No Harm, No Foul – Meaning & Origin

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

No harm, no foul is one of many idioms in the English language. Idioms are phrases that have a figurative meaning and might not make sense when used literally.

This particular phrase became popular in basketball, or rather a criticism of basketball officiating calls. Today, it is used in a generalized sense to brush something off if no harm occurred from a minor transgression, but it used to be used in a much broader context.

Let’s take a look at how this streetball call became a source of contention on the basketball court and then made its way into the general public.

What Does No Harm, No Foul Mean?

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Today, the modern use of no harm, no foul is a phrase that means even though one has committed a mistake, or participated in a misconduct or transgression, one should be excused because nothing and no one has come to harm.

How to Use No Harm, No Foul in a Sentence

  • Although the kids jumped the fence to cut through the yard, the owners said no harm, no foul and simply asked them to never do it again.
  • When the crew drove their car up on the snow statue site and left tire tracks, the workers were a bit mad until that evening’s heavy snowfall covered the marks as if they had never been. They claimed no harm, no foul and considered a lesson learned.
  • She accidentally submitted her tax returns without the proper documentation of expenditures and was in a panic. But the consultant replied no harm, no foul since it was easy to file an amended return.

How to Punctuate No Harm, No Foul

Since no harm, no foul is a term to mean “if no harm, then no foul,” you should technically use a comma between the two phrases for grammatical purposes: no harm, no foul.

It is often used sans comma as a singular phrase rather than to indicate an “if…then” statement. For example: no harm no foul. Whether you use a comma or not is up to your personal preferences and discretion.

No Harm, No Foul Origins

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General Use of No Harm, No Foul

The phrase no harm, no foul is an American phrase that comes from the game of basketball. During the 1950s pickup streetball games, if no physical harm were done to a player when a foul occurred, no blood, no foul would be called.

The term was first described in print in the Hartford Courant newspaper in 1956 to describe a basketball transgression insufficient to call since it wouldn’t affect the outcome of the game.

However, the use of the term to excuse a foul quickly became a source of contention. No harm, no foul was commonly used by Chick Herne, possibly the best basketball commentator in history, when he started broadcasting in 1957 to criticize poor officiating calls. He often added to the phrase, crying “no harm, no foul, no blood, no ambulance,” indicating that an official wouldn’t call a foul unless severe enough to warrant a trip to the hospital.

Herne coined other bad officiating calls with his own flair, calling oversensitive calls “ticky-tack” and “cosmetic” fouls to indicate the official knew he had screwed up previously and was “balancing the books” against the other team.

Within ten years of its inception, no harm, no foul was applied to situations outside the sport of basketball. By the early 1970s, the term no harm, no foul was being applied to legal situations. Today, it is commonly applied to everything from sports to social situations to mean “no worries” or “everything is okay.”

Let’s Review

Derived from streetball’s call of no blood, no foul, the idiomatic term no harm, no foul is now used in everything from sports to day-to-day social situations. It means past mistakes or transgressions are not to be concerned with because no one and nothing has been harmed.