keep somebody on their toes

Discussion in 'English Only' started by, Mar 4, 2007.

  1. New Member

    As title

    What is keep somebody on their toes?

    equal keep somebody off balance?
  2. Old Novice

    Old Novice Senior Member

    USA, English
    But it's close. It means to keep someone alert and ready to respond.
  3. Katey Senior Member

    English - US
    To keep somebody on their toes is to keep them alert. If somebody keeps me on my toes, it means I have to really concentrate and be clever to respond properly.
  4. New Member

    I've got it!
    By the way, "keep somebody on their toes" is on purpose or NOT on purpose?

  5. Old Novice

    Old Novice Senior Member

    USA, English
    It can be either way. Sometimes a person (for example, a boss) consciously tries to keep someone on their toes. Other times, events -- driving during a snowstorm, for example -- force people to be on their toes.
  6. geminisi New Member

    Czech Republic, Czech language
    Hi, can I have a question?
    How would you describe a phrase: to keep somebody on one´s toes?

    <<Please do not abbreviate somebody.>>
  7. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    New York
    USA - English
    I would describe it as unintelligible. "Sb" is not an abbreviation used or understood by most native English speakers.
  8. mai369 Member

    Argentina, Spanish
    Geminisi, I think we're not supposed to abbreviate when posting a thread. :S (just read the whole posting guide before posting my first thread :p)

    Anyway, I'm not a native, so I googled it, and I found the same topic under the thread "keep somebody on their toes" in this same forum. You should be able to find it by looking it up on google (I can't post links yet :( )

    Hope this helps.
  9. audiolaik

    audiolaik Senior Member


    Something or somebody that keeps you on your toes forces you to continue directing all your attention and energy to what you are doing.

    p.s. I'm not a native speaker:)
  10. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    Some examples of usage:

    My new boss keeps us on our toes; we hardly even have time for a coffee break.

    That teacher will keep you on your toes; she won't tolerate sloppy work, so make sure you check your spelling and grammar before you hand any work in to her.

    His wife keeps him on his toes; he's always cooking and cleaning and putting shelves up. She'd call him a lazybones if he didn't!
  11. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    To me, "to keep a people on their toes" refers to quality of work, not quantity. It means to provide people with opportunities to practice their skills and to maintain their abilities. The "toes" metaphor I think refers to being poised to jump or to start running, not so much to doing lots of jumping or running.

    By the way, the pronoun after the "on" needs to refer to the same person mentioned just before the "on": to keep me on my toes, to keep one on one's toes, to keep someone on his/her/their toes.
  12. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    Interesting. I would apply the phrase in terms of quantity and/or quality.
  13. alacant

    alacant Senior Member

    Alicante, Spain
    England, english

    I agree with you, I would apply it both quantity and quality.

  14. Cagey post mod

    English - US
    I agree with Forero. I use the term when I mean that someone causes you to you pay close attention to the quality of your work.

    In certain cases, I might say that someone who made you do a lot of physical work, "kept you on your feet". I would not say that they "kept you on your toes" unless they also paid close attention to details, for instance, that you might have missed.
  15. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    I spy an AE/BE difference!
  16. Cagey post mod

    English - US
    Possibly, but on this UK website, for instance,

    "to keep someone on their toes" is given as the correct choice for a phrase meaning:

    "to make someone concentrate on what they are doing so they are ready to deal with the situation whatever happens."​
  17. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    It's certainly a definition, propounded by a teacher at a college in Chester.
  18. Willis Member

    Boston, USA
    U.S. - English
    Well, I say it actually means a little of both, and it's hard to seperate the two.

    To keep someone alert and ready for any situation by not keeping them idle, and constantly working, training and testing them.

    I think, technically, the phrase itself focuses more on work and training, but I think most, when they hear the phrase, naturally assume that the work is being done to create alertness and readiness.
  19. Cagey post mod

    English - US
    I'm sorry. I wasn't clear. My point wasn't that this was the only plausible use of the term, but that variations on usage may not be best explained as national differences. It is likely that some AE speakers also give it the broader meaning.

