Move the needle

Move the needle is an idiom that is several decades old. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common idiom move the needle, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

Move the needle is an idiom that means to make a change that is noticeable, to alter or modify something so that the effect of your action is measurable. Most often, move the needle is used in a positive sense, meaning to make progress toward a goal. The expression move the needle became popular in a figurative sense from the 1980s and is one of many phrases that began as business jargon. The image is of a needle on a gauge or meter moving in response to stimuli; related phrases are moves the needle, moved the needle, moving the needle.


The sheer size and scope of many businesses mean they can have a huge impact, and shifts in corporate settings can quickly move the needle on social and environmental issues. (Forbes)

Lelio, who identifies as a white heterosexual man, said he didn’t start out to make a transgender film or advance the transgender cause but was glad his movie helped move the needle on Chilean attitudes. (Harvard Gazette)

Durant alone has been un-guardable, but not in a way that has moved the needle toward victory against the NBA’s best teams. (New York Daily News)

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