Painstaking work and uphill battles (Words and phrases relating to effort)

John Lund/Blend Images/Getty

by Kate Woodford

We recently shared a post on words meaning ‘difficult’. This week we look at a related area of the language – words and phrases that we use to describe tasks and activities that require a lot of effort.

Let’s start with expressions that we use for activities that require mainly physical effort. A strenuous activity requires the body to work hard: He was advised not to do strenuous exercise for a few days.

The adjective arduous usually describes things such as journeys and climbs that are hard and need a lot of effort: It was an arduous climb to get to the top.

Gruelling UK/grueling US is similar, but emphasizes that a difficult and tiring activity continues over a long period, requiring determination as well as effort: Junior doctors often have to work a gruelling 80-hour week.

The word punishing is also used of tiring activities that continue for long periods. It suggests that the activity is so tiring, it is almost damaging to the person. It is often used before the noun ‘schedule’: The team currently faces a punishing schedule of eight games in twenty days.

Work that is backbreaking is physically very hard, often causing pain to the back itself: Digging the vegetable garden was backbreaking work.

Of course, not all effort is physical. Tasks can require you to work hard in other ways. For example, a job that is painstaking needs a long period of concentration, requiring great care over small details: It took months of painstaking research to write the book.

A laborious task needs a lot of work that is boring or repetitive: We then began the laborious task of logging the data. An onerous task, meanwhile, involves great effort and responsibility. This is a formal word: She found her duties onerous./ the onerous task of finding a peaceful solution

If something that you have achieved is hard-won, it is the result of a great deal of hard work and effort: hard-won success/wealth Similarly, a hard-fought battle or victory involves great effort and determination: Eventually, they won but it was a hard-fought victory.

You might describe a task as an uphill battle or uphill struggle when it will require so much effort, you are not confident that it is even possible: It’ll be an uphill battle to get these proposals accepted.

Finally, a task that (informal) takes some doing requires a lot of effort: We could plant the whole of this area but it would take some doing. 

20 thoughts on “Painstaking work and uphill battles (Words and phrases relating to effort)

  1. FHK

    Finding peaceful solutions to the thorny issues of free and fair polls is an onerous task. However, months of painstaking discussions and negotiations between the arch-rival parties have made this uphill battle come to fruition. Now, it’d be downhill all the way to retain the country’s hard-won democracy that was achieved through hard-fought war of independence for a grueling nine-months. Thank you for the post.

  2. Maryem Salama

    My selected word of this wonderful blog is backbreaking. It seems the very word that describes what really happens after a physical hard work. By the way, I read an article written by a friend of mine describe the long complicated process that our mothers intentionally chose in preparing and cooking our traditional meals and sweets as if they insisted on making us, their granddaughters, inherit the most difficult way in cooking. Backbreaking! Isn’t it?

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Maryem, yes, it’s a nice easy one to remember for that reason. I expect a lot of other languages have the same word. Best wishes from Cambridge.

  3. Mari

    Hi Kate, I can see that you have carried out some painstaking researh on words and phrases relating to effort, good job. Now, I have to accomplish the laborious task of writing them down on my vocabulary book and then practice them. Learning English vocabulary no doubt takes a lot of doing as this language has tons of adjetives, nouns and the list goes on and on. Thanks a lot for making this process easier.

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