The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s play it by ear

Q: If I ask a friend to an art exhibit and she’s not sure when she’ll be in town, I respond, “OK, let’s play it by ear.” But can you suggest an alternative for “play it by ear”? The few I’ve found are also clichés or don’t have the meaning I’m looking for.

A: We can suggest a few alternatives—“wing it,” “ad-lib,” “improvise”—but what’s wrong with “play it by ear”? Yes, the expression is used a lot, but it probably says what you want to say better than any other.

Pat includes “play it by ear” in “Death Sentence,” the chapter on clichés in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I. But she says there’s nothing wrong with using a cliché once in a while, especially if nothing else will do the job as well.

“There’s no way to eliminate all clichés,” she writes. “It would take a roomful of Shakespeares to replace them with fresh figures of speech, and before long those would become clichés too.”

On the other hand, in a formal essay we might go to great lengths to avoid a cliché that we’d use without a thought in speech or casual writing.

The verb phrase “play it by ear” has its roots in the 16th-century use of the noun “ear” to mean the ability to recognize sounds and musical intervals, as in “have a good ear,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED of “ear” used this way is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 treatise on English by the monk William Bonde: “In the psalmody … haue a good eare.”

A little over a century later, people began using “play by ear” (or a close facsimile) to mean play an instrument without the aid of written music.

The OED’s first citation for the newer usage is from A Breif Introduction to the Skill of Musick (1658), by John Playford: “To learn to play by rote or ear without book.”

Interestingly, an example from the July 1839 issue of the Edinburgh Review uses “play by ear” in the musical sense, while hinting at the figurative modern sense of dealing with something without a plan.

To add context, we’ll expand on the OED citation, which comes from a review of Harriet Martineau’s novel Deerbrook:

“Miss Austen is like one who plays by ear, while Miss Martineau understands the science. Miss Austen has the air of being led to right conclusions by an intuitive tact—Miss Martineau unfolds her knowledge of the principles on which her correct judgment is founded.”

We’d like to compare that comment with Mary Shelley’s remarks that same year about Deerbrook:

“Without Miss Austen’s humour she has all her vividness & correctness. To compensate for the absence of humour, she has higher philosophical views.”

We haven’t read Deerbrook, but we suspect that we’d prefer Jane Austen’s humor to Martineau’s philosophy.

But back to business. It wasn’t until the 1930s, according to a search of book and news databases, that the expression “play by ear” (or “play it by ear”) developed its modern sense of doing something without a definite plan in mind.

In an Oct. 24, 1935, sports story in the New York Times, for example, Mike Mikulak, a fullback with the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals), says his family came from Russia and he understands the language, but “I play it by ear only.”

And here’s an example from The Twisted Claw, a 1939 Hardy Boys mystery by Franklin W. Dixon (a k a John Button), in which Frank and Joe are locked in a dark storeroom and can’t get out:

“I guess we’ll just have to wait until someone comes down again, and then play it by ear,” Joe muttered.

Should you use the expression “play it by ear” the next time you want to meet your friend? It’s up to you. You’ll have to wing it.

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