Phrase of the day: rule of thumb

My mother turned 70 last month and to celebrate we took her to Majorca for a week-long break. We rented a villa in Puerto Pollensa up on the north coast. It was just about large enough for my mum and her partner, John; my brother, his wife and their adopted kid, Jamie; John’s daughter from his previous marriage, Ailsa; and my own family. It was hot, we were near the beach, and it was only a short walk into town. What more could you ask for? Like lots of people of her generation, my mum isn’t the most adventurous eater, and tends to be slightly suspicious of food she’s not familiar with. Given this, most evenings, we took turns to cook and ate together in the villa. On the actual day of her birthday, though, we decided to eat out in a little place we’d read about on TripAdvisor. After a leisurely stroll along the beach, we went down a lovely little side street and found the place we were looking for. We were early and had the place more or less to ourselves, which was nice. As soon as we’d sat down, John was keen to order a drink. He caught the waiter’s eye and asked what the best way to do things was: should he go to the bar and order and pay there, or could drinks be ordered and brought to the table now? “Well”, the Spanish waiter began, “the basic rule of thumb is order from me, and I’ll bring everything straight to your table and you can settle up at the end!”


After the waiter had taken the drinks order and vanished off to the bar, my mum commented on how excellent his English was and not for the first time, I was struck by the fact that it’s very rarely grammatical accuracy that impresses people. Instead, it’s the ability to use phrases such as the basic rule of thumb (and, in this instance, settle up as well, I guess)! A rule of thumb is a broadly accurate guide or principle that you use when doing (or explaining) things, and it’s based on practice rather than theory. So, for example, the reason my mum’s partner John felt the need to ask in the first place is that the basic rule of thumb in English pubs is that you go to the bar, order and pay for each round. As a result, the idea of being able to order drinks throughout the evening without (yet) paying for them is a bit alien!


Many people may apply basic rules of thumb to the way they approach many everyday activities. For instance, my writing partner Andrew has a basic rule of thumb when he’s drinking: for every pint of beer he drinks, he then tries to drink a pint of water. Very sensible! Anyone who does any kind of practical task like DIY, cooking, fixing or mending things, and so on, will have all kinds of rules of thumb that they use when carrying out their tasks. To give one final example, a tip we often pass on to teachers we work with is that when you’ve asked the whole class a question, a good rule of thumb is to wait a good ten seconds or so before moving on. All too often, we ask questions, don’t get an immediate response and then rush on, worrying about why our students don’t speak much! Waiting slightly longer gives the quieter, shyer students time to put themselves forward, and allows students the chance to gather their thoughts before speaking. If you’re a teacher yourself, try it and see what a difference it makes!


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  • Do you have any basic rules of thumb that you apply when cooking, ordering in bars or restaurants, doing DIY or any other areas of your life?
  • Do you know anyone who’s an adventurous eater? Or anyone who’s suspicious of food they’re not familiar with?
  • When was the last time you went for a leisurely stroll? Where did you go?
  • Can you think of ways of doing things you’ve encountered when abroad that were a bit alien to you?
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