It serves you right! Talking about people who deserve bad things.

funny picture of two children holding their father hostage, carrying signs saying "more TV" and "no more broccoli"

by Liz Walter

The concept of fairness is an important one to most people – a common complaint of even very young children is, “It’s not fair!”. We enjoy a so-called “Hollywood ending” to a movie, when the good people triumph and the baddies get the punishment they deserve. So it’s not surprising that there are a lot of words and phrases connected with fairness. This blog looks at some of the most common ones.

A very common way of saying that someone deserves the bad thing that has happened to them is to say that it serves them right. You could also say that someone has it coming, gets what’s coming to him/her or simply that he or she deserves everything he/she gets:

It serves you right. You shouldn’t have been so rude.

“Did you hear that Luke hit Kieran?” “Well, he had it coming.”

I heard that Laura lost her job. Well, she got what was coming to her in my opinion.

She’s so unpleasant, she deserves everything she gets.

In slightly more formal language, we might say that someone gets their comeuppance or gets their just deserts. To show that you are particularly pleased that something bad has happened to someone you believe deserves it, you could describe what has happened as poetic justice.

He got his comeuppance for years of bad behaviour.

The play is about an abusive father who gets his just deserts.

It would be poetic justice if she lost her own home.

If someone behaves in a way that is likely to lead to trouble, we might say they are courting disaster, tempting fate, or looking/asking for trouble:

You are courting disaster if you ignore the regulations.

It may be tempting fate to rely on future profits.

He’s asking for trouble if he goes near that gang again.

There are several phrases that really emphasize the moral idea that if you behave badly, bad things will happen to you. In some religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, karma is the idea that the way you behave decides what happens to you in the future. To express the same idea, you can say what goes around comes around or you reap what you sow:

“He said he didn’t need to study, then he failed his exam.” “Oh, that’s karma!”

I’m not surprised his friends abandoned him. What goes around comes around.

None of her family would help her, but you reap what you sow.

Of course, there are also occasions when people don’t deserve what happens to them, often when they are made to take the blame for other people. We often call such a person a scapegoat. If they are punished, we might call them a whipping boy (the female form is extremely rare):

It’s not fair to make her the scapegoat for the banking system.

He had become a convenient whipping boy for people opposed to road building.

Do add a comment if you have any interesting phrases for fairness in your own language!

18 thoughts on “It serves you right! Talking about people who deserve bad things.

  1. Hi, I’ve always been a huge fan of u guys English blogs, they’re so educative! The blogs have really helped to improve my English drastically. Can’t wait 4 d next blog! Keep up with the good work! ☺

  2. Many thanks for this post! We have the same phrase with “sow” and “reap” in Turkish. I also really like this version in the Cambridge English Dictionary: “as ye sow, so shall ye reap” 🙂

  3. Elena Usova

    Dear Liz,
    It is a great pleasure to follow your thoughts, so deep to think over and over again, so light to enjoy reading and rereading.
    Thank you,
    Look forward to your next linguistic discoveries.

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