List of N idioms:

These N idioms will help you “take NOTE of” common idioms beginning with the letter “N.” “In a NUTSHELL,” you need to master idioms to reach a high English level. Before we get started, you hopefully remember what an idiom is, right?

An idiom is a group of words that has a meaning that is different from the individual words that make up the expression. If you looked up the words "in" "a" and "nutshell," you would think it means something inside the shell of a nut. It actually means, "in summary."

So, idioms have to be understood and then memorized. They are not unique to English and I am sure you managed to learn many idioms in your first language. So relax, and remember you don't have to use them a lot when you speak English—it's most important that you understand  them.

This list has expressions beginning with the letter "N"—that is, the main  word in the idiom starts with this letter."  I've also created pages of expressions with other letters of the alphabet:  click here to go to the main idioms page.

N Idioms

NAIL

hit the nail on the head:  to do or say something exactly right.

  • Example:  You hit the nail on the head with your proposal at the staff meeting yesterday.


nail something down (nail down something):  to determine or fix something.

  • Example:  We’ve got to nail down the dates for our vacation and start making hotel and airline reservations this weekend.

(a) nail in someone's/something’s coffin:  to help bring the end or death of something more quickly.

  • Example:  My latest injury put another nail in the coffin of my collegiate football career.


NAILS

tough as nails (hard as nails):  very strong, determined, persistent.

  • Example:  She may be the smallest pup but she’s as tough as nails.


NAME

clear one’s name:  to prove innocence about something (that you did not do something wrong or illegal).

  • Example:  Even though they jury found him innocent and cleared his name, many people still believe he’s guilty.

give something a bad name:  to cause something to not be respected anymore.

  • Example:  It’s a few egocentric, bigoted and intolerant Americans that give the rest of us a bad name around the world.


in name only:  have a title but not the power or duties required for the role.

  • Example:  Our boss is the director in name only—it’s really my colleague who's running the department.

in someone’s name:  representing someone (often in honor of someone).

  • Example:  After my father died, I created a scholarship in my parents name at the university where they met.

make a name for oneself:  to become famous and known for doing something important or well.

  • Example:  One day I am going to make a name for myself by finding a cure for cancer.


one’s name in lights:  to be famous for some important work (in reference to the brightly lit marquees in front of theaters that have the actors' names in a performance).

  • Example:  Every actor's dream is to see his name in lights on Broadway.

the name of the game:  the most important thing or activity.

  • Example:  In language learning, actually using the language by speaking is the name of the game.


NAMES

drop names:  to mention one’s connection to someone famous or influential to try to make oneself also feel important.

  • Example:  Her father is an accountant for several pop stars so she always drops names but she’s never actually met any of these singers.


call someone names:  to describe someone with rude or insulting words.

  • Example:  It’s really childish to call your wife names when you disagree, and it’s going to harm your relationship over time.

name names:  to say the exact name of the person who is doing something wrong.

  • Example:  I don’t know who was smoking in the house this afternoon while I was out but if someone doesn’t name names soon you’re all going to be punished.

NEAR

near and dear to someone:  something that is very special to someone.

  • Example:  It may not look important but this dirty old stuffed bear is very near and dear to me.

NECK

break someone’s neck:  1) to make a huge effort, to try very hard: 2) to threaten to harm someone.  

Examples: 

  • Our director broke her neck finishing the report over the weekend.
  • If you call my daughter again, I'll break your neck.

breathe down one’s neck to pressure someone by watching them closely.

  • Example:  I cannot fix your phone with you breathing down my neck like this. Please come back in 30 minutes.

neck and neck:  at the same position or equal.

  • Example:  The horses are neck and neck as they come around the last turn to the finish line.


one’s neck of the woods:  an area or location where you live.

  • Example:   I’ll be our near your neck of the woods on Friday so I was thinking I’d stop by and say hello.

a pain in the neck:  someone or something that's is difficult or annoying.

  • Example:  My boss is such a pain in the neck He makes me stay late waiting for him to finish his work because he's afraid of being alone at the office after hours.


risk one’s neck:  to do something risky or dangerous.

  • Example:  Please get down from that chair and get a ladder—you’re risking your neck trying to hang the lights that way.

stick one’s neck out:  to take a risk.

  • Example:  We can wait until tomorrow to return this, I’d rather pay a late fee than stick my neck out driving in this snow.

up to one’s neck in something:  to be very busy doing something.

  • Example:  I’m up to my neck in laundry and ironing this weekend.


NEED

if need be:  if necessary.

  • Example:  Just invite everyone. We can take two cars to the restaurant if need be.

(something) is all one needs:  something that you do not want or need at all.

  • Example:  Oh, great a parking ticket. All I need is another bill!


NEEDLE

a needle in a haystack:  something that is very difficult to find.

  • Example:  I looked everywhere for my earring at the beach but it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.



NEIGHBORHOOD

(somewhere) in the neighborhood of something:  approximately.

  • Example:  He must be doing very well. I heard the salary for a partner in his firm is in the neighborhood of $450,000 and that's not including the annual bonus.


NERVE(S)

get on one’s nerves:  to annoy or bother someone.

  • Example:  When our neighbor talks on the phone for hours it really gets on my nerves because we can hear everything he says.

lose one’s nerve:  to be afraid of doing something;  to lose the courage to do something.

  • Example:  I was going to ask Sarah to dance but I lost my nerve and now some other guy is talking to her.

touch a (raw) nerve:  something that is especially irritating or annoying to someone.