    I'll try to keep on my toes next time I post.
  20. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    The general sense I get from this phrase is that if Bill is said to be keeping his team on their toes he is managing them in such a way that they meet expectations in all senses:
    - delivering the required quality of work;
    - delivering the required quantity of work;
    - able to respond effectively to changing requirements.

    It is a positive comment on Bill's style and relationship with his team, and on Bill's team itself.
  21. Packard

    Packard Senior Member

    USA, English
    That is how I always understood it; sprinting specifically.

    When the starter at a sprint meet says:

    "On your mark" [foot placed exactly at the starting line]

    "Get Set" [Sprinters at that point raise up upon the "balls of their feet"

    "Go" (or starter's gun fires) [The race commences].

    So "on your toes", which is really on the "balls of your feet" was the very last thing you did in preparation for an all out sprint.

    So "on your toes" means you are at the ready to react quickly.
  22. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    Thanks for clarifying, Cagey. Yes, you keep on your toes.:D
  23. Packard

    Packard Senior Member

    USA, English
    As opposed to being caught "flat footed".

    Note to non-native speakers: same metaphor, opposite meaning.
  24. Vanest

    Vanest Senior Member

    Ecuadorian Spanish - Canadian English
    Hello everyone,

    I think I understand the phrase now, but if somebody who is helping you (to find a job for example) tells you "you certainly keep me on my toes", is that good or bad? Is the person trying to tell you you are being annoying or too demanding?

    Thank you!

  25. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    I'd take "you keep me on my toes" as primarily a compliment: you're good, you're possibly as good as I am, the fact that you exist means I have to keep working hard to keep my place.

    But there's also a hint of negativity in it: I don't like the fact that you're good, you're possibly as good as I am, the fact that you exist means I have to keep working hard to keep my place.
  26. Vanest

    Vanest Senior Member

    Ecuadorian Spanish - Canadian English
    Thank you for your answer, Loob. I think that clarifies it for me!
  27. Andrejice New Member

    does this sentence make sence? "You always keep my thinking, on my toes."

  28. Packard

    Packard Senior Member

    USA, English
    I understand what you are saying but your construction is faulty.

    Try something like this:

    You always keep me thinking; you keep me on my toes.
  29. Andrejice New Member

    I have heard in exactly like that in an american series...
    And how would you explain the meaning of it? Thanks...
  30. Packard

    Packard Senior Member

    USA, English
  31. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I think an understanding of the origin of the phrase is needed here. It has to do with boxing. The "in the blocks" image is okay, but if you keep on your toes as described in the comparison, you stay at the starting blocks while someone else is winning the race.

    The word keep here indicates a continuous state of alertness and action. If you are kept on your toes, you not only await your opponent's moves alertly, you are in a position to respond to them-- or more important, preempt them.

    To understand the expression, imagine not just a boxer but a winning boxer-- being on one's toes entails a lot of motion, so I don't think passive "alertness" is quite adequate a definition. A person who is on his toes gets out ahead of a problem, and can stop it before it even arises.

    The comment about getting caught flat-footed was apt. Also, a losing boxer is said to be "on his heels." So is someone who is "reeling" from circumstances that have gotten beyond his control-- probably because he didn't keep on his toes.
  32. redgiant Senior Member

    Cantonese, Hong Kong
    Some posters is saying that this phrase means "ready to react" and "remain alert". Does "Keep your eyes on the opponent" not convey the sense of "poised to react" in "Keep somebody on their toes"?
  33. Cagey post mod

    English - US
    Though they might be used in the same context, they mean different things.

    "Keep your eyes on the opponent" means to be watchful for anything he might do.
    "Keep on your toes" means to be ready to do something your self, whenever it needs to be done. It may include being watchful and alert, but it focuses on the ability to act.

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