Phrase of the day: do time

I was chatting to a Spanish friend of mine the other day and she was telling me the sorry story of her ex-husband. Apparently, after they separated, he drifted into a life of petty crime and started dealing – mostly just grass, and not in large quantities, but enough to attract the attention of the local authorities. He was arrested a couple of times and eventually his flat was raided, whereupon the police found over a hundred marijuana plants being grown in the utility room. He had all the equipment – the special lights, the air filters, the grow boxes, everything – and was clearly growing in order to sell, not just for personal use.

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Even though they split up a couple of years ago now, she was clearly upset and worried about what this might mean for him. She tried to explain her fears by saying something along the lines of “He’ll now go to court and I think they will see . . . or decide . . . he’s guilty. He’ll be convicted for this . . . convicted of this . . . and then he’ll go to the prison for some time.” I instinctively rephrased this and said “You think he’ll do time” to which she replied “Ah! So that’s how you say it! It’s so simple . . . if you know the expression!”

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And, of course, this is one of the main problems when learning a language. If you don’t know the most normal way of saying something – the typical phrase or collocation that fluent users would turn to when expressing a particular idea – then you have to resort to the fallback plan of using words and grammar, which is harder, takes more time, and means you’re more likely to make more mistakes. And, of course, at teacher listening may be tempted to correct those basic surface errors and may not realise that the problem isn’t really one of grammatical inaccuracy, but of a lack of lexical items. This is one of the key reasons why it’s so important to try and learn the normal, natural shortcuts fluent users take to save themselves time and effort!

Anyway, going back to my friend’s ex . . . he’ll almost certainly be found guilty when his case comes to court and becuase he has previous (=because he has already been in trouble with the law), he’ll probably get a year or two in prison – maybe more. Terrible news for all who know him.

When we describe the punishments people receive from judges, we often use the verb get, so you’ll hear things like:

He got the death penalty.

She got life.

He got ten years.

She got four years, but she’ll probably be out in three if she behaves!

He got off with just a caution. (=a warning telling him that he’ll be properly punished if he does anything bad again)

She got off scot-free (=without any punishment at all, even though I think she deserved to be punished!)

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And when we talk about doing time, it means spending time in prison. People who have already spent time in prison and have been released will often say they’ve done their time . . . and we also sometimes use the phrase in a jokey way to talk about the time we’ve spent in a particular job. For instance, we might say I’ve been here for eighteen years. I’ve done my time! I need to move on and do something different!

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Unsurprisingly, you often hear talk of doing time in TV crime dramas and gangster movies as well, where lines like these are common:

I can’t do time again. It’d kill me!

He’s going to plead guilty and do his time.

Just keep your mouth shut, do your time and we’ll do right by you once you’re out, OK!

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While I have done my time in some terrible jobs over the years, I can only count my blessings that I’ve never done any time in jail – and pray I never will in the future! I can’t imagine how hard it must be!

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Take one of our summer courses.

  • Do you know anyone who’s ever done time? What for?
  • Is there much petty crime where you live? What kind? What impact does it have on your life?
  • Is dealing common where you live? What kind of punishments do people usually get if they’re found guilty of dealing?
  • Have you heard any stories of people getting off scot-free when they should’ve done time?
  • Do you like wathcing TV crime dramas / gangster movies? Do you have a favourite?
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