  • Example:  Please don’t mention Sarah’s name tonight—you know that touches a raw nerve for Steve.


NEWS

break the news:  to inform someone of something bad that has happened.

  • Example:  I hate to be the one to break the news but I heard they gave the position you wanted to a guy from the marketing department.

(that’s) news to someone:  this is the first time the person has heard this information.

  • Example:  It was news to me that my parents had divorced when I was five and remarried two years later.


NEXT

next to:  almost, nearly.

  • Example:  Uh-oh, the next few days will be difficult. I have next to nothing in my bank account and don’t get paid for another week.


next to nothing:  almost nothing, very little.

  • Example:  Before my grandmother died, she weighed next to nothing and they had to feed her with a tube.

NICK

(just) in the nick of time:  before the very last moment or deadline.

  • Example:  You got here just in the nick of time, the movie’s about to start.


NIGHT

night and day (day and night):  all the time.

  • Example:  You’re on Facebook night and day, why don’t you take a break?


NOD

get the nod:  to get approval for something.

  • Example:  Yes! I got the nod from my parents to get my ears pierced.

nod off:  to fall asleep.

  • Example:  Pull over and let me drive—you look like you’re about to nod off.


NOSE

a nose for something:  have a talent or ability for finding something.

  • Example:  You have a real nose for finding bargains whenever we go shopping.


follow one’s nose:  to follow one’s intuition or move forward.

  • Example:  I don’t have directions but I’ve been to this place before and usually I can just follow my nose.

keep one’s nose clean:  to not get into trouble.

  • Example:  Try to keep your nose clean tonight when you go out.


keep one’s nose out of something:  to not get involved in something.

  • Example:  I wasn’t talking to you—just keep your nose out of this.

keep one’s nose to the grindstone:  to work very hard without taking a break or being distracted.

  • Example:  I promise I’ll spend more time with you after tax season is over but for now I’ve got to keep my nose to the grindstone.


look down at someone/something:  to see something or someone as inferior.

  • Example:  I hate to say this but my father looks down on anyone who doesn’t come from a wealthy background.


nose around:  to try to find information about something.

  • Example:  Try to nose around and find out what your brother would like to do for his birthday.


powder one’s nose:  to go use the toilet (an expression used by women).

  • Example:  Excuse me sir, I need to powder my nose.  Could you tell me where the restroom is?


stick/poke one’s nose into something:  to intentionally try to find information or get involved in something that is private.

  • Example:  Just because were married doesn’t give you the right to stick your nose into my business  and read my private emails.

turn one’s nose up at something:  to not like something because you think it’s not good enough for you.

  • Example:  You always turn your nose up to different ethnic foods but you have no idea what you’re missing.

under someone’s nose:  to be very close but not noticed.

  • Example:  I was looking for my keys all morning but they were right under my nose the whole time.


NOT

not feel like oneself:  to not feel the way one normally feels;  to feel strange.

  • Example:  Since I started to take this medication I haven’t felt like myself, so I may have to stop using it.


NOTCH

a notch above (someone/something):  something is slightly superior or inferior to someone/something else.

  • Example:  I really love the cover of this song but the original is still a notch above this one.


NOTE(S)

make a mental note:  to make an effort to remember something you don’t write down on paper.

  • Example:  You might want to make a mental note for the future that we also offer free delivery.


take note of something:  to pay attention or give attention to something.

  • Example:  Please take note of the requirements for completing this course—they're listed right here on the syllabus.


compare notes:  to exchange information and opinions about something.

  • Example:  We should get together and compare notes about babysitters, parks, child-friendly restaurants and stuff like that.

NOTHING

nothing much:  very little.

  • Example:  Oh, it was nothing much.  I’m always happy to help.

there’s nothing to it:  it’s easy to do.

  • Example:  Don’t worry about taking the bus to New York, there’s really nothing to it except showing up on time for departure.


NOTICE

at a moment’s notice:  almost immediately.

  • Example:  My husband works for the military so it’s common for him to get deployed at a moment’s notice.

(on/with) short notice:  with a brief amount of warning.

  • Example:  I told my boss that I was really sorry but I wouldn’t be able to work this weekend on such short notice.


take notice (of someone/something):  to give attention to something.

  • Example:  A year ago I started to take notice of what the successful salespeople were doing and now I’m one of the top sellers for my company.


NOW

(every) now and again:  once in a while;  sometimes.

  • Example:  Every now and again I see my ex-boyfriend at the gym and I still feel really nervous.


(every) now and then:  once in a while; sometimes.

  • Example:  Every now and then, Apple offers discounts but normally their prices are set and don’t change.

(it’s) now or never:  something needs to be done or the opportunity may never happen again.

  • Example:  Next year were going to try to start a family so I feel it’s now or never to backpack through South America.


NUT

a hard nut to crack:  1) something that is difficult to do, solve or enter;  2) someone who is difficult to know or understand.

  • I've almost finished the problem set but this last equation is hard nut to crack—can you take a look and try to help me?
  • Getting into Harvard isn't impossible but it's a hard nut to crack.
  • Your sister is a hard nut to crack.  Sometimes she's really nice and other times she's really quiet so I don't know if she likes me or thinks I'm an idiot.

NUTSHELL

in a nutshell:  a quick summary of something.

  • In a nutshell,  it was the worst trip of my life but I’m not going to torture you with all the boring details.
  • It will cost, in a nutshell, about $15,000 and take three months to complete the repairs. The proposal includes the full information about the work we would do.


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