Put one’s finger on something

Put one’s finger on something is an idiom that has been in use for decades. 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 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, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as in a blue moon, 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, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the idiom put one’s finger on something, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

To put one’s finger on something means to identify something, to find the cause of something, to understand something, to remember something. The idiom put one’s finger on something came into use in the latter-1800s. The expression calls up the image of looking through a document and literally placing one’s finger on the words that will support one’s assertion. Often, the phrase is used in the negative, as in “I can’t put my finger on it,” to mean one cannot identify the cause of something, remember something, or understand something.


It was a rousing talk, but something about it bothered me, though I could not quite put my finger on it. (The Hawaii Catholic Herald)

It’s tough to put my finger on what was wrong with it, namely because I don’t have enough fingers for the job. (The Cascadia Weekly)

“I can’t put my finger on what the ramifications would be, but if we significantly underreport there probably will be some ramification, especially financially,” Carter said. (The Lynchburg News & Advance)

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