5

Do these 3 sentences properly use the idiom "paint someone into a corner"? Or can it only be used as "paint oneself into a corner" (i.e., it wouldn't be possible to paint someone else into a corner)?

They were painted into a corner.

They were painted into a corner by the situation.

Their colleagues painted them into a corner.

The meaning I was intending to convey would be that they were put in a bind by someone else. Most dictionary entries only talk about painting oneself into a corner.

5
  • 3
    It's nearly always used reflexively, and given it's a somewhat "quaint" usage, the last thing you'd want to do as a non-native speaker would be to "experiment" with variations to the idiomatic standard. Remember that the primary allusion of the usage is similar to hoist by one's own petard, nailing one's colours to the mast, running up a gum tree, etc. (usually, worsening your own circumstances by lack of forethought). It doesn't sit well with other people "boxing you in" to a potentially indefensible position. Nov 30, 2023 at 18:42
  • 1
    Per @FumbleFingers’ comment, part of the expression’s connotational impact is the irony of having done it to oneself. So I could add to his list of similar images shoot oneself in the foot. Nov 30, 2023 at 19:22
  • 1
    By the same token,you should also avoid ...sawing the branch you're sitting on. Nov 30, 2023 at 20:00
  • 2
    Please look at all the examples in my answer: paint oneself into a corner OR paint [someone] into a corner are both idiomatic, as shown by many newspaper quotations on ludwig.guru
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2023 at 18:19
  • 2
    And it is true that India's finance ministers have been painted into a corner by their predecessors because of the cost of financing the deficit. The Economist, which has the best English in the entire world...
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2023 at 18:41

3 Answers 3

7

You can only paint someone else into a corner if they're holding your paint pot ;)

To paint yourself into a corner is to, by your own action, make it impossible to get out of a difficult situation, which gets worse with every further action you take… unless you walk over the floor you've just been painting.

The analogy is to a literal situation - you enter a room with a single door, turn round & start painting the floor. Each brush stroke moves you further from the doorway, until you have only the farthest corner to stand in. You could be standing there on your own, or with a team of like-minded painters, making it a collaborative action that gets you there.

To answer the question as asked - no, you cannot be painted into a corner by someone else's action, only your own.

From comments.
The thing that distinguishes this from similar phrases - hoist by one's own petard; shoot oneself in the foot etc., is that to paint yourself into a corner is not the result of a single action but multiple actions, each increasing your distance from 'the door'.

11
  • 4
    I'm ashamed to admit I never realised why we say/said this! Obvious once you point it out, but that just goes to show how easily native speaker ignore literal meanings when it comes to idiomatic usages! Nov 30, 2023 at 18:47
  • 1
    They really painted us into a corner with their cogent arguements.
    – Lambie
    Nov 30, 2023 at 19:53
  • 1
    Yes, but the metaphor works anyway.
    – Lambie
    Nov 30, 2023 at 20:05
  • 1
    @Lambie - not for me. It sounds like someone who didn't understand what the original meaning was, & extemporised. Nov 30, 2023 at 20:10
  • 3
    @Lambie - Keeping on insisting you are right & I am wrong just gets tiring after a while. Your own answer insisting it can be applicable doesn't seem to be faring so well; nor are any of those downvotes mine. Boxing into a corner is precisely the opposite - that is always forced by someone else. It's from boxing, the sport, & is not related to the painting scenario at all. 'Up against the ropes' is another in the same vein. Dec 1, 2023 at 17:54
1

to paint oneself into a corner is the idiomatic expression.
To paint [x] into a corner is also an idiomatic expression.

BUT: They painted us into a corner. That works too.

He painted me into a corner. Just two examples.

From that we get:
They painted themselves into a corner.
He painted himself into a corner.
She painted herself into a corner.
I painted myself into a corner.
We painted ourselves into a corner.
You painted yourself into a corner.

Just follow the idiom.

Also: others can paint you into a corner:

Should Republicans actually try to paint Democrats into a corner with a rapid repeal, Reid painted a bleak picture of the ensuing damage. The Huffington Post

He was obviously more focused on creating a framework that's open to certain precedent — an album like Herbie Hancock's "Prisoner" comes to mind — but doesn't feel painted into a corner. The New York Times

Brian Bacchus, who produced "Liquid Spirit" and has also collaborated with Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson, described this expansive work as a response to "the jazz singer having been painted into a corner in terms of the repertoire," much of which is now considerably older than many of its interpreters. The Los Angeles Times

paint into a corner from Ludwig.guru

Warning that the prime minister’s actions since the election have painted him into a corner as his self-imposed 31 December deadline for a deal grows nearer, the ex-minister said: “The question really is whether Boris prefers to wreck the economy by going along with his backbenchers and going for no deal – or the Australia option as he’s now calling it – with all the disruption to trade and price hikes and business closures and job losses that would mean, not to mention going down in history as the Tory PM who broke up the union.

The Independent_UK

Second, this book will help young women see the importance of partnering with their parents in the courtship process. I believe most young women want their parents involved in this. Of course, the culture has painted them into a corner, and they don’t quite know how to get out.

Book_UK

And from The Economist via Ludwig.guru, also:

And it is true that India's finance ministers have been painted into a corner by their predecessors because of the cost of financing the deficit.

The Economist has the best English in the entire world...

22
  • 1
    @flen Go take a look at my link from ludwig.guru. There are lots of examples. The other answer re the pot is a literal interpretation and not a metaphorical one...
    – Lambie
    Nov 30, 2023 at 20:04
  • 1
    I don't find the first example a particularly good usage of the idiom, and in the second and third examples, the person painted into the corner is indeed complicit in their own fate - the passages refer to musicians being artistically limited by the genres and styles they themselves choose to play. In the second example, Clayton does not feel painted in by his own choice of respecting precedent, and in the third, the jazz singer is painted in by their own representation of the genre. These aren't purely external limitations, and do have an aspect of painting oneself in. Nov 30, 2023 at 20:20
  • 1
    The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, TechCrunch and Vice all use paint into a corner. You can check for yourselves at: app.ludwig.guru/s/paint+into+a+corner
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2023 at 18:05
  • 2
    Upvote from me. While the usage of painting someone else into a corner is clearly a corruption of the original idiom, it's one that is commonly attested in reputable sources and easily understood by native speakers
    – YonKuma
    Dec 1, 2023 at 19:23
  • 1
    @Lambie My guess is it went south because most people share my opinion, and wouldn't hear anything different, even if it was evidence-backed. Such is the human condition.
    – gotube
    Dec 3, 2023 at 3:46
0

As others have said, the idiom of painting yourself into a corner is very much about making avoidable errors that put yourself in a difficult position. It's not something you can do to others.

But you can "back someone into a corner" or "put someone in a corner". That means to put the other person into a difficult position. It sometimes, but not always, is used to imply that the person might have to take extreme or violent measures to resolve the situation (similar to "having your back to the wall").

4
  • So all these are wrong? app.ludwig.guru/s/paint+into+a+corner And it is true that India's finance ministers have been painted into a corner by their predecessors because of the cost of financing the deficit. The Economist, which has the best English in the entire world...
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2023 at 18:36
  • @Lambie, your link seems to require a login, and I don't have one for that site.
    – The Photon
    Dec 1, 2023 at 18:38
  • Well, then, just believe me if you don't want to sign up. It's a much better resource than anything else, pretty much. I recommend it. I just don't think one can argue with The Economist.
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2023 at 18:39
  • I say again. You can paint someone else into a corner. And they can do it to you. Dec 1, 2023 at 19:00

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .