Phrase of the day: How long is a piece of string?

As a coursebook writer, there’s one question about my work I dread more than all others. I’ll sometimes be at a conference, standing around on the publisher’s stand – the display space they have where they show all their books – when a teacher will come up, start flicking through one of my books and then ask ….. “How long will it take to complete this book?”

I put my corporate whore hat on – metaphorically speaking, of course – and ask how long the course they might use it on are. Ninety hours, they might tell me. Or a hundred and twenty. Or one fifty. “That”, I tell them in my most sincere and trustworthy voice, “is exactly how long the book was designed to take!” Job done!

The answer I always want to give, though, is the honest one, which is “How long is a piece of string?” Obviously, a piece of string can be as long or as short as you want it to be. It depends. And the rhetorical response is designed to make this clear to the person who asked the initial question. While what’s on the page of a coursebook obviously does have some impact on how long things take to do in class, all kinds of variables come into play as soon as the interaction between teacher, book and students begins. If you only have 90 minutes for your lesson, you’ll probably decide to run through some exercises more quickly than you would if you had three hours. You’d ask fewer questions about the language in the vocabulary exercises, reformulate student output a bit less, and maybe even skip the odd bit here and there. In essence, you tailor your class depending on the time available to you. Actually, now I come to think of it, we have written a whole series of blog posts about just that. If you missed them, start here and work forwards.

Obviously, there are many other times when I might also reach for the rhetorical question How long is a piece of string? It’s the perfect response for my kids when we’re on a day trip to the seaside and they start whining and asking how long it’ll be until we get there. In addition, you get exchanges like these:

How much does a wedding usually cost?

> Well, how long is a piece of string?


How many words do I need to write?

> How long is a piece of string?

Sadly, however, the use of such rhetoric can sometimes backfire. I remember an incident at secondary school when one of the more aggressive and less motivated members of my English class asked the stand-in English teacher who was covering for the week how long the homework needed to be. This elicited the predictable response of “How long is a piece of string?”

“Long enough to wrap round your neck, I hope” came the growled reply.


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  • In your language, do you have a similar question to How long is a piece of string?
  • Are there any other rhetorical questions that you often ask?
  • Which questions do you dread being asked? Why?
  • When did you last go on a day trip? Where did you go?
  • Can you think of a time when a plan of yours has backfired? What happened?
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