Others can see the difficulty, but the boy must take himself by the collar and make himself cultivate a poise and calm that smothers the fidgets.

What does "take oneself by the collar" mean? Is it an idiom? I have read that it means to stop oneself doing something bad but if we want to change this phrase by a synonym, what could the best synonym that befits its place? It's a question in an exam, and followings are the options;

  1. Work hard
  2. Determination
  3. Punished
  4. Well dressed
  • 2
    It never was a very common idiom, so it shouldn't be set as an exam question anyway. Besides which, take himself in hand is probably a more common form with exactly the same meaning. Essentially the allusion is to a parent or other person in authority (teacher, policeman) grabbing a disobedient / dishonest / lazy child by the collar and telling them off. So the boy must make himself aware of and act in accordance with whatever change in behaviour is required. I can't see the full context, but apparently he needs to control his fidgetting. With "determination"? It's a bad question! Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 11:12
  • 3
    I’m voting to close this question because it's asking for the "correct" answer to a badly-devised exam question where none of the available choices are particularly good Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 12:07
  • If the question and choices are precisely copied, only one choice is grammatical. I have noticed this happens quite often in multiple choice questions; it is often worth testing whether some choices can be ruled out on such grounds.
    – Peter
    Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 13:45
  • 2
    @Peter: I would rule out the exam itself rather than just some of the answers. Whoever wrote that exam question shouldn't be teaching English! Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 15:16

1 Answer 1


It's not a common idiom at all, and it seems rather odd to set an exam question based on it!

A more usual (but still uncommon) version of the idiom would be to take somebody else by the collar, not oneself, and it would mean something like having a stern word with someone to tell them what they're doing is wrong or to get them to take things more seriously or "sort their life out". For example someone whose friend was behaving badly might "take their friend by the collar" and tell them to "mend their ways".

So in the example you've given, the answer could be either "Work hard" or "Determination", really, although perhaps "work hard" might fit slightly better. But it sounds like the boy must work hard with determination to cultivate poise and calm so both apply really!

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