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Binomial pairs: a unique kind of idiom using pairs & groups of words

A picture of a cat chasing a mouse.
Playing cat and mouse (Warner Bros. Animation)
Binomial pairs are a special kind of idiom in English made of pairs or groups of words.

Binomial pairs are pairs of words that cannot be reversed. They always come in the same order and are often joined by and, or or to. These are phrases like "cat and mouse" or "fish and chips". The order of the words cannot be changed — native speakers will always say "rich and poor", but never "poor and rich". Learning these phrases will not only make your English natural, but it will also put this kind of idiom on your radar — the next time you hear a phrase like this, you will notice the order and remember them!

Pair Meaning Example

alive and kicking

living and healthy

Stay until your love is alive and kicking.

alive and well

living and healthy

A: How's old man Burns?
B: He's pushing 80, but he's alive and well.

all or nothing

no compromise

With the scores tied and just three minutes left in the match, it was all or nothing.

an arm and a leg

a very expensive price

His new car cost him an arm and a leg.

back and forth

backwards and forwards
to and fro

I have been going back and forth between school and home all day.

back to front

the opposite way round

"Less or more" is back to front. You should say "more or less".

be all and end all

the most important part

Gavin thinks he is the be all and end all of Sales.

bells and whistles

extra features

How much is it with all the bells and whistles?

for better or worse

good or bad, no matter what the result

For better or worse, he was reelected for another four years.

the birds and the bees

sex education

It's time you told the children about the birds and the bees.

bitter and twisted

resentful or cynical

After being passed over for promotion again, he became bitter and twisted.

black and blue


They beat him black and blue.



There was more blood-and-guts than anything else in the last Rambo.

blood, sweat and tears

great effort

It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to become a pro.

by and large


By and large, Rambo was all blood and guts and bad acting.

cat and mouse

use strategy

Hackers have been playing cat and mouse with internet security firms.

clean and tidy


Is the house clean and tidy after the party?

cool, calm and collected

without stress or nervousness

She looked cool, calm and collected as she presented to the board, but said afterward she was having kittens.

crash and burn

total failure

I'm gonna crash and burn, if I don't get some study done.

down and out

really poor

Down and Out In Paris and London.

far and wide

a large area

His fame spread far and wide.

first and foremost


First and foremost, let me thank you all for coming today.

give and take


There should be a certain amount of give and take, but don't let them push you around.

give or take

about, approximately

I'll be 15 minutes, give or take.

grin and bear it


You will just have to grin and bear it.

hammer and tongs

with great effort

He's been going hammer and tongs to finish the report by Friday.


fixed and unchangeable

The boss is a hard-and-fast slave driver.

here and there

a variety of places

They looked here and there, but couldn't find her.

high and dry


They left me high and dry.

hit and miss

unreliable, inconsistent

The team's performance this season was hit and miss.

hook, line and sinker


He was taken in hook, line and sinker.

a hop, skip and a jump

a short way

The station is just a hop, skip and a jump from there.

hot and humid

about the weather

Summer in Tokyo is hot and humid.

intents and purposes

practical ways

They were, for all intents and purposes, trapped.

kill or be killed

live or die

Life in those days was kill or be killed: only the strong survived.

law and order

controlling crime

A complete breakdown in law and order followed the crisis.

leaps and bounds

fast, rapidly

Your son has improved in leaps and bounds this year.

life and death

live or die

In a life-and-death situation, there isn't time to think.

live and let live

be tolerant

It's none of your business: live and let live.

lost and found

a place to leave or collect lost items

I turned the wallet in at lost and found.

loud and clear

easy to hear and understand

A: Did you hear what I said?
B: Loud and clear!

for love or money


I wouldn't eat that for love nor money

make or break

a point when you might succeed or fail

With all their cash invested in the new business, it was make or break.

meet and greet

to welcome

When the guest arrives, I'll do the meet and greet in the lobby.

mice and men


The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

milk and honey

great wealth and riches

And I am come down to deliver them ... unto a land flowing with milk and honey.

more or less

about, approximately

Alligators and crocodiles are more or less the same.

nuts and bolts

basic parts or details

So by and large we agree. We can discuss the nuts and bolts of the deal later.

odds and ends

miscellaneous things

I need to get a few odds and ends from the shops.

once and for all


I will stop him once and for all!

one way or another


We'll beat them one way or another!

part and parcel

an important part

Part and parcel of being an effective journalist is a hunger for the truth.

peace and quiet


After the kids left, we finally got some peace and quiet.

P's and Q's

pleases and thank yous

Mind your P's and Q's.

pros and cons

points for and against

We'll weigh the pros and cons of your proposal and get back to you.

rain or shine

in any weather

Rain or shine, I am going to the game.

rant and rave

talk angrily or crazily

He left ranting and raving about how they had mistreated him.

sick and tired

totally lose interest in

I'm sick and tired of your complaining.

sink or swim

succeed or fail: a turning point

When you are in a tough market, it is sink or swim.

sixes and sevens


Without effective leadership, the department was at sixes and sevens.

song and dance

an overly complicated explanantion

After he was caught, he made a big song and dance about why he did it.

sooner or later

eventually, inevitably

Sooner or later he will get what he deserves.

spick and span

perfectly clean and tidy

After a couple of hours of cleaning, the house was spick and span.

sweetness and light

too friendly and pleasant

She is all sweetness and light when you first meet her.

take it or leave it

yes or no but there will be no negotiation

$20 - take it or leave it.

tall, dark and handsome


Clooney plays his typical tall, dark and handsome ladies' man.

then and there

at that time and place

They hired him then and there.

thick and thin

in good and bad times

They were together through thick and thin.

time and (time) again

often or repeatedly

I rang time and time again, but couldn't get through.

to and fro

back and forth

The birds flew to and fro in the garden.

Tom, Dick and Harry


Every Tom, Dick and Harry has a website these days.

tooth and nail

with all your power

The activists fought tooth and nail to close the factory.

touch and go

uncertain and risky

It was touch and go after the company first launched, and we thought we would go under.

trial and error

trying and failing till the right one is found

Without any good suggestions, we will have to resort to trial and error.

up and about

out of bed and healthy again

A couple of days after the operation, she was up and about.

up and coming


The up and coming Michael Jordan joined the Bulls in 1984.

up and down

good and bad

Sales were up and down for the two years leading up to the takeover.

warts and all

in all parts - even the bad ones

She loved him, warts and all.

wear and tear

damage coming from use

The deterioration was a result of ordinary wear and tear.

yes and no

in part yes, but otherwise no.

A: Are you enjoying your new job?
B: Yes and no. The people are interesting, but the work is really mindless.

yes or no

what's your answer?

Are you coming? Yes or no?


  1. The only way to learn these is to memorise them.
  2. Making mistakes here will not stop people understanding you, but people will know you are a non-native speaker of English. In other words, don't get too stressed about them.
  3. There are many examples, like "husband and wife", "table and chairs", "fish and chips" or "bacon and eggs", of things which usually come in pairs. They are not on this list. This is a list of more useful examples.
  4. Binomial pairs go by many names and are also known as "freezes" or "irreversible binomials".
  5. There is a very big list of binomial pairs on Wikipedia.
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    I am from New Zealand. I lived in Japan and Brazil for a long time, but now I am back home in Auckland. I am the founder of Poligo. I like to play guitar and video games and surf when I get the chance. I have a wife and two boys.
    I specialize in teaching English to professionals and English teachers. I have taught English since 2001 in Japan, New Zealand and Brazil. I speak Japanese & Portuguese. I am the founder of Poligo and The English Farm (an online school for business English).

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