2020 is the year of the mouse / rat. In today’s post you will learn 10 rats and mice idioms.
- Poor as a church mouse
- As quiet as a mouse
- The best-laid plans of mice and men
- Play cat and mouse with (someone)
- When the cat’s away, the mice will play
- Mouse potato
- Rat race
- Smell a rat
- Like a drowned rat
- Rug rat
Phrasal verbs with rat
- rat on
- rat out
For the Chinese Zodiac this an the image of the rat from Wikipedia.
What’s the difference between a mouse and a rat?
A mouse and a rat are animals in the same family. The only difference is their size.
Here are their meanings from Oxford Learner’s Dictionary dot com.
mouse – a small animal that is covered in fur and has a long thin tail. Mice live in fields, in people’s houses or where food is stored.
rat – a small animal with a long tail, that looks like a large mouse, usually considered a pest (= an animal which is disliked because it destroys food or spreads disease)
Rats have a worse image than a mouse, people often think of them as dirty. These animals are very closely related, both are used by different cultures. Year of the Mouse – Year of the Rat
You can learn more about the Chinese Zodiac in my 2019 post “10 pig idioms.”
Using idioms naturally
I don’t like how idioms are taught in some textbooks, versus how idioms are actually used in natural English conversation.
I’ve seen idiom textbooks, and I’ve visited some Internet websites that have idiom lists, but some of them use terrible examples. Many of the examples are very unnatural!
They are trying to force the idiom into one sentence and it sounds very strange. It doesn’t sound like I have EVER heard the idiom used in a natural conversation. I have never heard a native speaker use idioms the way they are used in these forced examples.
I’m going to try and fix that with this blog post 🙂
The main problem
Idioms are often used as a complete sentence or a separate clause in a sentence. We say them by themselves as a response to a previous comment or to support another comment.
How to use idioms correctly
I will use a mouse idiom for my example:
I have no money. I just used all my savings to pay my credit card bill. I’m poor as a church mouse!
The idiom poor as a church mouse means that I’m very poor. I don’t have any money. It is a separate response that comes after I explain my situation.
- All my money is gone
- I just used all my savings
Unnatural example #1
Here is an example you might see in an “idiom” textbook:
“I’m poor as a church mouse because I just spent my savings.”
This sounds unnatural to me. I have never heard the idiom used this way in a real conversation. I don’t often hear an idiom at the start of a sentence unless it’s a follow up to another sentence. It will be part of a longer conversation.
Here is another example
“I just spent my savings so I’m poor as a church mouse.”
This is still not so natural for me, but it’s better than the first example. Here the idiom is a separate clause that comes after I tell you that I just spent all my savings, and the idiom is used to stress (emphasize) how poor I am.
Clause #1 I just spent my savings
The 2 clauses are connected by so
Clause #2 I’m poor as a church mouse.
I prefer the second example because the idiom is not the start of your sentence, it comes later and supports the first clause. My very first example feels the most natural.
My original sentence is the way I would use it in a conversation.
The idiom used in a conversation
A: If everyone pitches in $5 we can get a new coffee machine for the break-room.
B: Don’t bother asking Bob, he’s as poor as a church mouse.
The phrasal verb pitch in means: to give a particular amount of money in order to help with something
Another natural example
A: If everyone pitches in $5 we can get a new coffee machine for the break-room.
B: Bob’s as poor as a church mouse so don’t bother asking him.
The idiom in these 2 examples is a response to asking people to give $5 for a new coffee machine. Here the idiom supports the idea that there is no point in asking Bob (you shouldn’t bother asking him) because he had no money.
These are small points, but when I see examples that try to fit the context all in one sentence it seems strange. For example:
“Bob’s as poor as a church mouse so don’t bother asking him to give money for the new coffee machine.”
This sentence isn’t grammatically wrong, but it feels too long. I wouldn’t say this, it really feels like the writer trying to force an idiom into one sentence with no context.
This unnatural sentence is almost the same as my natural example #2, but it is not a response to anything. It’s not part of a longer conversation. One long sentence by itself is hard to use naturally with no context.
If you are teaching English learners to use idioms they need to hear natural examples. Examples that they can use themselves in conversation.
The examples in my idiom list will be ones that are natural, or my own, original examples. Examples that you can use in your own conversations.
Rats and Mice idioms – Mouse
as quiet as a mouse
I bet you can imagine this idiom’s meaning already. It means very quiet.
