LINGUIST List 7.1258

Tue Sep 10 1996

Sum: "Sitting on the fence"

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  • Bert Peeters, Summary: "Sitting on the fence"

    Message 1: Summary: "Sitting on the fence"

    Date: Sun, 08 Sep 1996 11:18:40 +1000
    From: Bert Peeters <>
    Subject: Summary: "Sitting on the fence"
    Just over a week ago, I posted the following query:

    || The French proverbial saying "menager la chevre et le chou" tends to || have a negative overtone; it's the sort of behavior that is || discouraged in French (cf. also "donner une reponse de Normand", "ne || pas vouloir se mouiller"; source: Christine Beal, in *Langue || francaise* 98, 1993). How about the English saying "to sit on the || fence" (which is translated by Collins/Robert as "menager la chevre et || le chou")? Is it good or bad, in English, to sit on the fence? Does || the saying have a positive or a negative connotation? I thank the || readership in advance for their enlightening comments and hope that || when summarizing I won't have to give a "reponse de Normand".

    Many thanks to all those who replied:

    Alice Faber ( Peter Daniels ( Paul Listen ( Alain Theriault ( Tracy Mansfield ( Dorine Houston (V2188GVM.TEMPLE.EDU) Michael Robertson ( Pier Marco Bertinetto ( Paul Purdom ( Michael Quinion ( Dennis Newson ( Karen Davis ( Simon Kaufmann ( Sharon Goodman ( Diana Maynard ( Norman Roberts ( Chris Palmer ( Suzanne Fleischman (

    A majority thought that "sitting on the fence" has indeed a negative connotation. However, there were some dissenters who opted for "une reponse de Normand". They wanted to have their cake and eat it too, I suspect... The fact that, contrary to Beal's argument, there seem to be at least as many sayings condemning fence-sitting in French as in English, is interesting. It raises the question whether or not the French sayings can be invoked (as they are by Beal) to back up the French attitude of "engagement" as opposed to the English desire to remain non-committal. For now, I do not have the answer to this question, but I welcome any input from the readership.

    I have not attempted to rewrite anyone's replies (I burnt my fingers once, and as the French say, "chat echaude craint l'eau froide" which means something like "once bitten, twice shy"). Here they are, in full:

    Alice Faber: Well, I would think that American cultural mythology would hold that indecision is always bad. Thus "sitting on the fence" would have at least slight negative connotations. "Fence sitting" is merely a metaphorical characterization of indecision, and certainly doesn't involve any negative connotation beyond that associated with indecision. This strikes me as a question you'll get quite varied responses to. If it helps sort things out, I was born and raised in the US, New York Metropolitan Area.

    Peter Daniels: Why would failure/refusal/inability to make a choice ever be regarded favorably? I.e., do you have any proverbs or catch-phrases that consider vacillation a virtue?

    Paul Listen: my own initial reaction to 'sitting on the fence' is that it's usually somewhat negative. at least that's the way i think i use it.

    Alain Theriault: My answer is: Ca depend! (qui est LE stereotype de la reponse de Normand) "Menager la chevre et le chou" est pejoratif dans notre monde moderne ou tout doit etre definit. Meme chose pour "sitting on a fence" . Il y a aussi " s'assoir entre deux chaises". Est-ce vraiment negatif? Je le crois car on utilise ces expressions pour qualifier quelqu'un qui ne veut pas se mouiller, justement, et qui ne prend pas de decision. Mon experience de l'anglais me dit que c'est assez negatif. Ma conjointe, qui est anglophone, me l'a servie a chaque fois que je ne veux pas prendre un decision.

    Tracy Mansfield: I'd say that "to sit on the fence" most definitely has a negative connotation, indicating cowardice rather than caution.

    Dorine Houston: Fence-sitters are viewed very negatively in the US, so sitting on the fence is a criticism. In this election season, you may expect to hear how either Clinton or Dole is guilty of sitting on the fence, or speaking out of both sides of his mouth, on particular topics. Or trying to have their cake and eat it too.

