Useful Idioms for Lower-Intermediate to Advanced Students (Teacher’s Resource)
*New*: Download the Essential North American Idioms App on Google Play !
My students often tell me that they want to learn idioms. But, in the past, I always found it difficult to find a list of idioms/phrases that was general enough to be useful for everyone. So, I finally broke down and made my own idiom and phrases list. Below is the result of hours of idiom compilation and writing.
off the top of your head He asked me to tell him a joke, but I couldn’t think of one off the top of my head.
The online list contains definitions. However, I did not provide idiom definitions in the downloadable list two reasons. Firstly, students are more interested when they can try to figure out the idiomatic expression and guess its meaning by themselves. I tried to provide enough context for this in my examples. Secondly, you, the teacher, will be there to define the expression if need be. You need to prove your use somehow :)
- I am North American, so naturally, this list contains idioms that are most familiar to English speakers in North America.
- There are approximately 195 idioms, totaling 11 printed pages. Don’t try to teach them all right away! Progress slowly, and finish them off page-by-page over the course of six months or so.
- It’s difficult to divide idioms into difficulty levels. I tried to begin the list with the easiest/most common expressions and then finish it with slightly more specific/advanced idioms. Many of the idioms on the last few pages are work-related.
- Maybe save 15 minutes of class to study idioms. Don’t spend a whole class on idioms.
- Only cover 7-8 idioms with your students (you don’t have to do a whole page) or they won’t remember them well.
- Always review the idioms you studied in the previous class. Here is a good warm-up activity (requiring pictures) to review them.
- After you have taught 10 or so idioms, do this role-play activity to give your students a chance to use the expressions in conversation.
The Barton Idiom Quiz
All of these idioms can be studied in a game! Visit the Barton Idiom Quiz to test your idiom knowledge.
The Essential North American Idioms App! (For Android)
Now you can study 100 of below idioms on your Android mobile device! Visit the Google Play store to download the app for free. The app has 100 of the most useful North American idioms (taken from the list below), grouped into 10 levels based on difficulty (intermediate, upper-intermediate, advanced).
In the application, you can do the following:
• view idioms
• match idioms to definitions
• match idioms with examples
• write the correct idiom that fits in an example sentence
Give it a try and let me know your feedback!
The Idiom List
Download the complete list: EC-Idioms-Intermediate-Advanced (DOC)
(note: “sth” = something, “sb” = somebody)
ring a bell
A: Do you know April O’Neil?
B: Hmm. Maybe. That name rings a bell.
= is familiar to you but you can’t remember where you heard it
on the one hand / on the other hand
On the one hand, Peter’s roommate is kind. On the other hand, he’s quite messy.
= (expression used to when considering the advantages and disadvantages of sth)
have/keep an open mind
I tried to keep an open mind about Allan even though I’d heard some bad things about him.
= be openminded
on the tip of your tongue
His name was on the tip of my tongue… but I couldn’t remember it.
= used to say you are almost able to remember something, but you can’t
a hangover (noun) / hung-over (adj)
Tyler was too hung-over from last night’s party to go to work.
= unwell from drinking too much alcohol on the previous day
Let’s meet around 4ish.
= used to make sth more vague and less exact
I’m fed up with my neighbour’s dog.
= so angry that you can no longer tolerate any more of sth
It takes you 15 minutes to walk to school? Big deal!
= a sarcastic expression meaning that sth is actually NOT a big deal.
Give sb a hand
My dad gave me a hand with my homework.
= helped you
let the cat out of the bag
It was going to be a surprise party, until Todd let the cat out of the bag.
= told the secret so other people found out too early
give it a shot
If you think you can make the team, then give it a shot.
= give it a try
A: George, I’m pregnant.
B: No way!
= similar to “that can’t be possible!” / “I don’t believe you!”
The more the merrier.
A: Can I invite my brother?
B: Sure. The more the merrier.
= used to say that the more of sth there is, the better it will be.
give it your all
Even though I lost the race, I gave it my all.
= tried your hardest
I saw the accident happen, first-hand.
= you experienced it personally
a dead end
Let’s not take this path. It leads to a dead end.
= a place with only an end
Time flies when you’re having fun.
= time passes quickly
pull sb’s leg
“You have 6 brothers? You’re pulling my leg!”
