What's the meaning of "put (one's) finger on something" in this sentence? What's the best summary of this text? What do you say if you want to sum it up in one or two sentences?

A lot of readers, wanting to put their finger on why the affluent world they live in makes them so uneasy, will want to cheer.

Source: The sentence comes from the opening paragraph of a book review in The Guardian.

4 Answers 4


I feel the other answers have missed a lot of the subtlety of the phrase.

It's not merely to point something out.
It's a recognition or demonstration of Insightfulness depending on the usage.

To put your finger on something is to reach the most vital point of the argument and do it with precision, typically pushing past any complexity to reach the crux of the problem.

In the context of being "unable to put my finger on it", it's a comment that insight into the problem isn't being forthcoming.

It stems from a family of metaphors around the idea of pinning or nailing things in place so that they are easier to work with.

  • 1
    I think this makes a key point. This is why, perhaps more often than not, we see this phrase is used in the negative: There's something strange about this town, but I can't quite put my finger on it.
    – J.R.
    Jul 23, 2018 at 15:14
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    One could say I've "put my finger" on the answer to the actual question :P Jul 23, 2018 at 15:17
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    It means "understand"
    – user428517
    Jul 23, 2018 at 18:14

The answer by Tᴚoɯɐuo explains the concept pretty well, but here's a supporting reference:

put your finger on sth:

to discover the exact reason why a situation is the way it is, especially when something is wrong:

  • There's something odd about him, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

(Cambridge Dictionary)

  • 1
    I don't think it always involves "discovery". It is post-discover. Jul 23, 2018 at 15:28
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    I wonder if this expression is the same as or similar to keeping your finger on the pulse Jul 23, 2018 at 18:18
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    For what it is worth I've only heard this phrase used when it is prefixed with "can't" e.g. "I can't quite put my finger on it." I've never heard it used in the way the OP describes it. Jul 23, 2018 at 19:38
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    @Tᴚoɯɐuo: "Put" is both present and paste tense of "to put". Pre-discovery or post-discovery is a matter of tense. The meaning of "put your finger on" does not change.
    – Flater
    Jul 24, 2018 at 11:07
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    @Levi Morrison: This has nothing to do with keeping your finger on the pulse. That means to monitor a situation, not to explain it. Jul 24, 2018 at 11:16

It means "to point out something", especially as the explanation for something else.

I think the car needs new spark plugs.
--You've put your finger on it. It isn't the distributor at all.


The reason so many blue collar voters voted for a president whose aim was to destroy labor unions is that he could seem anti-elitist.
-- I'm not so sure, but you may have put your finger on it.

So, your text can be paraphrased:

A lot of readers, who would like to know why the affluent world they live in makes them feel very uneasy, will want to shout their support (for the author).

  • 9
    I don't think I agree with "point out" at all. It more means "to precisely determine something".
    – Muzer
    Jul 23, 2018 at 12:59
  • @Muzer: What is so different about identifying the explanation for something and determining something? They seem synonymous to me. Jul 23, 2018 at 14:23
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    They are synonymous, but neither is synonymous with "to point out something". To point something is much more about something people already knew or could have seen themselves, but the act of pointing it out specifically draws attention to it. For instance, "I'd like to point out the fact that Charlie is new here, so perhaps we should explain what's going on". To put one's finger on something is much more about the act of figuring out an explanation, especially to a situation that everyone can see but the explanation behind it is not known.
    – Muzer
    Jul 23, 2018 at 15:17
  • To put your finger on something does not always mean to "determine" and that's why I said "to point something out, especially as the explanation for something". Jul 23, 2018 at 15:25
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    When doesn't it mean "to determine"? I'm struggling to think of a use case where it would mean something different, but that might just be a mental block!
    – Muzer
    Jul 23, 2018 at 15:32

To put your finger on something is to point it out in a way that educates the listener, to the point where the listener is surprised is not only surprised at the accuracy of the answer, but questions whether they would have understood it that well without your help. It's used to define presumably accurate answers to questions others have found difficult to even define. Think of the act of pointing out something on a map or other document...if you "put your finger on" the thing you're looking for, you've clearly identified it rather than just knowing the general area to look.

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