It broke my heart: Idioms and phrasal verbs to express sadness

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by Liz Walter

‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.’ So said Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As a general rule, grief and sadness are more interesting to writers and poets than happiness, and there are many fine descriptions in literature. However, in this post, I want to focus on language that we use in everyday speech.

Firstly, it is obviously very important to use phrases that are suitable for the level of trauma involved. You might describe someone as down in the dumps or down in the mouth if, for instance, they did badly in a job interview or failed an exam. Similarly, the phrase out of sorts is used mainly for someone who is usually cheerful, but simply seems a bit glum at the moment. However, if the sadness is caused by something serious like a bereavement (= when someone dies), those phrases would sound too trivial.

For that kind of situation, we could say that they are broken-hearted or completely grief-stricken. In British English, we talk about people being knocked sideways or knocked for six in order to emphasize their shock and pain. If someone is extremely upset about something, we can say they have taken it hard.

An informal but emphatic phrase, which seems to have become much more common recently, is to say that someone is in bits. Strangely enough, it doesn’t have any negative connotation, whereas if you say that someone has gone/fallen to pieces or fallen apart, it can sound slightly judgmental, as if they are failing to cope with what has happened.

A continuing bad situation can get you down or cast a shadow over everything, while if you feel as if you are carrying sadness inside you, you might describe yourself as having a heavy heart. We often talk about doing something with a heavy heart when we are forced into an action that makes us sad. If something makes you feel as though you want to cry, we say that it brings a lump to your throat, and if you well up, tears come into your eyes, and you might even burst into tears.

However, as sad as life can be, we don’t like people who mope around (= act in a miserable way) or wallow in their sadness (= make no effort to recover, as if they are enjoying it). If we are brave (or rude) enough, we might ask them to pull themselves together (= act in a more sensible way).

And lastly, in case this post has left you feeling dejected, forlorn, glum, miserable or wretched – look out for my next post which will be all about happiness!

40 thoughts on “It broke my heart: Idioms and phrasal verbs to express sadness

  1. Wiz lee

    I’m taking CPE next month, and it will be extremely useful for me (and probably for everybody) to learn words used frequently in the writing section. So…Thanks for all these fabulous posts!!!

    P.S. I’m 11 yrs old. 🙂

  2. Verónica González

    Thanks a lot for your post and greetings from Buenos Aires!
    I’m an English student, and it’s very helpful for those difficult situations.
    Looking forward to your next post!

  3. Briki

    These blogs that I love reading must be learned to prétend having a good knowledge of English language and even an academic level..Thank you for these useful publications.

  4. Muhammad Nowfal

    Now i am clear what it implies.You are doing a very good enterprise.Please share me whenever you post novel things via email.

  5. Maryem Salama

    How nice to have a start with your beautifully written blogs after a long absence from online, and the start with Hamlet, my current research! thank you dear, Liz

  6. JavierC

    Of course here in Mexico we celebrate death, we do not avoid pain but it is excuse to make a brindis for life and dead and put on nice music the one used to listen. As we say the only we are taking with us is a fist of dust

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