= same as “You’re joking!”
have sth on your mind
When Dana has something on her mind, she likes to go for a long walk by herself.
= to have a certain topic in your thoughts
I use my watch to keep track of time.
= to monitor the time
My aunt made the cake from scratch.
= from nothing (without any already-prepared materials)
off the top of your head
He asked me to tell him a joke, but I couldn’t think of one off the top of my head.
= using only the ideas you have in your head at that moment
learn your lesson
The boy learned his lesson. He’ll never play with fire again.
= to learn sth important about life from making a mistake/doing something wrong
keep/bear in mind
The professor told his students to keep in mind that they only have 50 minutes to complete the test.
= not forget; remember
speak your mind
Timmy was afraid to speak his mind in front of his schoolmates.
= say what you honestly feel
Just my luck!
It rained on my only day off. Just my luck!
= expression used when sth unlucky happens to you. It implies that unlucky things happen to you, thus your luck is bad luck
There’s nothing to it.
Why don’t you make a simple website for your business? There’s nothing to it.
= it’s very easy; it’s a piece of cake
get out of hand
The house party got out of hand, so we had to call the police.
= got out of control
cut a long story short
To cut a long story short, Lisa and I have had some interesting experiences together.
= to make a long story shorter so it takes less time to say
a piece of cake
The test was a piece of cake. I finished it in 20 minutes.
= very easy
|break the ice||At the start of the meeting, Mike tried to break the ice by telling a joke. |
= to initiate social interaction/conversation. (Note: the ‘ice’ is that cold feeling when no one is talking or people don’t know each other. You break the ice by beginning to speak or starting an activity (e.g. telling a joke, or doing a warm-up activity))
go out of your way to do sth
I went out of my way to help Jenny find an apartment, and she didn’t even say thanks!
= to take extra time to make an additional effort to do sth
cross your mind
The thought never even crossed my mind.
= to think about sth; to consider sth
I don’t like being in the car with Gary. He has difficulty controlling his road rage.
= extreme anger when driving
go on about
The old man went on about his school days for nearly an hour.
= to speak for too long about sth uninteresting
slip your mind
I was going to return the library books today after work, but the thought slipped my mind.
= used to say you forgot to do sth
have/throw a fit
The baby threw a fit when I took his toy away.
= to get angry and begin acting like an angry child
The ball is in your court
The ball is in their court now. Let’s wait for their decision.
= used to say that YOU now have control of the situation
make your day
Finding a fifty-dollar bill on the ground made my day.
= used to say that sth made your day special (and great).
a rip off / to rip sb off
Six dollars for a cup of coffee?! What a rip off!
= sth very over-priced
get a kick out of sth
I get a kick out of reading science fiction novels.
= to get enjoyment from sth
catch sb’s eye
The bright advertisement caught my eye.
= to grab sb’s attention and make them look at sth
jump the gun
I jumped the gun and asked Gail to marry me. She said she wasn’t sure what to say.
= to do sth too soon.
give sb a piece of your mind
The angry worker gave his boss a piece of his mind.
= to speak angrily to sb about sth bad they have done
cross your fingers
Kate crossed her fingers and hoped it wouldn’t rain on her wedding day.
= (Westerners cross their fingers when they want good luck)
cost (sb) an arm and a leg
The designer handbag cost her an arm and a leg.
= to cost a LOT of money
be in hot water
Ken was in hot water about forgetting his wedding anniversary.
= to be in trouble
|in a bind||Susan is really in a bind. She has two essays due tomorrow and she hasn’t started either of them. |
= in a difficult situation; stuck in a difficult situation
The film on global warming was a real eye-opener for Tom.
= sth that makes you see or think about sth differently from then on
let off steam
Ted plays squash when he needs to let off steam.
= to release anger and frustration
read between the lines
You can figure out the author’s opinion by reading between the lines.
= to find the hidden meaning in sth that is written or said
go all out
We went all out and booked a five-star hotel for our trip.
= to use all of your energy or resources (e.g. money in the above example) to do sth
out of line
Mark’s comment was out of line. He shouldn’t have said that to a client.
= inappropriate; not in accordance with how sb is supposed to behave
be on sb’s back
My manager is on my back about being at work on time.
= to persistently urge sb to do (or not to do) sth
would not be seen/caught dead
I wouldn’t be seen dead wearing an ugly dress like that.
