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What Does "in the Clear" Mean?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 23, 2024
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The idiomatic expression “in the clear” means a couple of different but related things. People can be said to be “in the clear” when there is nothing stopping them from proceeding unhindered. The phrase is also very common when talking about being blame free.

The first usage is a little more literal. Someone who is no longer encumbered by physical, emotional, or psychological entrapments might use the expression. A worried patient who has undergone a battery of medical tests hopes the doctor will sweep into the room wearing a broad smile and announce, “Don’t worry, you’re in the clear!” Someone less fortunate who has suffered a massive heart attack but recovered due to quick medical intervention is also in the clear, or outside of harm’s reach.

A divorcee who went through months of anguish but is beginning to see how much better off she is can likewise be described using this idiom. In the same way, a graduate student who has passed oral and written exams will feel clear relief because only the thesis or dissertation remains to be done. With everything else out of the way, it’s easier to tackle.

A basketball player who dodges around a forest of waving arms and leaping bodies will spring into the clear to make a winning shot. An opportunity to use the idiom in a very literal way could arise for a mountain climber who has broken free of the tree line and is within eyesight of the mountain’s peak. That climber has almost reached the goal.

The second usage carries the memory of ethical, moral, or even legal fault. When an office employee is accused of wrongful behavior, that person will utter a sigh of relief only when supervisors determine he or she wasn’t at fault and is now in the clear. Individuals who know they have done nothing wrong might tell anyone who listens that the time will come when they are cleared of wrongdoing. Even something as simple as paying a traffic ticket or as painful as paying back taxes will bring the relief of clearing up old accounts.

The expression “in the clear” is often used by news reporters discussing behavior that may have crossed the line from wrong to illegal. A company accused of fraud must be investigated to determine if it is in the clear or up the creek without a paddle. A politician accused of selling his vote will only be cleared by close scrutiny.

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Discussion Comments

By RocketLanch8 — On Oct 25, 2014

I wonder if this idiom was inspired by nature. I'm thinking it may have something to do with walking through a thick forest and then finding yourself in a clearing. All of the hazards and obstacles have disappeared, so you would be "clear" of danger at that point. The article really didn't say where the expression came from, so I'm just speculating here.

I've also heard this expression used when it comes to finances. A person could pay down enough debt to be clear of all financial obligations. I've heard people refer to an unencumbered car title as being "free and clear", meaning there are no liens against it.

By Ruggercat68 — On Oct 24, 2014

I've often heard this expression used when one or two people caught up in a legal matter are later released from prosecution. One person might be "in the clear" because his or her alibi checks out, while another might be in the clear because he or she clearly didn't do anything illegal. The secretary to a suspicious boss might be in the clear because she didn't have prior knowledge of his bad acts.

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