I can't understand this paragraph and I can't find an explanation anywhere online. What is "fair approximation"? What about "break something out"?

They’d spread textbooks and notebooks and loose pages around the coffee table in front of the couch in a fair approximation of diligence. They’d broken the books out about an hour ago, but Kirk had been looking at the same page of his chemistry book for the past forty five minutes and still couldn’t begin to guess what it what it was about.

1 Answer 1


A fair approximation of something means a moderately good imitation of that thing. They are doing the actions of studying, spreading textbooks and notebooks around and generally creating the appearance of students hard at work.

To break out a thing means to bring it out of storage or provide it to others. It's typically used for food and drink or for an object that has a particular role or that is used periodically for a specific function. In this case, the books have been gotten out for the purpose of studying.

In short, the students have gotten their study materials out, spread them around, and to any outside observer, are studying hard. However, they have not made any progress and only appear to be working.

Examples: John spent several hours trying to copy the cartoon's artwork. In the end he produced a fair approximation of their work, but it was far from perfect.

Stephanie's cake was a fair approximation of the one shown in the magazine, particularly considering her lack of skill as a baker.

It's New Year's Day! Break out the champagne!

Break out the broom and dustpan, here comes that kid again. He breaks something every time he comes in the store!

  • I've always understood 'fair approximation' to mean not a semblance of reasonable facsimile or decent imitation of something, but a more-or-less accurate attempt to describe or characterize. The passage quoted struck me as a misuse of the term. I'll upvote your answer if you can cite some examples of its being used to mean 'imitation' or 'semblance'.
    – TimR
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 23:51
  • Typo: or reasonable facsimile.
    – TimR
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 0:20
  • @TRomano It definitely can mean exactly what it says, a fair (not exceptionally good, but acceptable) means of approximating a quantity. Idiomatically it means much the same, except that the approximation is of an object or concept. Not quite Paris but a fair approximation, and Pretty fair approximation of store bought BBQ sauce. Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 0:58
  • If you Google "fair approximation," most of the returned sites refer to approximation in the mathematical sense, but there are several that show the use that this passage does, reality as an approximation of an ideal. Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 0:59

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