= used to say that you would NEVER do sth
have mixed feelings
Larry has mixed feelings about his new job.
= to be unsure about sth
draw a blank
When asked for her postal code, Amy drew a blank.
= to be unable to remember anything
You name it.
A: Daddy, can I have anything on the menu?
B: Sure. You name it, you got it.
= synonym of ‘whatever you want’; anything
know your stuff
Jim has been a mechanic for 20 years. He really knows his stuff.
= to know sth well
left, right and centre
Businesses were closing in town left, right and centre.
a change of heart
After seeing a mouse on the floor, I had a change of heart about eating at the restaurant.
= a change of feeling; used to say you changed your mind about sth
a long haul
Peter told his boss that he wouldn’t quit. He’s in it for the long haul.
= the long road; the option that takes the most time
be man enough
George was the only one man enough to admit he had made a mistake.
= strong enough in character, or strong enough as a man
be second to none
The apple pie at this restaurant is second to none.
= the best
know/learn the ropes
It took me a month to learn the ropes at my new job.
= the process of learning about sth so you are comfortable with it
a breath of fresh air
The new employee, Gail, is a breath of fresh air in the office.
= sth new that adds life and energy to a situation
get your act together
The coach told me that if I didn’t get my act together, I’d be kicked off the team.
= start behaving properly
set your heart on sth
Eric has his heart set on participating in the Olympics.
= to be firmly resolved to do sth
take sb/sth for granted
Keith took it for granted that his girlfriend would always stay with him. Then, one day, she was gone.
= to assume too confidently that you’ll have sth in the future or forever
play it by ear
A: How long will you stay in Australia?
B: I’m not sure. I’m just going to play it by ear.
= to improvise; to not make a plan but decide what to do as you do it
put all your eggs in one basket
Greg invested his money in a few different areas. He didn’t want to put all his eggs in one basket.
= to put all of sth you have in the same area (note: generally viewed as a bad thing to do)
Birds of a feather (flock together)
A: It’s funny that all of Kate’s friends are attractive.
B: So is she. I guess birds of a feather flock together.
= similar people tend to spend time with each other.
have second thoughts
I’m starting to have second thoughts about my new apartment.
= to have doubts
pay the price for sth
Don’t touch my stuff. If you do, you’ll pay the price.
= to suffer as a consequence of doing sth
a basket case
Darryl’s ex-wife is a total basket case.
= a crazy person; a nut
on the dot
We arrived at 8 o’clock on the dot.
not have a clue
I don’t have a clue where Nunavut is.
= to have no idea or absolutely no knowledge (about sth)
have a shot at
Our team has a shot at winning the championship.
= has a chance
the word spread
It took only an hour for word to spread around the office that John had been fired.
= for some news to spread (“the word” = some news)
safe and sound
I arrived home from my trip safe and sound.
be a pain (in the neck)
My brother is a real pain in the neck sometimes.
= to be annoying/irritating
be in the same boat
The governments of Portugal and Greece are in the same boat. They both need financial assistance.
= to be in the same situation
be/feel at home
After two years, James felt at home in Prague.
= to feel comfortable, as if you were in your home or hometown
be in sb’s good books
Ryan is not in his father’s good books right now because he scratched his car.
= to be on someone’s good side; to be thought of as someone’s friend or ally
get out of bed on the wrong side
I’d avoid talking with Bob today. He must’ve got out of bed on the wrong side.
= to wake up in a bad mood
Roger is an up-and-coming hockey player from Toronto.
= young and rising to the top; new and becoming successful
get into gear
You’d better get into gear or you’ll be late.
= hurry up; start moving at a faster speed
out of the blue
One day, out of the blue, I received a letter from my former schoolmate.
= unscheduled; without previous warning
set the record straight
In a TV interview, the politician set the record straight about his experiences in the military.
= to clarify what is true/factual about a story or thing
keep an eye on
The security guard kept an eye on the suspicious man.
= watch closely; monitor
a grey area
Because of a grey area in his job description, Peter was not exactly sure what all of his responsibilities were.
= a vague area; an unclear area; an area that is neither black nor white
get/let sb off the hook
Luckily for her, the policeman let Jane off the hook for parking her car in a no-parking zone.
= to let someone go free instead of holding them responsible for sth bad
out of sight, out of mind.
