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Is there an idiom that means “to do something that yields no result?”

I don’t know if the idiom “to carry water to fill up a dry well” exists in English.

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    As you can see, there are many possibilities and I can think of even more. What your question lacks is context. Please give a situation or example conversation to show how you want to use the phrase within a complete grammatical sentence. May 27 at 14:48
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    Welcome to ELL! Here is an example of a phrase request that has the sort of context we're asking for: Is there an English equivalent for the Italian saying “It's another pair of sleeves”? Explaining how you would like to use it will help you get more relevant results and make the scores of the answers more meaningful.
    – ColleenV
    May 27 at 20:39

12 Answers 12

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Spinning Your Wheels is used to indicate your efforts are not yielding results. This is a reference to a vehicle's tires spinning but failing to find adequate traction to move the vehicle.

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In addition to those already mentioned here, I'd like to submit:

beat a dead horse

Waste energy on a lost cause or a situation that cannot be changed.

I'm partial to this rather colorful idiom for doing something that yields no result, the implication that beating it isn't going to make it do anything you want it to do, make it hurt any more, or make it any deader. By the way, the British tend to say "flog" instead of "beat" for this idiom.

There are also several that are more specific:

"Preach to the choir" means argue, rant, or go off about something or someone that yields no result because the person or persons hearing it are already on one's side and are not in need of convincing.

"Get blood from a turnip/stone" means try to get something from someone or something and have it yield no result because it or they simply do not have it to give, that something often being money, though not necessarily.

"Sisyphean task" is something one repeatedly has to do that yields no result, referring to Sisyphus, who in Greek mythology was tasked with rolling a boulder uphill every day for an eternity, only to have it roll back down to the bottom just before reaching the top, accomplishing nothing ever.

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    You're not trying to kill the horse, you're whipping it to make it go faster. It generally means you were getting some use out of it, but it's pretty much used up by now May 27 at 3:58
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    If I tell you that you're beating a dead horse, I'm not actually talking about a horse. I'm telling you that what you're doing will come to no avail, or in the OP's terms, "yields no result." If I were actually talking about a horse, I wouldn't be talking about trying or not trying to kill it, nor would it only be "pretty much used up by now," the reason being that horse is already dead, well past trying or not trying to kill it and very well past any sense that it's only "pretty much used up by now." May 27 at 4:09
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    @BenjaminHarman You say "the implication that beating it isn't going to make it do anything you want it to do, make it hurt any more, or make it any deader. " Owen Reynold's point is that the metaphorical goal of beating the horse is not to hurt it. It is to make it go faster - it is referring to a jockey or other rider hitting a horse with a riding crop in a race, or an agricultural laborer hitting a horse with a horsewhip to make it work faster or pull garder. If the horse is already dead any effort goading it to go faster will be wasted, not that you are trying to make it more dead.
    – Kirt
    May 27 at 7:04
  • Owen Reynolds and @Kirt, you're both missing the point of the expression. The horse is already dead. Beating (flogging) it to make it work harder isn't going to accomplish anything -- the horse isn't going to magically spring back to life and pull that load. It's not pining for the fjords, it's pushing up daisies. Beating the beast is wasted effort that will accomplish nothing.
    – Phil Perry
    May 27 at 15:20
  • ‘Beating a dead horse’ is a different meaning / context - it is used if someone keeps discussing the merits of an option that has already been discussed and discarded, for unsurmountable reasons or by a senior decision maker.
    – Aganju
    May 27 at 21:36
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  • A fool's errand
  • A fruitless labour
  • A waste of time
  • Flogging (or 'beating') a dead horse
  • A wild goose chase
  • A wasted labour
  • A merry chase
  • A lost cause

These idioms mean that you get nothing from the work you put in.

A few of the other suggestions you have been offered are good, but some refer to 'endless' tasks, not pointless ones. "Treading water" for example - in a literal sense, that isn't pointless. Treading water keeps your head above water and stops you drowning, but you have to keep doing it, or you sink. Idioms like this mean that your work does produce a result, but that you can't ever stop.

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Maybe to tread water, which means that you are acting but not making any progress, much like how actually treading water keeps your head above the water but does not move you forward.

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Spinning one's wheels and treading water are options that have been mentioned. Twiddling one's thumbs is a similar expression. To my ear these all have the connotation of "staying in place"—not progressing, but not falling back either.

To specifically say that you are expending effort, but meaninglessly, you might look at some of the answers at this ELU question. Depending on the context several of them could work, though the context of that question is a little different from yours. In particular, this answer retains the water metaphor in your original:

Emptying the sea with a thimble.

And there are others, such as

Pissing on a forest fire

which is rather vulgar of course.

Many of the answers on that question have rather precise connotations or places they would be used; "beating a dead horse" specifically means going over a topic or decision when there is no use talking about it anymore, while "a fool's errand" means a problem which is unsolvable, and "shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted" means to take a course of action which would have been helpful, but is no longer. What specifically do you mean when you say "Carrying water to fill a dry well?"

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    Treading Water and Twiddling One's Thumbs are closer in meaning to biding one's time, whereas Spinning Your Wheels indicates effort exerted toward a purpose but to no avail.
    – EllieK
    May 26 at 16:26
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    These carry different connotations. Twiddling your thumbs is doing nothing. Spinning your wheels is doing something in order make progress but not managing to make any progress. Treading water is having to do something specifically to remain where you are (as opposed to sinking, which happens when you stop treading), which is different from spinning your wheels in that you intend to remain in place, whereas when spinning your wheels you intend to make progress.. All of these fit the bill, but they are not 100% interchangeable in any context.
    – Flater
    May 26 at 23:05
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    The other examples, emptying the sea with a thimble and pissing on a forest fire, carry a fourth connotation: making progress, but a negligible amount. You're not staying in place, but you are making progress at a laughably slow pace.
    – Flater
    May 26 at 23:08
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"Running on the spot" / "Running in place" also springs to mind.

