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ESL Learning: Work idioms

Love it or hate it, we’ve all got work to do in our lives.

Let’s talk about some phrases and idioms that we use around work.

work ethics

Tremendous work ethic/Great work ethic: dearly valuing hard work, and able to work hard for long amounts of time. Someone who has a tremendous work ethic will most likely succeed after learning to direct his or her actions well.


  • She works two jobs in a row, and still comes home and cooks dinner! She has a tremendous work ethic.

  • You must develop a great work ethic to succeed in business.

  • He does not have a great work ethic, so he was happy to find a job where he did not have to work too hard.

Work smart: use logic and strategy to do your work in the best possible way.


  • Because he learned to work smart, he does not have to work so hard.

  • One way to work smart is to find ways that we are wasting time in our work.

  • She decided to work smart, and started having a personal assistant answer her company’s emails.

midnight oil

Burn the midnight oil OR Burn the midnight lamp: work late into the night. Often, artists and musicians say that they do some of their best work late at night.

To explain the root of the phrases ‘burn the midnight oil’ and ‘burn the midnight lamp’. Before the times of electricity, we, of course, used oil lamps to light our homes after the sun had set.


  • The project is due tomorrow, so we might have to burn the midnight oil to complete it.

  • Some people are sleepy the next day after they burn the midnight oil.

  • “I continue to burn the midnight lamp, all alone.” –Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix, considered to be one of the best American guitarists of all time, even has a song called “Burning of the Midnight Lamp:

Jimi Hendrix was famous for burning the midnight oil in the music studio, often erasing his band mates’ tracks, re-recording while playing their instruments, and experimenting with new effects and alternate tuning for his guitar well into the morning hours.


Burning the candle at both ends: working (or playing) until late at night and getting up early in the morning.

A candle that burns at both ends will be finished quickly, and working (or playing) too hard and not getting enough sleep are considered to be bad for people’s health in English speaking cultures.


  • After five days of working 15 hour days, he slept almost all weekend. Too much burning the candle at both ends!

  • I’m going to sleep! I’ve got work in the morning, and I won’t be burning the candle at both ends!

  • Get some sleep, my dear; you don’t want to be burning the candle at both ends.

So in conclusion, remember to get enough sleep. It’s okay to burn the midnight oil sometimes, but don’t burn the candle at both ends!

It’s good to have a tremendous work ethic, but it’s even more important to work smart! Believe in yourself, and know that amazing things are in the works for you and ETO this year.

If this was interesting or useful to you, you may also be interested in many of our new English topics at EnglishTutorOnline. Get started with a free English class today!

Thanks for visiting our blog. May your work be successful, purposeful, and joyful in all that you do!

By Joseph

ETO American English teacher


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