Jim was happy when his ex-girlfriend moved out of his apartment — out of sight, out of mind.
= this means that if you do not see someone regularly, you will stop thinking about them.
give sb the cold shoulder
Ted gave his ex-girlfriend the cold shoulder when he saw her at the party.
= to ignore sb
The ins and outs
It took Alan a year to learn all the ins and outs of his job.
= to know all aspects of sth; to know completely how sth works
line of work
The fireman said that injuries were common in his line of work.
= job field; type of work
I forgot to buy groceries so I had to make do with what was left in the fridge.
= to survive/get by with what you have at that moment
get sth off your chest
A: Keith, there’s something I need to get off my chest.
B: What’s bothering you? Tell me.
= to say something serious or difficult that you have been thinking about for a while.
know sth like the back of your hand
Takeshi knows the streets of Kyoto like the back of his hand.
= to be very familiar with sth
in the bag
After scoring their fourth goal, the victory was in the bag.
= certain to be secured/obtained;
be on the ball
Greg isn’t on the ball today. He keeps making silly mistakes.
= to be thinking well and reacting quickly
off and on / on and off
Tara and Mike have been seeing each other off and on for a year now.
for the time being
I plan to move into my own apartment in September. For the time being, I’m staying with friend Doug.
= just for the present moment
burn your bridges
Jack tried to be kind to his boss when he quit in job because he didn’t want to burn his bridges.
= ruin a relationship, resulting in you being unable to return somewhere
get/be given the sack / sack (verb)
Alan got the sack for repeatedly coming into work late.
= to be fired
on the back burner
The project was put on the back burner while the company focused on a more immediate problem.
= set as a lower priority
get cold feet
It’s normal to get cold feet before your wedding day.
= to become nervous/frightened right before sth you had planned to do
hit rock bottom
After being fired and then kicked out of his apartment, Jake really hit rock bottom.
= to be in the lowest situation, e.g. without money or friends. to be in the unhappiest situation of your life
Everyone agreed not to talk shop at the staff party.
= to talk about work-related things
start/get the ball rolling
It’s time we start the ball rolling on the new project.
= to take the first step to begin a process
get your foot in the door
Janice took a position as an administrative assistant to get her foot in the door at the famous fashion company.
= to complete the first step towards achieving an opportunity
well-off / well-to-do
Lloyd comes from a well-to-do family. His friends often ask to borrow money from him.
= rich; wealthy
pull your weight
Lisa had to work extra hard because a few members of the team weren’t pulling their weight.
= to do your share of the work; to contribute your share of effort
a gut feeling
I have a gut feeling that something bad is going to happen today.
= an intuitive feeling
if need be
If need be, we can take a taxi home.
= If necessary,..
in the middle of nowhere
Their car broke down in the middle of nowhere.
= in a place far away from anywhere known to you
go with the flow
Jake didn’t want to go to another bar, but everyone else did, so he went with the flow.
= to let yourself to be guided by the choices of others
play your cards right
If Linda plays her cards right, she could be the department manager by next year.
= make the appropriate moves/choices
follow in sb’s footsteps
Bill chose to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a dentist.
= follow someone else’s path
have your heart set on sth
Alan has his heart set on participating in the 2020 Olympics.
= to be firmly resolved to do sth
You can say that again!
A: I met your boss today. He’s a real jerk.
B: You can say that again!
= expression that means that you definitely agree with what was just said.
I’m all ears
A: Doug, I’ve discovered the meaning of life.
B: Really? I’m all ears.
= I’m listening intently.
After some small talk, the interview began.
= discussion about light topics such as the weather
put sth on hold
Greg had to put his weekend plans on hold and go into the office on Saturday for a few hours.
= to postpone sth
The two boys had some common ground: they both loved football.
= something held in common; a common interest or trait
Marcel told a politically incorrect joke at the company party. No one laughed.
= politically correct = worded in a sensitive way that will not harm the audience
have had it up to here
“I’ve had it up to here with this mess! Clean your room now!”
= I’m fed up; I’ve had enough; something said when you cannot handle anymore of something that is aggravating you
have your work cut out
If we want to finish this by Friday, then we’ve really got our work cut out for us.
= expression that means you have a lot of work to do in little time
get the picture
A: The fight was horrible. One man kept punching the other again and again and again–
B: OK. That’s enough. I get the picture.
