Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

Have you heard somebody talk about something being a real “nail-biter” in English?

This is an English idioms that may sound confusing at first, but it’s a really fun one to add into conversation to describe a feeling or an attitude that you have toward something.

We came up with this topic because of this phrase that was used in an Instagram post.

This is such a great topic, and today we are going to talk about communicating ideas with body movements.

These phrases can be a lot of fun to use, and they can be helpful to add into your conversations.

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What Does This Mean?

So let’s get into understanding what “nail-biter” means.

Nail-biter means that something kept you guessing or worrying about the outcome until the very last minute.

You can almost picture this phrase in a visual way—it’s as if you were biting your nails until you found out what happened.

Why would you use it?

You use this to talk about something that came down to the last minute or that you were nervous about the outcome of.

The election was a nail-biter for example, and that’s something that you probably heard often.

People were glued to their TVs anxiously waiting the results of the election.

You may have had a lot invested in it or really cared deeply about the outcome, and so you were waiting to see what happened in the end.

What else could we describe as a nail-biter?

  • Sports game: You may be a huge fan of a sports team and watching anxiously to see what the outcome of a game is. You could say “The last ten seconds were a real nail-biter”
  • End of a show: You love watching a show and it’s a very exciting part. You may be watching it to find out what happens with some of your favorite characters or story lines.

When you say that something is a nail-biter it can be a bit more informal, but it can work in any setting where there is an excitement for the outcome.

This can be a fun phrase to use, and it can help you to convey something that is almost visual in nature.

Other Visual Sort of Terms To Use In Conversation

Though nail biter can be a really great phrase to use in these situations, there are others that can work much in the same way.

There are other visual sort of phrases that can be perfect to use in the right situations.

It can be fun to mix it up a bit and to use these phrases as they are so relatable and so visual in nature.

Having phrases such as these ready for when the situation presents itself can be a great way to take your language to another level.

  • Head-scratcher: This speaks to something that’s confusing! Think of scratching your head, as this is again a very visual sort of phrase. You may actually do this when you are confused or thinking about something. There are a couple of times when you might scratch your head or use such a phrase such as when you are talking to a friend about a problem they are having.
  • Knee-jerk: This is almost something involuntary in nature. It’s almost as if you can’t help it, and it just happens and you make a decision. You aren’t focusing or deciding or thinking a certain way, but it happens in the meantime. You usually use it with the word “reaction”, so you would say a knee-jerk reaction.
  • Head-turner: In this phrase you are talking about something that is appealing to look at . You actually turn your head, maybe it’s stimulating or nice to look at in some way. It captures your attention in a really big way. You may say “That dress is a total head-turner. I love it!”

These all work in the right situations, and they can be great to practice with.

These are great visual sort of phrases and therefore they can be helpful when the situation comes about where you might want to use them.

Though they are useful only in certain situations, they are great phrases to try out and add to your conversations.

When Would You Use Such Phrases?

You want to be sure that you use this sort of phrase at the right time.

Remember that these are very visual phrases, and you can almost picture the action occurring as you say it.

There are certain situations that you want to use this phrase, or where it may be most appropriate.

  • For head-scratcher: You might use it when you are trying to figure something out. You are confused and so you might say “Oh man, that’s a real head-scratcher, Lindsay. I hope you figure it all out!” You might use it when you are confused about something that you are watching or learning about, such as what is being talked about on the news. You could say “I don’t get why that senator said that. It’s a real head-scratcher.”
  • For knee jerk: You could use this to share how you felt about something in the moment: You may have an immediate reaction to something and therefore this captures it perfectly. “My knee-jerk reaction was to get angry, but I took a deep breath and realized I had to calm down.” You may also use this to gauge what the reaction was to something that occurred, even in the past. You could say “When you heard about the new project, what was your knee-jerk reaction?”
  • For head-turner: You could use this to talk about something that really drew you in. When you see something that captures your attention in a profound way, you may use this phrase to describe it. You could say “The buildings in New York are so big. The Empire State Building is definitely a head-turner.”

If you know the sort of situations to use these in, then they can be quite useful.

Visual phrases are always a fun addition to conversation, and therefore you want to try them out and see how they work for you.

Roleplay To Help

In this roleplay, Lindsay and Michelle are talking about their favorite TV show.

Lindsay: “Did you catch the finale?”

Michelle”: Yes. Oh my goodness what a nail-biter!”

Lindsay: “Seriously. I didn’t get why the Tom left home in the last scene.”

Michelle: “Yeah, it was a real head-scratcher to me too. My knee-jerk reaction was that he did it because he felt he had to move on.”

Lindsay: “Yeah that’s probably right. That hat he was wearing was a real head-turner.”

Michelle: “Yeah, interesting costume choice!”

Notice how we use “real” a lot—it pairs well with this phrase and therefore you may see it used frequently.


We gave you new vocab for body movements that express ideas.

Try these out today, and see how they can help you to take your English speaking to another level.

Do these kinds of expressions exist in your language?

You will find that these can be a fun and interesting addition to your conversations, and it just takes a little practice to perfect them.

If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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