Archive for February 12, 2010

idiom: to play it by ear

For today’s blog entry, I’d like to talk about the idiom “to play it by ear”. This means that someone will not make a decision about an event until they are in the moment. I think the idiom might possibly come from music. I always think of the scene in Amadeus when Mozart is composing a song on the spot for the King. He was able to simply create the music in the moment without having to practice it before. So he was playing the music and creating it by listening to it with his ears so literally he was playing it by ear. I don’t know if this is the true origin but that’s my guess.

Anyway, nowadays the idiom means to not make plans or come to a decision before a certain event is taking place. For example:

A: What are you going to do this weekend?

B: I don’t know yet. I’m just going to play it by ear.


A: How long should we stay at the party?

B: Well, let’s play it by ear.

This idiom is often used as a response to someone’s question about their plans. In the first example, the person hasn’t made plans but will decide what to do when the weekend finally comes. In the second example, the person doesn’t know if the party will be good or bad. If it’s good, they’ll stay for a long time but if it’s bad, they’ll leave early. They can’t make that decision until they arrive at the party.

It can also mean that someone will improvise what they will do in a situation where they haven’t prepared. For example:

I didn’t plan my speech for my cousin’s wedding, so I’ll have to play it by ear.

So this is the idiom for today. It’s a very common expression in English so I hope you find it useful.

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