= to understand what is being illustrated or explained
see eye to eye
Mike and his father don’t see eye to eye on the issue of abortion.
= to agree on sth; to have the same views on sth
call it a day
It’s already 6 pm. Let’s call it a day.
= expression said near the end of a day which means “That’s enough for today. Let’s end and go home.”
twist sb’s arm
I really had to twist my sister’s arm to get her to pick me up from the airport.
= to make a great effort to convince sb to do sth for you
bring sth to light
The report brought some previously unknown facts to light about the causes of cancer.
= to make something previously unknown become known
be in the dark / keep sb in the dark
Most of the employees were kept in the dark about the merger until the last minute.
= to be uninformed; to not be told know what’s happening
go up in smoke
After breaking his leg, Darryl’s dream to play professional hockey went up in smoke.
= to be wasted; to become impossible; when the chances of sth happening burn away
After his wife divorced him, Victor’s life really went downhill.
= decline; become worse
at your fingertips
With the World Wide Web, people have a vast amount of information at their fingertips.
= directly accessible
poke fun at
The kids poked fun at George because he was wearing his t-shirt backwards.
Easier said than done.
A: You should get a girlfriend who’s beautiful AND kind.
B: Easier said than done.
= expression that means that sth is much easier to SAY than actually accomplish.
the bottom line
A: Doctor, what’s the bottom line?
B: If you don’t quit smoking, you’ll die within a year.
= the final result
call the shots
The boss told Janet to call the shots while he was away.
= to make the decisions
know/learn sth by heart
Hank knows every Elvis song by heart.
= to memorize sth
get a move on
If we don’t get a move on, we’ll miss the bus.
= to start moving; to start going
miss the point
“You missed the point. The book was about the problems of capitalism, not how to make money.”
= to fail to grasp the most important part of sth
hold/stand your ground
Although their enemy outnumbered them, the soldiers stood their ground.
= to stay in your position without running away.
be child’s play
The tennis match was child’s play for Ben.
= a piece of cake; something so easy a child could do it
be only a matter of time
The scientist said it’s only a matter of time before a big earthquake hits California.
= used to say that sth will inevitably happen (sooner or later)
push your luck
A: Dad, can I have another ice cream cone?
B: Don’t push your luck, kid.
= to expect continued good fortune
raise (a few) eyebrows
Francine’s short skirt raised a few eyebrows.
= to make people slightly shocked or surprised
a matter of opinion
The best restaurant in Europe is, of course, a matter of opinion.
= sth that is subjective
be that as it may
A: Tyler is such a selfish guy.
B: Be that as it may, he’s your brother. You have to love him.
= expression that means “even though that is true” / “even so, ..”
if/when push comes to shove
If push comes to shove, I’ll be here to support you.
= if/when the situation becomes difficult/intense
against your better judgement
Against his better judgement, Jim let his friend drive home drunk.
= sth you did even though, at that time, you thought it was wrong thing to do
add insult to injury
To add insult to injury, Greg’s wife left him for his best friend.
= to make an insulting situation even worse
the last straw
When the boss told me to come in to work on Saturday, that was the last straw.
= the final thing that causes sth to collapse or sb to lose their temper/get angry
be up in the air
Jim’s vacation plans were still up in the air.
= for sth to be undecided; undetermined
not have the faintest/foggiest idea
I don’t have the faintest idea where Wollongong is.
= to not know sth at all
the icing on the cake
Paula enjoyed the concert, and getting to meet the artist backstage after the show was the icing on the cake.
= an additional thing that makes sth good become great
get/jump/leap on the bandwagon
Janet doesn’t normally watch hockey but she jumped on the bandwagon because her city’s team was in the playoffs.
= to join the crowd; to do what most other people are doing
the fine/small print
My father reads the fine print on every contract he signs.
= the information typed in a smaller font, usually on a contract
stuck/be in a rut
The singer was stuck in a rut. All of her recent songs sounded the same.
= to be in a situation in which you cannot make any progress
Kate is a waitress at a run-of-the-mill bar and restaurant in London.
face the music
Tina knew that one day her parents would see her tattoo and then she’d have to face the music.
= to take responsibility for what you have done
to keep sth/sb at bay
Bodyguards kept the reporters at bay while the movie stars entered the theatre.
