He’s digging his heels in: words and phrases to describe stubborn behaviour

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by Liz Walter

We all know how frustrating it is when someone completely refuses to do something we want them to do or to accept an opinion we are sure is correct. It turns out that English is surprisingly rich in words and phrases to describe this sort of person or behaviour!

The most basic word is stubborn. If we want to make it stronger, we often use the simile as stubborn as a mule. The word obstinate is very similar:

You’ll never get Peter to change his mind. He’s as stubborn as a mule.

We were shocked by her obstinate refusal to compromise.

The adjectives inflexible and intransigent refer to people who refuse to change their mind, often in an unreasonable way. Pigheaded and (in UK English) bloody-minded are even stronger adjectives, implying that their unreasonableness is deliberate:

Her intransigent nature has lost her many friends.

‘Why won’t they let us use the hall?’ ‘No reason. They’re just being bloody-minded.’

Some words convey a degree of admiration for the person’s stubborn behaviour. These include determined, dogged, and tenacious:

She is absolutely determined to become a mechanic.

His success was due to his dogged refusal to give up.

If you want to get a visa, you have to be tenacious.

If you are adamant about something, you are completely sure that your opinion is correct. If you refuse point blank to do something, you make it clear that you will not change your mind, and if you dig your heels in, you become even more stubborn about something:

They were adamant that the vaccine was harmful.

I asked him to take his shoes off and he refused point blank.

The union is digging its heels in and refusing to back the deal.

If you are trying to persuade someone who remains stubborn, you could say it’s like talking to a brick wall, or simply that they won’t/don’t listen (to a word you say). If you are trying in vain to refuse something they want you to do, you might say that they won’t take no for an answer:

Trying to persuade Martin to take on less work is like talking to a brick wall.

I’ve told her she needs to hire a nanny, but she won’t listen.

He’s asked me to give a lecture, and he won’t take no for an answer.

If someone is bent on doing something (often something bad), they are determined to do it, and if they refuse to change their position at all, they won’t budge/move an inch. A strong way of saying that someone is determined to do something whatever the consequences is to say they will do it come hell or high water:

They seem bent on destroying the organization.

They offered us £500 and they wouldn’t budge an inch.

I’ll be in Hong Kong next week, come hell or high water.

I hope this post will help in your determined and tenacious efforts to improve your English vocabulary!

23 thoughts on “He’s digging his heels in: words and phrases to describe stubborn behaviour

      1. Riyas Puthan

        If you don’t mind, what is wrong in your sentence? I couldn’t get it. Apostrophe?

  1. Denis

    Hi Liz. What a wonderful post, as usual! 🙂
    Could you possibly help me with the following sentence?

    ‘I’ve finished this task within a week, which has been nothing less than simply no mean feat.’

    I mean, would it be okay and natural to use the word ‘simply’ in this sentence? I reckon it would, but I would really appreciate your take on that.

    1. Liz Walter

      ‘Simply’ doesn’t sound right there – I’m not sure, but I think we only use it with very simple noun phrases, e.g. ‘a disaster’ and it’s less likely with a longer noun phrase or fixed expression. It’s much more common before adjectives. It also doesn’t sound natural to put ‘nothing less than’ before ‘no mean feat’. It would be more natural to say ‘I finished this task within a week, which was no mean feat’.

  2. Hello, Liz,
    Thank you very much for this interesting excursion into the terms of stubbornness.
    Yes, it’ll definitely help me to differentiate some niceties and features of this words and phrases.

    I’ve got a question, if only I might ask you. Could the term ‘pushy ‘ be a relative to this ‘cluster’ of synonyms for ‘being stubborn? Does it always bear a negative connotation?

    Thank you in advance for taking time out of your busy days.

    Stay safe,
    Irini

    1. Liz Walter

      Hi Irini – You’re right that ‘pushy’ is related to stubbornness because it means that you are very determined to get what you want, even though other people may find you greedy, arrogant or annoying. And yes, it’s definitely a negative word.

  3. BEZANT

    Hi, Liz!
    Lately it seemed to me, that good English the ajective “stiff-necked” has been lasting and popular.
    What would You say on that?
    Thank You sinserely.

    1. Liz Walter

      Thanks – that’s certainly a possible ‘stubborn’ word. However, I wouldn’t say it’s very common.

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