give someone <a/the?> once over

mutagenix

Senior Member
Japanese
I have some doubts regarding the idiom to give someone a/the once-over:

1. Most dictionaries say that there should be the before once-over; However, there are also some dictionaries that say it's a or a/the. Well, if I were to give someone ___ once-over, it would be a once-over, because it's a once-over in a general sense (and mentioned for the first time at that). Obviously, the should be used when the once-over in question has already been mentioned and is being referred to again. So, why would most of the dictionaries say it is the? Is it idiomatic?

2. Can the idiom sometimes be used instead of the phrasal verb size someone/something up without change of meaning? E.g. The captain sized the group up and said... vs The captain gave the group a once-over and said...
 
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  • se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I think give someone/something the once-over is more idiomatic than give someone/something a once-over.

    Something can be definite, and so merit a definite article, without having been previously mentioned. In this case, the once-over is definite because the speaker (jocularly or whimsically) assumes that the listener is familiar with its customary procedure.

    I think you tend to give someone/something the once-over to check he/she/it is in working order, of suitable appearance for the job in hand, without defect. You tend to size someone/something up if you are about to fight/tackle him/her/it - this expression is more suited to an adversary or a challenge.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Second first, go give someone/something a/the once-over is, in my view, the same as sizing up. It is an informal and non-specific assessment.

    Is it "a once-over" or "the once-over"?
    Both are used, but it seems to me there is a nuance of difference.
    If you say "a once-over", that suggests something fairly general - it is some kind of an assessment, but perhaps fairly casual.
    If you say "the once-over", I think you are suggesting an assessment of the kind that most people would expect you to give in the circumstances, and perhaps more thorough than simply "a once-over".

    The kind of once-over doesn't need to have been previously mentioned in order to justify the definite article. Another example, "the kiss of death", doesn't need previous mention :)
     

    Parla

    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    In AE, "the once-over" is a set phrase; I've never heard or seen "a once-over". The implication "give someone the once-over" is typically that someone's degree of sexual attraction is being assessed.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    In AE, "the once-over" is a set phrase; I've never heard or seen "a once-over". The implication "give someone the once-over" is typically that someone's degree of sexual attraction is being assessed.
    I wondered about that.
    Looking through examples listed on Google Books, Google News, and varous AE reference sources, it appears to be used in a great many other contexts as well - more than the sexual attraction once-over.
     

    PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    I'm with panj at #3.
    A: "Here's my report: would you give it a once over to check that there are no mistakes?"

    A1: "Here's my report: is it in the house style? I'd be grateful if you gave it the once over."
     
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