Pin down

To "pin someone down" is to force the person to take a stand

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Pin down

Today I have a phrasal verb for you—it’s a good one, but it’s hard to explain. So we’ll spend a little more time on it than usual. The phrasal verb is to pin down. I’m thinking of two different ways to use it; they are both related, but still different. Pin down; okay, let’s start with how you originally heard it.

How did people live 2,500 years ago? It’s difficult to know for sure: we have to rely on evidence and gradually piece together little bits of evidence and develop theories about how people lived. It’s very hard to pin down exactly how people lived, since we have very little direct evidence. It’s hard to pin down; it’s hard to know for sure. Before this recent discovery, there was evidence that the cannabis plant was around in Central Asia. But how was it used? Was it food? Medicine? Did people really cultivate it, or did they just find it growing in the wild? It’s hard to pin that down; it’s confusing; it’s vague. It’s hard to know for sure. The good thing about the new discovery is that traces of THC were found on the inside of offering bowls that we know were used as part of a funeral. So although it’s hard to pin down exactly how people used marijuana in those times, we now have some additional information.

Here’s another example. It can sometimes be hard to pin down exactly how a fire starts. We talked about the museum in Brazil and the cathedral in France that suffered devastating fires. Investigators will sift through the remnants of a fire, but in the early days it can be hard to pin down exactly how the fire started. They have some pretty sophisticated techniques and they can usually develop a theory, but oftentimes, it is hard to pin down exactly how a fire starts—it can even be hard to determine whether a fire was accidental or not.

So that’s the first way you use “pin down,” which is to find out something for sure, usually when there’s a bit of confusion. The other way you can use “pin down” is to force someone to make a definitive statement. When did we talk about the Democrats running against Trump? Last Thursday, right? Some of them say they want a national health insurance program. Others say that a national insurance program is not a good idea. Still others—well, it’s hard to pin them down. It’s hard to get them to give you a definitive answer. They don’t want to commit either way. They don’t want to say yes; they don’t want to say no; and when you ask them directly, they don’t really give you a straight answer. It’s hard to pin them down.

Sometimes you try to be hard to pin down yourself. If you go to a job interview and the interviewer asks you, well how much money are you making at your current job? You don’t want to let the interviewer pin you down. You don’t want to say the number—if you can avoid it. Don’t let them pin you down. Don’t make the definitive statement, if at all possible.

Quote of the week

We talked about politics and elections on Thursday, so I wanted to make today’s quote about that. It’s from a former president of the US, Theodore Roosevelt. He was president from 1901 to 1909, so the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Here’s the quote: “A vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.” Its usefulness depends on the character of the user. That means it’s a tool that can be used for good or for bad. A rifle and a vote both can be used for good or for bad, depending on the character of the person using it. Once more, from Teddy Roosevelt: “A vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.”


It’s that time again—time to wrap up the episode. I promised to share some contact details. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are all the same: PlainEnglishPod. Send us a note on there, leave a review, share us with your friends. We’re getting better at the social media; we still have some work to do, but we’re getting better. PlainEnglishPod. You can also connect on WhatsApp. The number is +1 312 967 8757 .

I’ve gotten a few requests lately. At least four people have requested another episode about an English-speaking city. I’ve got two in mind, so I haven’t forgotten about this. There’s just too much to talk about every week! Anyway, I’ll get you another city in the next few weeks, how about that? That’s it for today. Remember: PlainEnglishPod on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Send us a message on there, and join us again for another episode on Thursday.

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