“I got home at 2 am on Wednesday. I didn’t want to wake up my roommates because they have to work Thursday morning. When I got home I was quiet as a mouse. (I’m such a good roommate!)”
the best-laid plans of mice and men
This is an interesting expression. It comes from a poem written by a famous Scottish poet named Robert Burns. A quote from one of his poems written in simple English is:
“the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry“
This means that whoever you are, no matter how much you plan, problems or accidents can and will happen.
~ if something goes awry, it does not happen in the way that was planned.
We often use a shortened version “the best-laid plans of mice and men” to express understanding when unfortunate (unlucky) things affect someone’s plans.
Alex: I bought enough food for 20 people, bought a new barbeque (BBQ) and invited all my friends to my house Saturday for a backyard party. The weatherman just said that we will have a thunderstorm on Saturday!
Brian: The best laid plans of mice and men.
This is a natural way to use this idiom. Brian wants to show that sometimes this happens to everyone. No matter how much you plan, things can still go wrong.
play cat and mouse with (someone)
This idiom is used when someone (the cat) is using his/her position, power or influence to control another person (the mouse) in a way that is unfair or abusive.
“I have liked Jennifer for months. She knows this but she keeps her feelings to herself. I’m getting tired of playing cat and mouse. I’ll ask her out one last time before I move on.”
“The police and the jewellery thieves have been playing cat and mouse for weeks. I wonder if they’ll make an arrest soon.”
This is how I have heard this idiom in the past. I found a resource at the Free Dictionary with some other nuanced uses for this idiom. You can visit that site here Link
when the cat’s away, the mice will play
This uses the same idea as the last idiom. The cat has power over the mouse, so when the cat is gone the mouse is free to do what he likes. He is not worried about the cat.
This expression shows a situation where someone in authority is gone (the cat is away), so the people who are under their authority can do what they like (the mice will play).
Chris: It’s 8:30! Your going to be late for work!
Derrick: My boss is on vacation this week so I can go into to work late.
Chris: I get it, when the cat’s away the mice will play.
This is a new idiom for me! A mouse potato is a person who spends too much time using a computer.
Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries Mouse Potato
My friend spends 10 hours a day surfing the web and watching YouTube videos. He used to be very active but now he has become such a mouse potato.
Words from the root “mouse”
mousy [adjective] also mousey
(usually disapproving) (of people) shy and quiet; without a strong personality
“He was accompanied by his mousy little wife.”
Rats and Mice idioms – Rat
I found two examples of the noun phrase rat race. The meanings are similar but not exactly the same. Both have a negative feeling.
The rat race is something you want to avoid becoming part of.
Rat Race meaning – A rat race is an endless, self-defeating, or pointless pursuit. In this phrase humans are equal to rats trying to earn a reward such as cheese.
It may also refer to a competitive struggle to get ahead financially or routinely.
Rat race on Wikipedia
The term is commonly used to mean an exhausting, repetitive lifestyle that has no time for relaxation or enjoyment.
Examples from Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries
“It’s very easy to get caught up in the rat race.”
“The novel is about a couple who get out of the rat race and buy a farm in France.”
smell a rat
This idiom is used to show that you suspect someone of being dishonest or you think that something dishonest is happening.
“He’s been working late with his cute new secretary every night. He never worked late before she started at the company. I smell a rat!”
like a drowned rat
This idiom is used to describe someone who is very wet and looks uncomfortable.
Come in out of the rain! You look like a drowned rat.
Rug rat is an idiom that means child. It’s usually playful and used with a child you know well. Rug rat
It can be singular – Get to bed rug-rat!
Or it can be plural – Come on rug-rats, it’s time for bed!
2 Phrasal verbs with rat
The word rat is also part of 2 common phrasal verbs
- rat on (someone)
- rat (someone) out
These phrasal verbs mean – to tell somebody in authority about something wrong that somebody else has done
“Where I come from, you don’t rat on your friends.”
“I got home after 1:00 am last night. My parents were sleeping and didn’t hear me come in so late so I thought I was fine. My little brother ratted me out this morning at breakfast!”
ratty English adjective
In North American English, ratty is an informal word that means – in bad condition – ratty
- long ratty hair
- a ratty old pair of jeans
Rats and Mice idioms – conclusion
Remember *The first examples are not incorrect, just unnatural to me. Using English idioms in a natural way will help you feel more confident and ready to talk with your English friends and coworkers like a native!
Check out these other great blog posts!
- Much or Many? English grammar (+Video)
- Affect and Effect – English vocabulary (W/Video)
- English Adjectives Fact or Opinion? (PDF)
- Hasn’t VS. Doesn’t Have (PDF download)
- English modal verbs – Can Could May Might