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What does It Mean to "Take No Prisoners"?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Although the phrase “take no prisoners” sounds merciful on its surface, it usually refers to taking an overly aggressive stance in a particular situation. It usually implies that someone lacks mercy, but its broad range of applications does not always translate to being merciless. The likely origin of the phrase is as a command in combat, which implies that opposing forces would be killed rather than spared and taken into custody.

To “take no prisoners” would not be a common military command in modern times. Killing wounded soldiers or soldiers who have surrendered are considered to be international war crimes. Fighting so that there are none left to surrender or so that people are killed rather than wounded, however, would be a style of warfare that is not technically illegal.

A similar expression is the British military term of “giving no quarter.” This also can be translated as being aggressive in combat. The term "quarter" essentially refers to living arrangements for prisoners. Thus, giving no quarter can be construed that have the same meaning as taking no prisoners.

In modern usage, one might see “take no prisoners” applied to a person’s approach to politics or athletics, styles of written and visual arts or speaking abilities. It also might reflect on a person’s parenting abilities or other styles of living. For example, the phrase could be used for a book that includes extremely graphic violence and is written in a style that does not spare the reader any details. A parent who punishes all children for the misbehavior of one child or punishes children for minor transgressions might be adopting a “take no prisoners” approach. A politician who delivers an aggressive and vindictive speech against an opposing party might be considered to have this type of attitude.

This style often implies viewing the world in limited terms because there is no dimension in which mercy can be dealt. Instead, there is merely forward, active aggression from which no one is spared. Mitigating circumstances of injury or surrender — or their equivalents in non-military settings — do not exist in this mind-set.

Aggressive or decisive action is not always negative, however. A person who relentlessly pursues a goal and is not distracted by difficulties along the way may be quite successful. A student who combats health issues or lack of money and is able to get a degree may have done so in an aggressive way, but with positive results. Sometimes an objective requires unilateral focus in order to be achieved.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By DylanB — On Feb 18, 2013

I think that politicians who take no prisoners get so much more done than those who try to please certain people or groups to get the vote or keep their offices. I'm always happiest when we have a president in office who shows no mercy toward stupid ideas or policies and implements some that seem a bit rigid but get the job done.

It's been awhile since we've had a president like that. I hope for our country's sake that we will have another one someday soon.

By Oceana — On Feb 18, 2013

I remember when our class valedictorian gave a “take no prisoners” style speech. He offended several people, but he did have very valid points that could not have been made if he danced around the subject. I admired him for his truthfulness and aggressiveness.

By seag47 — On Feb 17, 2013

@healthy4life - I don't think that children should ever be punished collectively. I was the older sister, and my parents used to take no prisoners, so I got punished for things I had nothing to do with.

They told me that it was because I was the oldest and I should have been able to stop my sisters or should have been a better example for them. This was totally unfair, because I didn't even know what they were scheming!

I think that maybe “taking prisoners” in this instance could be watching everyone closely until they are able to determine who is at fault. It would sort of be like probation.

By healthy4life — On Feb 16, 2013

@burcidi – I agree that bosses shouldn't use this approach. I've been in situations where the entire department got punished for one man's crime, and this was really bad for morale. It even prompted some of us to leave the company.

The only time I think it is appropriate for parents to take no prisoners is when there's no way to pin down exactly which child committed the crime. It is possible that all were involved, so punishing them collectively is sometimes the way to go.

By SteamLouis — On Feb 16, 2013

@SarahGen-- It might be. This phrase goes back a long time and different versions of it were probably used in different cultures during different wars.

I know that Germans and the British used to make such proclamations before fighting. The Huns who were known for their ruthlessness in war are also said to have used a similar phrase.

It's not possible to track down the very origin for this reason. It was a very common phrase throughout history.

By SarahGen — On Feb 15, 2013

Is it true that the phrase "we take no prisoners" goes back to the Old Testament?

By burcidi — On Feb 15, 2013

It's interesting how this phrase has ended up taking on an almost positive meaning. I still very much associate with warfare. I think that being tough in war is a good thing because that's what's required in war.

But I don't understand it when people take this type of approach in other situations, like at work, or as a parent.

I think that parents should definitely take prisoners when parenting their children. When those we are dealing with are in need of understanding and mercy, we shouldn't be so tough on them.

By anon298291 — On Oct 19, 2012

'Takes no prisoners' -- one who is consistent, direct and painfully honest!

By anon192369 — On Jul 01, 2011

Oh gosh, I googled the this phrase to look it up in the web, and here I am. I read it through and through. I am taking no prisoners. It was well explained. I thank you.

By comfyshoes — On Jul 29, 2010

Anon29707- I agree with you. This is a terrific article. I also wanted to add that President Ronald Regan had a take no prisoner approach when combating communism.

As a result, the Berlin wall came down and the Soviet Union broke up into individual nations that developed a market based economy synonymous with capitalism.

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was due to a relentless take no prisoner approach that President Reagan exhibited.

By anon29707 — On Apr 07, 2009

This site Takes no prisoners on wisdom.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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