Picking holes and taking a dig (The language of criticizing)

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by Kate Woodford

Even the most positive among us now and then say that we think something is bad. Very often we do it for the right reasons, hoping for improvement or even suggesting ways in which something can be improved. Sometimes, we do it because we are angry, upset or jealous. This week we’re looking at the words and idioms in this area, as ever, focusing on current, useful language.

The verb criticize is frequently used, often with the collocating preposition ‘for’: The government has been criticized for failing to take action. The derived noun ‘criticism’ is often used after the phrasal verb come in for. Someone or something that comes in for criticism is criticized: The manager has come in for criticism following his team’s early exit from the tournament.  Two stronger verbs in this area are condemn and denounce. To condemn or denounce a person or thing is to criticize them severely and publicly, usually for moral reasons: The attack has been condemned around the world./The policy was denounced by human rights groups.  We can also say more informally that someone bashes a person, meaning that they criticize them publicly. This often suggests that the criticism is unfair:  It’s just another opportunity to bash the opposition leader. 

A number of idioms exist in this area. One that is frequently heard in an official context is come under fire, meaning ‘to be criticized’: The government has recently come under fire for its failure to address the pay gap between men and women. Related, if someone is (UK) in the firing line/(US) on the firing line, they are in a position where they are likely to be criticized: As their manager, of course, I’m in the firing line.

Other idioms with this meaning are more informal. If someone or something gets or takes flak, they are criticized: I got a lot of flak for posting that comment.  Meanwhile, if someone takes a dig at if someone, they say something that criticizes them, often in a slightly humorous way: I couldn’t resist taking a dig at her. To pick holes in a piece of work is to try to make it seem bad by finding things in it to criticize. This phrase is often used in a negative way: I wanted to offer constructive criticism on the essay and not just pick holes in it.

A slightly informal phrasal verb that is heard a lot nowadays is call out. To call someone out is to criticize them and demand that they explain their actions. You can also call out a particular sort of behaviour: They’ve recently been called out for lying. / Voters are being given false information and this needs to be called out.

Finally, I’ll end with a relevant saying. If someone criticizes other people a lot but is offended when other people criticize them, we may say that they can dish it out but they can’t take it!

12 thoughts on “Picking holes and taking a dig (The language of criticizing)

  1. Briki

    Thank you for teaching us these idioms that improve ouru6 lexical resources related rather to native speaking ..Concerning the phrasal verb call out I understood that it can also be used by Police who call out an alledged suspicious criminal .

  2. Mujahed Jadallah

    Great job, Kate. Thank you very much, indeed. I’ve really found this post especially interesting.

    Did you forget the nice verb phrase “find fault with someone/something?” I love the phrase, and it means “to criticize someone or something, especially without good reasons”. This is why it often shows disapproval.
    (Example: She’s always finding fault with my work.)

    Thank you again.

  3. David Andrus

    In the U S., “poking holes” is much more common than “picking holes,” as in, “The debater set about vigorously poking holes in his opponent’s argument.”

  4. 李佾學

    Amazingly good. I am a person who always argue with others. Recently I found
    that my critizied to others often the same,this not only make me ashamed but also
    bored my rival. This article really help me a lot!

  5. Murli

    I am looking for becsuse my two eyes r not syncorised when i want to ŕead. MY LEFT EYE ŔETINA IS DAMEGED.IS IT ADVISAABLE TO COVER MY LEFT EYE WITH EYE PATCH WHEN I READ.

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