal writing?

Idioms are more common in informal contexts due to their figurative nature.

Do idioms mean the same as their literal words?

No, idioms typically have figurative meanings different from the literal meanings.

What is a phrase?

A phrase is a group of words that express a concept and is a part of a sentence.

Can phrases stand alone as sentences?

No, phrases are part of sentences but don’t convey complete thoughts on their own.

Is a clause the same as a phrase?

No, a clause includes a subject and verb, while a phrase does not.

Are idioms universal?

Idioms are often culture-specific and may not translate well across languages.

Can idioms change over time?

Yes, idioms can evolve and change in meaning and usage.

How do idioms enhance language?

Idioms add expressiveness and cultural depth to language.

Can a phrase become an idiom?

Yes, if it gains a figurative meaning not deducible from the words themselves.

Are all expressions idioms?

Not all expressions are idioms; only those with non-literal meanings.

Are idioms always phrases?

Yes, idioms are a type of phrase with a figurative meaning.

How many types of phrases are there?

There are several types, including noun, verb, and prepositional phrases.

Do all languages have idioms?

Yes, idioms are a common feature in most languages, reflecting cultural nuances.

Can phrases be idiomatic?

Yes, some phrases can be idiomatic if they have a non-literal meaning.

Why are idioms hard for non-native speakers?

Because their meanings are often cultural and not directly translatable.

Do phrases contribute to grammar?

Yes, they are essential parts of sentence structure and grammar.

Is understanding idioms important for language proficiency?

Yes, it’s important for fluency and cultural understanding.

Can idioms be translated into other languages?

They can be translated, but their figurative meaning might not carry over.

Can idioms be literal sometimes?

Rarely, but they are primarily known for their figurative meanings.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

Trending Comparisons

Popular Comparisons

New Comparisons