English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top
  1. In a word, you are wrong!

  2. In a sentence, you are wrong!

Which is more natural?

I feel "in a word" is more common than "in a sentence", but "you are wrong!" consists of three words rather than "a word"; so it seems "in a sentence" is more correct.

Am I right?

share|improve this question
up vote 3 down vote accepted

In a word is an idiom. It means, roughly, "As a short, pithy, description, I will say...". Idioms are not expected to be literal, especially since most of them are metaphors.

In a sentence, however, is just an ordinary prepositional phrase, is not an idiom, and has no special or metaphorical meaning, and thus must be interpreted literally. So it has no particular reason to appear in this sentence, since You are wrong! -- like practically every other utterance -- is already, and obviously, in a sentence. In a sentence, what else is new?

share|improve this answer
Yes - one is reminded of the recurring 'Police Squad' scenes where Frank Drebin eventually bows to the inevitable and goes to ask shoe-shine Johnny what the word on the street is. For the usual fee, Drebin is usually told motive, means, method, where to apprehend the criminal, how to play it ... by Johnny (the World's other consulting detective?) – Edwin Ashworth Feb 4 '13 at 19:41

In a word, neither!

But really, I've never seen the latter used. The former is used sometimes, but it seems for your purposes "In short, you are wrong!" is a good substitution.

share|improve this answer
So you mean there should follow only one word after "in a word", right? – yaobin Aug 15 '13 at 15:22

Yes, neither are used by native speakers of English, as far as I know. Plus, we would soften the statement by saying, "Actually, I think perhaps you are wrong." or "The truth is, I'm afraid you are wrong."

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.