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Cutting corners

“Cutting corners” is a simple English idiom that suggests someone is taking a shortcut or an easy way out instead of putting the right amount of time into a task.

“Cutting corners” has been used literally and metaphorically since at least the mid-1800s. One can expect to find the phrase in all kinds of writing, ranging from fiction to academic papers. 

Cutting corners meaning


Meaning of “Cutting corners” 

“Cutting corners” refers to the act of taking a short cut or the easiest/quickest way around or through something. Someone is said to be cutting corners if they circumvent a requirement of some kind or make their life easiest by taking a short cut. Someone might find a way around a testing, professional, or personal requirement in order to achieve a goal. This might be getting a job, physically traveling somewhere, creating a product, or delivering a service at a lower price.


When To use “Cutting corners” 

It’s possible to use “cutting corners” in a wide variety of situations. Most commonly it’s used negatively, to refer to an act someone committed that allowed them to get ahead in some way. This is might be because they managed to circumvent some requirements or took a shortcut that others didn’t know about or were unwilling to use. Companies are often said to be “cutting corners” if they stop manufacturing or working to their previous standard in order to save money. For example, a reporter might describe a CEO as choosing to “cut corners in order to save money.” 


Example Sentences With “Cutting corners”

  •  Do you really think cutting corners is the best way to go this time? Wouldn’t you rather go by the book? 
  • He reminded me that it’s probably not safe to cut corners when making these important products. 
  • If you really want to succeed in life you can’t cut corners. You have to put in the time. 
  • The only reason he is where he is today is that he keeps cutting corners. 


Why Do Writers Use “Cutting corners?” 

Writers use “cutting corners” in the same way and for the same reasons that people use the phrase in everyday conversations. It’s easy to imagine finding the phrase in an article about a company or person’s negative practices or someone’s choices when it came to set rules. It could appear in a dialogue between two characters who are attempting to figure out the easiest way to make progress on a task. One might suggest they cut corners while the other pushes back. As idioms go, this one is fairly easy to understand and will be far less challenging for new-English speakers than some other more complex idioms. 


Origin of “Cutting corners” 

Like most idioms, this one does not have a clear origin. It’s impossible to point to one book, one paper, or one instance in which someone used the phrase for the first time. Most idioms like this one date back to at least the mid-1800s. Such is the case with “cutting corners.” It appears to have originated naturally and literally with the act of a carriage running over the corner of a road. In ‘About “Going Straight On’’’ that was published in The Oxford Magazine and Church Advocate, the following passage can be found: 

I do not believe, either, in what we used to call cutting corners or going short roads to places. The short road I have always found is in the end the longest. There are more gates to open, more stiles to get over, something or other to hinder, and the distance we save we lose in the time we take. 

It’s easy to see how this phrase might’ve evolved naturally from physical shortcuts such as are referenced in this passage. In 1852 another iteration of the phrase can be found in Letters on the Management of Hounds by William Horlock. The passage reads: 

About a hundred and fifty horsemen were at once scattered over the downs, riding at the top of their speed, in almost all directions; some following the hounds, but a greater number, not liking the undulating nature of the ground, cutting corners, and hustling each other by cross riding.

Here, the phrase is still used literally, but it’s taken off-road to refer to different paths through the woods. Eventually, the phrase evolved to refer to metaphorical cut corners. For example, finding a way out of tests, into positions of authority, without taking all the necessary steps in between. 


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