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This is a passage from a novel:

Neal had both hands on the counter, clenching the muscles in his forearms. Like he was retroactively bracing himself for bad news. His head was hanging down, and his hair fell away from his forehead.

From OALD, clench is defined as:

when you clench your hands, teeth, etc., or when they clench, you press or squeeze them together tightly, usually showing that you are angry, determined or upset

From the definition, I understand what it means when you clench your teeth, but I don't understand what clenching mean in this passage when she said clenching the muscles in his forearms.

  • I take it to mean similar to "flexing" the muscles, but doing so by balling his hands into tight fists or clenching the counter tightly with his fingers, which caused his muscles to clench. – imkingdavid Sep 28 '15 at 18:37
  • @imkingdavid I'm still confused. – Theo Sep 28 '15 at 18:46
  • The author misused the word clenching. Neal's hands or fingers were possibly clenching, causing the muscles in his forearms to flex, i.e. "isometrically contract". – John B Sep 28 '15 at 20:45
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Neal had both hands on the counter, clenching the muscles in his forearms.

Fortunately, thanks to the use of, once again, context, we can actually infer what the word means. You will have to do this frequently when reading English because English authors will often use words in unconventional ways that may not even be listed in a dictionary. Asking a question on Stack Exchange each time you come across something like this in English literature is impractical.

Neal had both hands on the counter.

We know from this that Neal has both of his hands on the counter, and isn't squeezing them together. It also mentions that "his head was hanging down." The mental image portrayed here is of a very common gesture (at least in Western culture), with arms out and apart, supporting one's body as they lean over a counter, looking down. The gesture is associated with tension and distress; tension in the mind often directly relates to physical tension in the body.

While I admit that "clench" is perhaps not the ideal word for this sentence, "clenching" is characterized by a tightening of the muscles, because it is required in order to squeeze your hands, teeth, etc. together firmly. Therefore, based on context clues, it makes sense to infer that clenching means the same thing as 'flexing' or tightening the muscles in this context. It is likely that Neal is pushing against the counter in stress or frustration.

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You "you press or squeeze [the muscles of your forearms] together tightly."

  • I'm trying to picture this. so does it mean, the hands are crossed on the counter and that one forearm is placed on top of the other? – Theo Sep 28 '15 at 18:43
  • Could you please expand upon this answer. It isn't particularly clear. – Chenmunka Sep 28 '15 at 19:24
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    It should be noted that Neal is not pressing his arms together. They are flexing separately, at some distance from each other, and independently. – Patrick Stevens Sep 28 '15 at 20:04

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