On the fence

On the fence is an idiom that has been in use for close to one hundred years. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, 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 have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, chin up, on the ball, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. 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. We will examine the meaning of the idiom on the fence, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.

On the fence means undecided, avoiding taking a side in an argument, refusing to commit to something. Sometimes rendered as sit on the fence, the idiom on the fence describes the avoidance of making a choice. The idiom on the fence has been in use since the 1820s, and is taken from the image of a person straddling a fence, unable to decide whether he should jump down to the left or to the right.


“This isn’t the time for passivity, vague talk, or to sit on the fence,” Barak said, taking a dig at opposition leaders while announcing the reentry. (The New York Jewish Week)

Of those participating, 83 reported they were “vaccine hesitant,” meaning they were on the fence about vaccines.  (The Deseret News)

“If you’ve been on the fence about adopting a Roomba because you have a lot of carpet and pets, I can attest that the Roomba can handle it.” (People Magazine)

We have come all the way to just weeks until a recall election, and we are about to spend roughly $30,000 on the possibility of removing a leader, as our other leaders sit on the fence, afraid to offend. (The Estes Park Trail Gazette)

Leave a Comment