Bells and whistles – English idiom with examples

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more.

The phrase bells and whistles refers to features of an object which are not essential to it, but which make it attractive or special. Its origin is unclear, but it is a relatively recent idiom. It is used nowadays mostly in connection with computers, tablets, cell phones, and other electronic devices because these are typical examples of things that can have many additional features not included in more rudimentary models, but you can use it also for cars, buildings, fashion or in fact anything you want. For example:

  • The new cell phone from Xyz uses the same operating system as its predecessor, but it beats the previous model due to all the bells and whistles it comes with.

It is often used pejoratively, implying that the “bells and whistles” are fancy and unnecessary:

  • Even though he has spent a fortune on all the bells and whistles in his new car, he comes late to work anyway.
  • I don’t need the fancy bells and whistles used by modern fashion designers. Who needs a three-storey hat?

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.