Glossary Home Idioms

On the fence

“On the fence” is an idiom. It’s used when someone wants to describe themselves or someone else as unable to make up their mind.

If you’re on the fence, you’re between two choices and unable to choose between them. The phrase is easily used in conversations and in writing. It dates back to Middle English but, it was popularized during the 1800s. One is likely to hear “on the fence” among friends, family members, and colleagues. 

On the fence meaning

Meaning of “On the fence”

“On the fence” is a common English idiom that’s used to describe someone who is in-between two options.

They’re “on the fence” in the sense that they can’t make their mind up about which side they want to be on. As the phrase suggests, it can be a difficult place to be. It implies that someone is struggling and may need help with their decision-making process. 

The fence is a symbol for the no man’s land in between two possible options. By being “on” it, someone is refusing to choose one side or the other. 

Origins of “On the fence”

“On the fence” is a phrase that has its roots in Middle English. Its exact origin is unknown but since the 1800s it’s been quite popular within colloquial conversations. It was helped along by the fact that it can be used in such a wide variety of situations and to describe many different types of people. Sometimes, the phrase was (and still is) used as an insult. 

When to Use “On the fence”

It’s possible to use “on the fence” in a wide variety of situations and among different groups of people. It’s a very common idiom, meaning that many people are already going to be aware of what it means. So, it can be used easily in conversation. It may be best used among friends, family members, and close colleagues. But, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t appear in more formal conversations too. It’s easy to imagine how “on the fence” could be used to describe a friend’s personal situation or used to convey to one’s work colleague an opinion in regard to a business plan. 

For example, one might say they’re “on the fence about which company is the best to be aligned with” or that they’re “on the fence about a relationship they’re involved in.” Anytime someone wants to express their uncertainty about a course of action they could use this idiom. Although it should be noted that using “on the fence” is tantamount to saying “I don’t know” or “I can’t decide.” This may not sit well in some more serious conversations. 

Example Sentences

  • I’m really on the fence about whether or not I should stay in this relationship. 
  • I’m on the fence about whether we should get Chinese food or Indian food. 
  • Is she on the fence about which school she’s going to go to? 
  • My boss is seemingly on the fence about whether or not he should fire me. 
  • Has he gotten off the fence yet about who he’s going to take on vacation? 

Why Do Writers Use “On the fence?” 

Writers use “on the fence” in the same way and for the same reasons that the phrase is used in everyday conversations. It’s easily featured in a dialogue between two characters. For example, it’s easy to imagine how one character might use it to describe to another how they’re feeling about a decision. 

Idioms like this one are quite well-known, so much so that they pass through conversations unnoticed. A writer might improve their dialogue by featuring a colloquialism like this within the text. But, it should always be noted that too many idioms or proverbs, or the use of the wrong ones at the wrong time, can lead to a negative response on the part of the reader. One might be turned off by the cliché tone that some of these phrases have. They can, rather than make dialogue sound more believable, make it sound forced or unnatural. 


Why do people use the phrase “on the fence?” 

People use the phrase “on the fence” when they’re describing their’s or someone else’s inability to make up their mind. If someone can’t choose between two different options, then they’re “on the fence.” Some situations are easier or simpler to define as “on the fence” than others. 

Where does “on the fence” come from?

It’s unclear exactly where “on the fence” came from. It dates back to a much older Middle-English version of the phrase. But, it was popularized during the 1800s. 

Is it okay to use “on the fence?” 

It’s okay to use “on the fence” in many different situations. It can be used among friends, family members, colleagues, and more. If it’s used, one has to be aware that it can be applied as a simple comment, an insult, or a concern. 

What does it mean to sit on the fence? 

It means that one can’t make up their mind. They can’t make a decision between one choice and the next. This could apply to any possible situation, ones that are more serious and others that are far less. 

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