Fine Tooth Comb – Idiom, Meaning & Origin

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

The idiomatic phrase go over with a fine-tooth comb means to examine something really closely and in great detail. Haven’t you ever found yourself with a task so intricate that you felt you had to go over it slowly and finely? That’s the same idea! Keep reading to find out where this idiom came from and how you’re supposed to use it in a sentence.

Fine-Tooth Comb Meaning Explained

Fine Tooth Comb – Idiom Meaning Origin

When you go over something with a fine-tooth comb, you’re looking at every detail, every nook and cranny. You’re not actually combing anything, but just like combing through hair with a fine-tooth comb to find lice or nits, you’re searching diligently and thoroughly. I mean, you have to!

Fine-Tooth Comb or Fine-Toothed Comb?

Fine Tooth Comb vs Fine Toothed Comb Ngram
Fine-tooth comb and fine-toothed comb usage trend.

Either variant works just fine. Whether you prefer the “ed” or not is up to you. Both fine-tooth comb and fine-toothed comb are acceptable and understood in the English language, but fine-tooth is a bit more common.

Should It Always Be Hyphenated?

Yes, fine-tooth should always be hyphenated. The hyphen helps connect the words to express one concept—that of a comb with finely spaced teeth.

Origin and Etymology of Fine-Tooth Comb

Trigger warning! Skip over this section if you don’t like reading about bugs because the phrase go over with a fine-tooth comb comes from the actual practice of using a fine-tooth comb to remove nits (lice eggs) from the hair. The eggs are so tiny you can barely see them, so you literally have to sit and go through the hair strand by strand, with a fine-tooth comb to get them out.

As anyone who’s had to deal with lice knows (hopefully not many of you), this is an awful, meticulous, and time-consuming job, especially if you’re stuck doing it yourself. But it has to be done if you want to ensure nothing is left behind. Hence, the phrase came to be used metaphorically to mean examining something in great detail.

Synonyms for Go Over With a Fine-Tooth Comb

  • Scrutinize
  • Examine thoroughly
  • Inspect closely
  • Pick through
  • Pore over
  • Analyze in detail
  • Nitpick

Fine-Tooth Comb Examples in a Sentence

Fine Tooth Comb – Idiom Meaning Origin 1

  • The detective reviewed the horrendous crime scene with a fine-tooth comb, refusing to leave any detail behind.
  • I hope you understand that I must go over this contract with a fine-tooth comb before signing it.
  • Kara reviewed her thesis with a fine-tooth comb, looking for errors.
  • We went over the blueprint for our new home with a fine-tooth comb because every detail had to be perfect.
  • After hearing all the publishing horror stories, I went over my very first publishing contract with a fine-tooth comb.
  • The seasoned divorce lawyer went over the evidence of the affair with a fine-tooth comb to prepare for their day in court.
  • We went over the Disney vacation plans with a fine-tooth comb before we even stepped foot on the plane.
  • My mother’s so meticulous she even goes over the grocery list with a fine-tooth comb.
  • My parents went over their future plans with a fine-tooth comb, so I wouldn’t have to.

Try Not to Nitpick…Unless It’s Necessary 

That’s pretty much all you need to know about the phrase go over with a fine-tooth comb. A bit nitpicky? Maybe, but that’s what makes language so fascinating! If you want to study more idiomatic phrases like this, check out my other guides and tips right here on Grammarist!