In time, these lessons and "stubs" will be migrated to the Buzzwords site.
Until then, consider them historical.

Better Safe than Sorry


1. Can you guess the meaning of this saying?
2. Are you like the first speaker, always making sure of things?


James is leaving the classroom building, and sees his colleague, a woman named Margaret, walking back in.

James: Hi, Margaret. Did you forget something?
Margaret: Maybe. I was talking to some students as we left, and I can't remember if I locked the classroom door.
James: Ah, so you're going back to double-check it?
Margaret: Yeah. You know, "Better safe than sorry."
James: Good thinkin', Abe Lincoln. The old "precautionary principle."
Margaret: What's that?
James: Oh, it's a legal idea. It takes this common-sense idea, that it's better to do the safer thing than to take a risk, and turns it into a principle of law.
Margaret: So, you mean, governments or institutions have an obligation to establish safe practices, and prevent problems for the people under their care?
James: Exactly.
Margaret: Cool. Well, that door isn't going to lock itself. Gotta run.
James: Alright. Take it easy, Margaret.
Margaret: You too, James.


Like the expression "Better late than never," today's expression "Better safe than sorry" is compressed from a longer expression, "It is better to be safe than to be sorry."

This idea was stated beautifully by Benjamin Franklin, who said: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." An ounce is a small part of a pound, 1/16th to be exact. So a little bit of prevention is better than a lot of "cure" (repair, fixing, etc.)

It turns out that this is more than just an old-fashioned proverb. It's a principle of law and government, as we see in this dialogue.

More notes:
  • double-check: This just means to check for sure, not necessarily twice.
  • Good thinkin', Abe Lincoln: "Good thinkin'" means "That's smart." Then James adds a silly rhyme.
  • The old "precautionary principle": Sometimes "old" doesn't mean old. Here, it might mean "familiar" or "great." If I say, "I had a good old time," I'm using "old" to intensify the idea of "good." And if I say, "That's a big old cat," I'm just making the "big" stronger. "Old" can also mean "dear," as in "good old Bob."
  • a common-sense idea: something that everyone (or almost everyone) knows or believes; something that doesn’t
  • Cool: nice, great. It can also mean "I understand," as in "I'm cool with that."
  • that door isn't going to lock itself: We say this when we have to do something ourselves. A mother might say, "Sorry, I'm busy. Dinner isn't going to cook itself." Or a salesman's boss might say, "Get out there; this product isn't going to sell itself."
  • Gotta run: A very informal way to say, "I have to go."


Here is some vocabulary from the story and the notes. Match it to its meaning.

1. a common-sense idea
2. Good thinkin', Abe Lincoln
3. Gotta run
4. I'm cool with that.
5. It isn't going to do itself.
6. the old [something]
7. double-check something

a. I agree.
b. something familiar
c. That was clever of you.
d. something everyone agrees on
e. I have to go.
f. look at it again
g. I have to do it.


If you can, try to talk about these questions in English with a friend. If not, try writing your answers.

1. Can you think of examples of the "precautionary principle"? When has "an ounce of prevention" been useful in your life?
2. Do you think "common sense" is really common? That is, are there things that almost all people agree on? If so, give some examples. If not, explain why you think so.
3. Give some examples of how laws protect people by preventing problems.


1.d; 2.c; 3.e; 4.a; 5.g; 6.b; 7.f

This lesson is ©2012 by James Baquet. You may share this work freely. Teachers may use it in the classroom, as long as students are told the source (URL). You may not publish this material or sell it. Please write to me if you have any questions about "fair use."

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