    Michael Robertson: I think that the English expression "to sit on the fence" has a negative connotation. At the same time I don't think it is potently negative. BTW, a similar expression in Italian is "stare alla finestra" (to stay at the window). This expression has a negative connotation. Perhapa this expression is slightly different as it refers to 'not getting involved' rather than 'refraining from making a decision either way' - a subtle difference but maybe significant.

    Pier Marco Bertinetto: Perhaps you would be interested to know that the corresponding Italian saying ("salvare capra e cavoli") is totally neutral. It may have a positive sense (and I believe this is the most frequent case), but it may acquire a derogatory meaning in particular instances.

    Paul Purdom: The phrase to sit on the fence is usually intended to be somewhat negative by the person saying it about someone else. On the other hand the listeners may have the same opinion if they have strong feelings about the issue or they may take it has the heigth of wisdom if they feel that the issue is complex and that taking sides would lead to bad results. If a person says it about themselves, then it would not be negative. So overall I guess it is mildly negative.

    Michael Quinion: In British English today, "to sit on the fence" certainly has pejorative connotations, indicating that the person concerned either cannot, or more usually will not, make up his mind; the implication is usually that the person is avoiding making a judgement or forming an opinion in order to avoid conflict or in the hope of gaining some advantage by waiting until the outcome of the debate is clear. I believe the term originally came into the language last century with specific reference to politics. See Bartlett's "Dictionary of Americanisms" of 1859

    Fence-riding: The practice of "sitting on the fence", or remaining neutral in a political contest until it can be seen "which way the cat is going to jump".

    However, OED2 quotes the following:

    1887 Cornhill Mag. June 626 Those who sit 'on the fence' -- men with impartial minds, who wait to see ... 'how the cat will jump'.

    which might suggest a non-pejorative meaning of something like 'sensible caution', if one could only be sure that the writer did not have his tongue firmly in his cheek.

    Dennis Newson: I would say that, depending on context, sitting on the fence usually has a negative implication since it means someone is refusing to take sides, refusing to commit themselves one way or another.

    Karen Davis: In my opinion, it's negative. It implies indecisiveness, or perhaps waiting until the outcome is clear and then joining the winning side.

    Simon Kaufmann: The expression "sitting on the fence", or the act of "fence-sitting" definately has negative connotations in Australian English. To be labelled a "fence sitter" implies a prejorative inability to choose sides or support one group over another - also that one is ineffectual when it comes down to real business. I suspect the perjorative connotations arose in a political context, because that's where one is most likely to hear it.

    Sharen Goodman: Yes, to sit on the fence is certainly bad form. Political parties that are seen to be sitting on the fence are considered indecisive, weak and incapable of effective government (the phrase is/was often encountered with reference to the Liberal Democrats in the UK). Managers who sit on the fence get little respect from their colleagues, either. However, if you make it clear that you are sitting on the fence temporarily, in order to make a decision, this might be acceptable!

    Diana Maynard: I would consider "to sit on the fence" to have a negative connotation. It implies someone who cannot make up their mind, or is reluctant to make their opinion known, and thus suggests someone who does not have the courage of their convictions.

    Norman Roberts: If someone else is doing it and you're lookin for support, it's bad. If you're doing it, it's all right; if not prudent, it's the better part of valor.

    Chris Palmer: Yes I would say that "to sit on the fence" has a somewhat negative connotation, because of the lack of loyalty to any one side and thus the inability of others to trust the fence-sitter/goat and cabbage manager. It's the same thing with the political neutrality of Switzerland; in American English it can be slightly pejorative to say "he/she's being Switzerland."

    Suzanne Fleischman: For me, the English expression definitely has a negative connation -- of avoiding making a choice or decision, and even of being wishy-washy. I find "sitting on the fence" to be more negatively charged than simply "to keep one's options open," a component of its meaning.

    Thanks again to all those who responded.

    Bert Peeters

    Dr Bert Peeters - Department of Modern Languages (French) University of Tasmania, GPO Box 252-91, Hobart TAS 7001, Australia Tel.: +61 (0)3 6226 2344 / Fax.: +61 (0)3 6226 7813 E-mail: