On the spur of the moment (Words and phrases to describe sudden actions)

Luis Alvarez / DigitalVision / Getty Images

by Kate Woodford

Much of what we do each day is planned or expected but not everything. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we suddenly do things that we are not expecting to do or have not prepared for. This week, we’re looking at the language that we use to express this.

Let’s start with a very useful adjective: spontaneous. A spontaneous action is sudden and done as a natural response to what is happening at the time: The silence was broken by spontaneous applause. / When she got up to leave, everyone applauded spontaneously. The noun from ‘spontaneous’ is spontaneity: We all need a little spontaneity in our lives.

An impromptu event is not planned but happens because it seems right at the time: The singer gave an impromptu performance at a restaurant in Paris last week. Meanwhile, something that is done ad hoc is done only when it is required and is therefore not planned in advance: We deal with problems on an ad hoc basis (=as they happen). ‘Ad hoc’ is also used as an adjective: an ad hoc committee

Moving on to a useful idiom, if you do something on the spur of the moment, you suddenly decide to do it, without planning or thought beforehand: We hadn’t planned to do the trip – we just did it on the spur of the moment. We also use this phrase adjectivally: It was a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Three adjectives which describe slightly different sudden actions are automatic, instinctive and involuntary. These words describe actions that are done without thought or intention, as a natural reaction, for example, to a dangerous situation: As an instinctive response, she covered her eyes. / My automatic response was to pull my hand away. / I didn’t mean to shout – it was involuntary. Similarly, a reflex action is one that you do immediately, without thinking about it: It was a reflex response to hide.

A number of phrases refer to unplanned speech. For example, if someone ad libs, they speak in public without having planned what to say: I ad-libbed my way through the entire speech. The phrase can be used adverbially and adjectivally too: She spoke ad lib for twenty minutes. / an ad-lib speech An off-the-cuff remark is not planned in advance: It was an off-the-cuff remark which he came to regret. This can also be used adverbially: I didn’t have a speech prepared but I said a few words off the cuff.

31 thoughts on “On the spur of the moment (Words and phrases to describe sudden actions)

  1. Mujahed Jadallah

    Thank you for such an organized and informatjve post, Kate. You must have had a little time to plan and prepare it out.

    ‘Cause I don’t have much more time today to think out some appropriate words to praise your work , let me just improvise and say, “That’s great! Keep on!”

  2. How about ‘on a whim’? He changed his job on a whim.

    A word that can be used to express an action that is unplanned and unprepared is ‘extempore’ as in ‘an extempore performance’ when for example in an audition, participants are asked to deliver a performance there and then.

  3. Simonetta

    Can” he was on the brink of losing himself in a bad situation”be categorised as a way to express a sudden action?
    Thank you for all these very helpful in- depth notes !

    1. Kate Woodford

      You’re welcome, Simonetta! Actually, someone who is on the brink of doing something is likely to do it very soon. It’s not so much about a sudden action – more about something that might very well happen soon. I hope that helps! Best wishes.

  4. F Hossain

    Important and informative piece. You never make a mistake to strike the right chord when it comes to the selection of topics to teach us. Thank you.

  5. luis fernando pinzon

    thank you i just dont have clear about ad hoc usage. im a english learner it seems a little bit complex words.

    Anyway thank you miss

    1. Sebi

      Ad hoc is a Latin phrase which has been borrowed in English and, of course, some Romanic languages.
      That’s why it probably sounds different from the other English words.

  6. Kale

    Thanks for writing this article, Kate! It’s great.
    I guess some words will just go straight over my head haha, but it’s interesting to see that English has so many words with basically the same meaning 😀
    By the way, can “a knee-jerk reaction” also be included in the list? Thanks in advance 🙂

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Kale! Yes, I guess it could – thanks.It has a negative meaning, suggesting that a person has responded without careful consideration or analysis. A nice addition!

  7. jun

    Happy to have new words to use for the lesson this week. Thanks Ms Kate for this post. Its profitable in the least really.

  8. Dubi Luxman

    In Hebrew “Flank shooting/firing” means reacting immediately without thinking (usually verbal reaction). I believe this expression stems from the wild west era where duals were common and the highly skilled gunmen were capable of shooting the gun from the flank without bothering to aim.

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