= to keep a threat away from coming too near
be up in arms
People were up in arms [about/over] the government’s plan to raise the retirement age.
= in an uproar; very angry
bite your tongue
Jack bit his tongue while his manager criticized his performance.
= to refrain from saying sth because you don’t think it would be a good idea
leave a lot to be desired
The design of our office building leaves a lot to be desired.
= is unsatisfactory
off the beaten track
Mike and Mary had dinner a quiet restaurant off the beaten track in Paris.
= away from the area most people visit/go
pick sb’s brains
Mike is a marketing genius. People often invite him to lunch or dinner so they can pick his brains.
= to ask someone many questions so you can learn from him/her
whet your appetite
The 30-second trailer was designed to whet people’s appetites.
= to make people want more; to stimulate your appetite so you desire more
A: People with nice cars just want attention.
B: That sounds like sour grapes because you can’t afford one.
= expression that means something was said out of jealousy
a blessing in disguise
Losing his job turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Afterward, Roger found his dream job.
= a good thing that first appears as a bad thing
give sb the benefit of the doubt
I told the teacher that it wasn’t me who broke the window. Thankfully, he gave me the benefit of the doubt.
= to choose to believe sth good about sb instead of believing sth bad (when you have the choice to believe either)
jog sb’s memory
Jeff said he couldn’t remember the song’s lyrics, but hearing the first few words jogged his memory.
= to make sb remember sth
foot the bill
George agreed to foot the bill for dinner.
= to pay the bill for sth
have it in for sb
A: Why are you hiding from your brother?
B: He has it in for me. He knows I lost his football.
= to be very angry at sb
be in the red
The company has been in the red since September.
= at a deficit; running at a loss; losing money
get/catch wind of sth
Once the school principal caught wind of the problem, she called a teachers’ meeting.
= to learn about some news;
a rule of thumb
As a rule of thumb, I don’t eat food that smells bad.
= a personal principle
be on the same wavelength
The group members were all on the same wavelength, so they were able to finish their project quickly.
= to think in a similar way to others
up to speed
After her holiday, it took Kate a few hours to get back up to speed on the recent developments in her company.
= to be updated; to not be behind; to have all the current information
play devil’s advocate
Although Jim is against the death penalty, he told his friend he was for it just to play devil’s advocate.
= to argue against sb just so you can hear your opponent’s reasoning
bend/lean over backwards
Lisa bent over backwards to get her brother a job in her company, so she was surprised to learn he quit today.
= to make a great effort to do sth or help sb
pass the buck
The politician passed the buck onto someone else instead of accepting responsibility for the problem.
= to pass blame onto sb else
|take the plunge||Jerry has finally decided to take the plunge. Tomorrow he’s going to start looking for an office job. |
= begin an important/difficult task that you’ve been thinking about for a long time (note: to plunge is into dive into something)
call sb’s bluff
When Mike heard his friend say she knew all of the world’s capitals, he called her bluff and asked her to name the capital of Mozambique.
= to make sb prove that what they are saying is true
have a chip on your shoulder
Tim has had a chip on his shoulder about businesswomen since he lost his job to a woman three years ago.
= to have anger about sth that happened in the past
breathe down sb’s neck
Jim found it hard to focus on his work with his boss breathing down his neck.
= to watch sb very closely (often in an annoying way)
climb to the top of the career/corporate ladder
Having children can be an obstacle for women who want to climb (to the top of) the corporate ladder.
= to advance in a company by being promoted to the top
Mark’s visa application was held up for six months because of red tape.
= rules and regulations that prevent you from achieving sth easily
give sb free rein
When his father died, Mark was given free rein to do whatever he liked with the family business.
= to give sb full control of sth
Getting into Harvard Law School became the be-all-and-end-all of Tony’s existence.
= the only thing that matters; sth so good that it will end the search for sth better
blow sth out of proportion
The media blew the story out of proportion.
= exaggerate sth; to make sth seem much more significant that it really is
|bury the hatchet||Susan and Mike agreed that it was time to bury the hatchet. They apologized and decided to be friends again. |
= to stop fighting and become friendly. (A hatchet is a small axe.)
Copyright Matthew Barton, July 2011, of Englishcurrent.com. Do not remove website name or URL from printable materials.
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