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I don't think this is an idiom nor is it a particularly popular saying/expression but I think it's very close to what you are asking for.

Exercise In Futility

In other words: a totally pointless endeavour

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Not an idiom, but a relevant English word is otiose: producing no useful result; futile.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/otiose

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I'm surprised no-one has yet come up with the catch-alls

Wasting your time

Getting/going nowhere

Whatever you are doing, you're not seeing any useful result.

There's also the rather less polite

Pissing in the wind

These next two are kind of 'computery', coder terms, but edging their way into broader use.

One that doesn't quite fit the question, but has a similar end result, is

Yak shaving

This is a task, A, that in order to complete requires you first to complete task B. However, in order to complete task B, one must first complete task C… The actual task you are currently doing, perhaps task M… is shaving a yak. Much, much later will you be able to get to the actual task that needed doing… Task A.

Getting further out there in terms of time wasted doing unimportant smaller parts of a larger task, is

Bikeshedding

From Wiktionary
The term was coined as a metaphor to illuminate Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. Parkinson observed that a committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant may spend the majority of its time on relatively unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bikeshed, while neglecting the design of the power plant itself, which is far more important but also far more difficult to criticize constructively. It was popularized in the Berkeley Software Distribution community by Poul-Henning Kamp and has spread from there to the software industry at large.

Late edit
I may lose friends with this one, but there is also

Polishing a turd.

It doesn't matter how much effort you put into achieving a lustre, underneath it's still a turd.

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  • Yak shaving! It's fun to think about. Do you just shave one of the ends or do you shave the whole thing? Where do they say Yak Shaving? I wouldn't recommend using it until you have heard it used.
    – EllieK
    May 27 at 12:42
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It seems you want an expression to mean you are expending effort that yields no results. In this case, beating a dead horse, as already suggested, is probably the closest to your intent. This does focus on your effort.

I am unfamiliar with “to carry water to fill up a dry well” and no, we do not have this expression in English. If you would like to focus not so much on the effort but on the fact that your results prove to be worthless upon your arrival at the metaphorical well, you might consider carrying coals to Newcastle, bringing sand to the beach, or simply efforts that are dead on arrival. The first two also have the advantage of using the same metaphor of bringing or carrying something that your original expression does.

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In the vernacular, "pushing shit uphill" is a very good fit. It is quite a well known expression in the UK, Ireland and other English speaking areas (not the USA apparently).

Obviously it is considered somewhat vulgar, so you wouldn't use it in certain contexts. However it's not on the level of "shocking" and wouldn't be a problem in most informal situations, of course depending on context.

The meaning is exactly what the OP looks for : the idea of expending effort on a completely pointless task (as explained by the related expression "shit flows downhill" - meaning it's the lower grade workers that get to clean up the mess made by their "betters"), with the added implication that the task is a particularly undesirable one. It's also seen as a rather humorous phrase.

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  • It's just a vulgar slang. Hardly "very good fit" May 27 at 8:45
  • As you like. It's a common vernacular expression for the experience of expending a lot of effort for no return, which is what the OP requested. As I'm new here, I hesitated to post it, but as "pissing in the wind" appears above, I didn't see any problem. "Shit" as a word has Germanic origins of course, and was used by Jonathan Swift, amongst others.
    – danmcb
    May 27 at 8:47
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    Common where? Maybe Australia, but alas, this place isn't only for people from that country. It's global, and globally, this phrase is not common, and considered vulgar/slang. May 27 at 8:49
  • I'm from the UK and heard it used many times there. It's not common in the USA perhaps, but "crap" is a more common slang there.
    – danmcb
    May 27 at 8:49
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    Well, I did consider a response, but I guess it's time to realise that I'm "pushing a dead horse into the sea" ;-)
    – danmcb
    May 27 at 9:45
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To draw water from a dry well.

This means trying to get water out of a dry well, often to use for irrigation or drinking. It is one of the "impossible tasks" listed in the old folk song "Scarborough Fair":

tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Without no seam nor needlework,
And then she shall be a true love of mine.

tell her to wash it in yonder dry well,
Where no water sprung, nor a drop of rain fell,
And then she shall be a true love of mine."

Obviously one cannot draw water from a dry well, because there is no water there. This expression was probably more common when more people used wells routinely. But this Google Ngram shows some continuing use, and this {google search](https://www.google.com/search?q=%22water%20from%20a%20dry%20well%22&tbm=bks&tbs=cdr:1,cd_min:2004,cd_max:2019&lr=lang_en) derived from the Ngram shows current uses such as:

  • You can't draw water from a dry well– (Russian-English Dictionary of Proverbs and Sayings - Page 479)
  • That would be like drawing water from a dry well. (Alfred Kropp: The Thirteenth Skull - Page 85 )
  • They could not draw God into their lives, because you cannot draw water from a dry well. (Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music - Page 202)
  • Words he'd been told could charm water from a dry well died on his lips (Loving Linsey)
  • Do people seek to draw water from a dry well? Surely not. Then why should they look for peace and joy from famous or great people who themselves cannot find amusement (The Complete Fénelon - Page 50)

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