About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog

You could hear a pin drop: more interesting ways of saying ‘quiet’

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by Liz Walter

Quiet is a word that English students learn early in their studies. Today we are going to look at some more specific and subtle ways of talking about quietness and silence.

Something or someone that is silent makes no noise at all. We sometimes say that people do things in silence, while the collocation deathly silence is used when the lack of noise is ominous:

The streets were silent at that time of night.

You must sit here in silence.

When he finished speaking, there was a deathly silence in the room.

Possibly the most famous oxymoron of all – a deafening silence – is used to describe a situation where you might expect a response and it is very noticeable and significant that nobody says anything. We often use the collocation be met with a deafening silence:

Her complaints about bullying were met with a deafening silence.

The slightly formal words soundless and noiseless (and their related adverbs soundlessly and noiselessly) describe things that are silent. They are often used for things you would normally expect to make a noise:

They are developing soundless electronic scooters.

She moved quickly and noiselessly through the rooms.

If something is inaudible, people can’t hear it, usually because it is very quiet, unclear or outside the range of human hearing. We often use this word (or the adverb inaudibly) to describe the way someone speaks:

Their dialogue was practically inaudible.

He mumbled inaudibly into his soup.

A soft sound is quiet and pleasant. If a sound is muted, it is not as loud as usual, and if it is muffled, it is not clear, usually because something is covering or blocking it:

We lay there, listening to the soft sound of rain falling.

The muted sound of cow bells drifted across the valley.

We could hear muffled voices in the other room.

If we say that someone is speaking in a low voice, we mean that they are speaking quietly, and if they say something under their breath, they deliberately say it quietly:

‘Meet me later,’ she said in a low voice.

He fiddled with the machine, swearing under his breath.

If someone is as quiet as a mouse, they are very quiet. We use the phrase as quiet/silent as the grave to describe a place that is quiet in a frightening way or a person who never says anything. If you say that you could hear a pin drop, you mean that a place is extremely quiet:

The children were as quiet as mice.

The building was as silent as the grave.

When he sat at the piano, you could hear a pin drop in the hall.

I hope you find these words and phrases useful. Look out for my next post, which will cover the opposite: words and phrases connected with noise and being noisy.