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What Does "Better Safe than Sorry" Mean?

A. Leverkuhn
A. Leverkuhn

The phrase, “better safe than sorry,” is an idiom in the English language that has a relatively concrete and literal meaning. When someone uses this phrase, they are most often pointing out that it’s better take precautions, even if they are inconvenient or costly, than it is to save money or time and risk a negative situation later. The idea of protection against possible hazards or dangers has become shortened to this four word phrase, which has become a kind of “saying” in English-speaking societies.

In terms of its grammar, “better safe than sorry” is a shortened form of the statement: “it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.” This is an example of a comparative statement. A comparative statement compares to items or ideas. In this case, the idea of taking time to be safe is contrasted to the idea of regretting a lack of safety precautions after an accident.

An idiom is a turn of phrase that doesn't make sense when literally translated.
An idiom is a turn of phrase that doesn't make sense when literally translated.

The use of this idiom in the English language also relates to some other grammatical issues. One of them is the use of the word “than” as opposed to the word “then.” Language experts often refer to this pair of words as an example of homophones, where two words are spelled differently, but pronounced the same way. This leads to some confusion over the use of each word: where the word “than” is used for comparative or superlative sentences, the word “then” is used for many references to a chronological order.

Word historians have traced the use of “better safe than sorry” back to some eighteenth century writers in the U.K. Since then, it has become a familiar part of the language, something that some people would consider a platitude. A similar example would be the phrase “haste makes waste,” where the speaker is just pointing out that hurrying can cause expensive mistakes, using a shortened version of an entire sentence to express this thought.

In the modern context, the phrase “better safe than sorry” often expresses a combined kind of liability. With so many legal standards and safeguards in place to protect citizens of developed governments, a business or other party has many innate responsibilities to take safety precautions. Those who are giving advice with this phrase are usually referring to both the danger of a physical accident and harm, and the more abstract danger of legal and financial liability.

Discussion Comments


@Phaedrus, I think it's just an idiomatic phrase most of us use without thinking too much about it. My wife will take a sweater to work and I'll say "better safe than sorry". I'm not really concerned about a major temperature drop, I'm just glad she has something warmer to wear.


While I agree with the sentiment behind "better safe than sorry", I also think it can be taken too literally. There are times in life when taking at least a calculated risk can be preferable to being overly cautious. Carrying an umbrella on a partly cloudy day makes sense, because you wouldn't want to be caught in the rain without one. But remaining in a dead end job instead of taking a risk on a job interview doesn't always make sense.

I think the saying works best when a person takes reasonable precautions in case things take a turn for the worse. I don't believe it should be used to justify living a sheltered existence devoid of any risk taking at all.

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    • An idiom is a turn of phrase that doesn't make sense when literally translated.
      By: Sebastian Crocker
      An idiom is a turn of phrase that doesn't make sense when literally translated.