Scratch the surface

Scratch the surface is an idiom that is been in use for over a hundred years. 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 scratch the surface, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

To scratch the surface means to make minimal progress, to make minimal effort, to treat something in a superficial manner. The phrase is often used as a protestation that one has not had time to thoroughly accomplish a task or that someone else has been lazy in his efforts. The expression scratch the surface came into use in the 1880s and is an allusion to the image of only inflicting shallow scratches on an object. Related phrases are scratches the surface, scratched the surface, scratching the surface.


While many have turned to wine, shared memes and the occasional scream, these coping mechanisms barely scratch the surface of supporting working parents through their current reality. (Forbes Magazine)

Miller said putting in “a couple hundred thousand dollars a year is not going to scratch the surface.” (Journal-News)

For the first five games of the season we watched the University of Hawaii football team barely scratch the surface on its considerable potential. (Honolulu Star Advertiser)

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