On the face of it (Idioms with the word ‘face’, part 1)

IAN HOOTON/SPL/Science Photo Library/Getty Images Plus

by Kate Woodford

It’s recently come to my attention that there’s a huge number of English phrases and idioms containing the word ‘face’. There are so many that this is the first of two posts, as ever focusing on the most frequent and useful. I hope you enjoy it!

We’ll deal first with phrases that convey something about the expression on someone’s face. If an emotion is written all over someone’s face, their face very clearly shows it: She was clearly appalled by the idea – it was written all over her face.

In UK English, someone who has a face like thunder or who looks like thunder looks very angry: He walked into here with a face like thunder. / She didn’t say anything but she looked like thunder.

Two ‘face’ expressions are used to convey a look of disappointment. We talk about a long face, meaning ‘a face showing sadness or disappointment’: There’ll be some long faces when I tell the kids the holiday is cancelled. We also say that someone’s face falls when they suddenly look very disappointed and unhappy: I told her Karl wasn’t coming and her face fell.

If you keep a straight face, you manage not to smile or laugh, usually when you are joking: I tried to pretend I was cross with her, but I couldn’t keep a straight face.

In UK English, we sometimes say that someone’s face was a picture, meaning that they looked very surprised, (either because of something good or something bad): Her face was a picture when she saw what he was wearing.

We make (and in UK English also pull) a face when we form a strange or funny expression with our face, often to show that we don’t like something: William looked at his plate and pulled a face.

Other ‘face’ idioms, as you might imagine, relate to how things appear to be on the surface. For example, we say that someone puts a brave face on it (or puts on a brave face) when they are determined not to appear upset, even though they feel it: She must have been disappointed by the news but I think she put a brave face on it.

We use the phrase on the face of it to say how a situation seems when we don’t know all the facts. On the face of it, it seems like a really good offer, but I think we need to look into it.

 If you take someone/something at face value, you accept what they seem to be, without questioning them at all: I took her at face value – I saw no reason to doubt what she said.

We’ll continue the ‘face idioms’ theme in a couple of weeks. Be sure to check in with us regularly.

28 thoughts on “On the face of it (Idioms with the word ‘face’, part 1)

  1. Tatiana Balandina

    Thank you, Kate! Can I say like this: When I see your name on the post I usually take it at face value? I really enjoy all your posts. THANKS A LOT!

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Tatiana! You’re very welcome! It’s a tricky idiom, that one, and I may not have explained it adequately. It’s more likely to be used, for example, about an offer or a statement where you just accept what someone is saying, without suspicion. I hope that helps! Best wishes from Cambridge.

  2. Blanca Pippo

    I am from Argentina, I enjoy all your blogs.
    Here we use a “cara de poker”, may be a poker face in English?, it may be when you don’t want to show to someone your emotions.

  3. Maryem Salama

    A couple of years ago, I came across the last idiom of your post in an article,and I failed to understand the meaning behind it. Therefore, I copied it within its sentence in my journal for a moment of understanding at some point, and it comes now thanks to your post.

  4. Artur

    Hi,Kate! As always very useful post! By the way, what mean “in your face” I’d like to know! Best wishes Artur!

    1. Kate Woodford

      Thanks, Artur! ‘In your face’ is a slang expression, meaning ‘bold, shocking and difficult to ignore’. I hope that helps. Best wishes from Cambridge.

    2. Marco

      It can also be used as a quite childish insult to say you are glad something bad happened to someone, so it can be used in both these ways:

      1. “The film’s music was quite in-your-face”
      2. “Ha! In your face!” (after seeing an enemy/rival fall over)

      1. Kate Woodford

        Yes, Marco – thanks! I had a feeling that the slang use of ‘In your face!’ as an insult was a bit dated now so didn’t include it, though I agree it certainly was used in this way. Best wishes from Cambridge!

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