The Grammarphobia Blog

Fine tuning

Q: What is the meaning of the phrase “not to put too fine a point on it”? I’ve heard it several times on NPR and can’t pick up what the speaker means by it. I hope you can educate me about this one.

A: We may have Dickens to thank for giving us this expression. The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for the usage is from his 1853 novel Bleak House.

In fact, one of the characters, Mr. Snagsby, uses the phrase – or one nearly identical – 11 times in the book. Here’s an example: “It is relating,” says Mr Snagsby, “it is relating – not to put too fine a point upon it – to the foreigner, sir.”

The OED says “to put too fine a point on” something means to mince words or to be unnecessarily delicate. But the dictionary says the expression is used only in the negative – that is, in the sense of not mincing words.

The OED describes the usage as figurative, but doesn’t say exactly what the figure is. Go figure.

I imagine, however, that the expression is derived from an early sense of “point” to mean a small or separate item, detail, or part of something. That’s what the word meant when we borrowed it from the French in the 13th century.

A now-obsolete phrase “to point” used to mean “to the smallest detail.” Shakespeare uses it here in The Tempest (1610-11): Hast thou, Spirit, / Performed to point, the Tempest that I bad thee?

The later phrases “to a point” and “to a fine point” have meant precisely or completely since the 19th century.

But how did we get from a phrase about being precise to one about being overly precise or, in the negative, not mincing words? I’ll let Dickens have the last word.

In Chapter XI of Bleak House, he describes “not to put too fine a point upon it” as “a favourite apology for plain-speaking” that Mr. Snagsby “always offers with a sort of argumentative frankness.”

I hope I’ve been clear enough, and haven’t put too fine a point on my answer.

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