I'm a normal Korean uni student who's confused by this expression STUMBLING BLOCK.

I've googled this word so many times, and I have even looked that up in the dictionary. It defines the word as "a problem that prevents from achieving something". But can it be something like a hurdle?

I mean, I think this word is figurative. I mean, you cannot see it but we know we have our own OBSTACLE in our lives like finance problems, love, hatred, or things like that.

I'm having a debate with my English professor. He keeps saying Stumbling Block is visible, it's something that we can see. Like a building or the tree. But I think it's something we can't see, such as love, like, anger, or a language barrier.

And is the following sentence correct?

a stumbling block holds back water in a reservoir.

I said it's wrong because of use of stumbling block, but he says it's a correct sentence.

So please help me!

  • Why does it have to be only one or the other, what you can see with your physical eyes and what you cannot? Jun 21, 2016 at 16:07
  • Please don't duplicate your questions on multiple sites without either deleting them or asking for them to be migrated.
    – Catija
    Jun 21, 2016 at 16:14
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    your professor is 100% wrong. super weird. i question whether that person is fluent in english.
    – abcd
    Jun 21, 2016 at 18:19

2 Answers 2


The word block can refer to

A lump of wood, stone, or other matter, that obstructs one's way.

(Oxford English Dictionary (OED)).

This refers to a literal lump of wood or stone that you can pick up or remove. According to the OED this usage of block now occurs only in the compound noun stumbling block.

For example, you could say

Watch out for those bricks in the road ahead. They might cause you to stumble or trip. They can be stumbling blocks for anyone who does not walk carefully here.

All this refers to actual physical bricks, which form actual physical stumbling blocks to people who might literally stumble over them. You can actually pick up the bricks (which form the literal stumbling blocks) and clear the path.

The word stumbling block does not normally refer to a physical block or stone.

The link above (Oxford Dictionary online) lists several example sentences. An example off the top of my head is

The growing cost of higher education forms a stumbling block to parents who wish to send several children to university.

Here stumbling block is used figuratively. And that is how it is usually used.

Common synonyms for stumbling block include obstacle and hurdle.

To insist that a stumbling block must be something we can see is wrong.

However, it can refer to something physical:

The pimple on my sweetheart's nose is a stumbling block to me asking her to get married.

but here it's the existence of the pimple that forms a stumbling block or obstacle in the mind of the speaker. It is a physical object that is forming a mental stumbling block to the speaker.

I am not sure what your professor means by

A stumbling block holds back water in a reservoir.

It seems that he is using or trying to use stumbling block in the literal sense, to refer to a literal block or lump of wood or stone or similar that impedes or obstructs the water's progress, so that a reservoir is formed. But stumbling block causes people to stumble, not water or other "inanimate objects."

  • 6
    A "stumbling block" is typically something that would figuratively cause you to stumble (trip). It can be a literal block that you might stumble on, but that's a rarer usage. Unless the 'stumbling block' is literally causing the water to trip on its feet and fall back into the reservoir, it's an incorrect usage, and the use of 'stumbling block' almost always refers to some sort of negative impediment causing an interruption of (positive) progress. As a counterpoint, you might say, "The amount of debris in the floodgate is a stumbling block preventing us from letting water out of the reservoir"
    – Epicedion
    Jun 21, 2016 at 17:40
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    this answer is way too charitable to the literal usage. no one would ever use the phrase "stumbling block" to refer to a physical block of wood that causes one to literally stumble. they would say, "watch out for that block of wood," or something like that. never "watch out for that stumbling block."
    – abcd
    Jun 21, 2016 at 18:23
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    @dbliss The OED lists the literal usage of block as in "stumbling block" as rare, not impossible. Jun 21, 2016 at 18:43
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    @AlanCarmack only case in which it would be used in modern America is if the speaker were making a (not all that funny) joke -- as in, ha, look at that, a literal stumbling block. the OED is not God. on this issue, it's out-dated or out-of-touch.
    – abcd
    Jun 21, 2016 at 18:47
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    @dbliss How is the OED out of touch or outdated when it says rare? That's a rhetorical question. Besides, I just used the the word stumbling block in my answer in a literal way. Anyway, I believe you are being too dogmatic in your comment, but last time I said that, the comment got deleted. Jun 22, 2016 at 13:23

I don't think I have ever heard of a literal stumbling block. If there was some uneven pavement (say) it might be called a "tripping step".

As mentioned here it would a figurative obstacle, such as:

  • The heavy rain was a stumbling block to our planned picnic.

  • My lack of a tie was a stumbling block for entering the expensive restaurant.

The sentence:

A stumbling block holds back water in a reservoir.

is only correct syntactically. You may as well say:

A large goat holds back water in a reservoir.

Both sentences are well-formed, but make no sense. If there was a "block" that held back water it would be a gate, spillway or dam wall. You wouldn't stumble over it.

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