And now, Words and Their Stories, from VOA Learning English.
On this program we explore words and expressions in the English language. We give you examples and sometimes notes on usage.
Today we talk about expressions related to keeping on time. To help us plan our time, we use tools — namely clocks and watches.
If something happens at the exact same time every day it is predictable. When an event is very regular, we can say we could “set our watch by it.”
And that is our first expression – to set your watch by something.
You might hear someone using it like this:
Regina leaves her house to go to work every weekday at exactly 7a.m — never a minute earlier or later. You can set your watch by it.
In this example, you could say that Regina is a “creature of habit.” This means she sticks to her plan no matter what happens. And that is why you can set your watch by her.
This expression can also describe someone who is always on time. They are reliable and punctual – like in this example.
A: John said he’d be here at 3 p.m. and it’s 2:45 p.m. If he’s late, we’ll miss our train!
B: Don’t worry. If John said he will be here, then he will be here. He’s always right on time. You could set your watch by him.
Now, let’s talk about clocks: devices that tell time.
Some events or activities happen easily and on time. And some systems operate without a problem. If everything is going as planned, we can say it is “running like clockwork.”
Clockwork is a system of wheels and springs inside mechanical clocks. The term means something that is carefully made which runs smoothly and on time.
Once, I ran a two-week teacher training class. It took a lot of work to organize and had “many moving parts,” or things that needed to be done. But I’m happy to say that the training ran like clockwork!
Here is another way to say that: The training went off “without a hitch.” Here, “hitch” is a problem.
To run like clockwork means to operate with extreme regularity. Some word experts say that using a clock mechanism to describe other areas of our lives dates from at least the late seventeenth century.
Now, listen to this example:
For a big company event, we rented a conference room in a big hotel. But we only had the space until 3 p.m. And we had a lot of issues to cover. Luckily, the event ran like clockwork. We got all our work done and still had time left over to have a little fun!
The expression “run like clockwork” can also mean to operate, manage, control, or direct something in a very smooth, efficient, reliable manner. Used this way, a noun or pronoun is used between "run" and "like clockwork."
Here are some examples:
When the new manager took over, he wanted to run the office like clockwork. So, he made the workers take lunch at set times every day.
When I lived in Seattle, I ran a children’s theater festival like clockwork. All the performances were on time and everyone had a blast!
Years ago in Washington, DC, I ran a children's summer camp like clockwork. All the activities were on time, and all the children had a blast.
And that’s all the time we have for Words and Their Stories. But we’ll be back at the same time next week because this show runs like clockwork. You can set your clock by it!
Until next time … I’m Anna Matteo.
Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
habit –n. a usual way of behaving; something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way
reliable –adj. able to be trusted to do or provide what is needed
punctual –adj. doing something at the expected time
efficient –adj. able to produce desired results without wasting materials, time, or energy
blast –n. (informal) a good time
We want to hear from you!
Do you have a similar expressions in your language? In the Comments section, you can also practice using any of the expressions from the story.
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