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Use a Sledgehammer to Crack a Nut

FILE - Two women use sledgehammers to destroy a TV in a rage room at Smash RX LLC in Westlake Village, Calif., Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. After a year in COVID-19 isolation, some people just want to grab a sledgehammer and smash everything in sight. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Use a Sledgehammer to Crack a Nut
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And now, Words and Their Stories, from VOA Learning English.

There are many kinds of nuts. There are walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, and pistachios – just to name a few.

Nuts are good for you. And they come in their own very hard shell. So, let’s say you want to eat a walnut but do not have a nutcracker. (A "nutcracker" is a tool to open, or crack, the hard shell of a nut.)

Without a nutcracker, you might try to open it with something like a hammer or even a sledgehammer.

A powerful hammer hammers a nail into a wooden board.
A powerful hammer hammers a nail into a wooden board.

We use a hammer in building jobs to attach pieces of wood with nails. And we use a sledgehammer to break up rocks, tear down walls, or destroy things. A sledgehammer is so big and heavy that most people need to use both hands to raise it.

So, if you use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, you will probably destroy the nut inside. Then you will have nothing to eat but very small pieces of nut mixed with its hard shell. Not good.

In American English, this expression means someone uses more force than is necessary. We also use it to describe problem-solving methods that are extreme. The methods are excessive. And in using such over-the-top, or extreme, measures, you can harm your own cause.

For example, a store owner called the police to report a “violent person” who was threatening employees and holding him hostage. When the 20 police officers arrived to the store, the “violent person” turned out to be an 80-year-old woman who was unhappy about a purchase and refused to leave.

The police captain probably would have said something like this: “Her? I brought 20 police officers for her? That’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut!” And the store owner would possibly be fined for calling in a false report.

Sometimes we use this expression to describe a punishment that is over-the-top or does not fit the severity of the crime.

Let’s say a child disobeyed his parents and ate ice cream before a meal. The father punished his child by taking away his food for three days! That is definitely using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. In other words, the punishment does not fit the crime.

Sometimes this expression means the solution to a small problem is overly complex.

For example, once at a bookstore, too many people showed up for an event. They had to wait in long lines and some could not get into the store to speak with the writer. So, now the bookstore asks people who come to events to sign three forms saying they understand they may have to wait and may not get in. Talk about using a hammer to crack a nut.

Please note. When using this expression, we sometimes say “hammer” instead of “sledgehammer.” A hammer may be smaller, but the damage is still the same.

And that’s all the time we have for this Words and Their Stories. Until next time … I’m Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

crack – v. to break or cause to break with a sudden sharp sound

excessive – adj. more than what is usual, proper, necessary, or normal

over-the-top – adj. extremely or excessively flamboyant or outrageous