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I was drawn to the phrase, ‘on a tear’ that I heard in audio in this week’s Barron’s magazine (June 6) reporting the good sales and profit performance of U.S. sneaker chain, Foot Locker:

It says:

Foot Locker is proving that expansion isn’t everything. The sneaker chain’s sales per square foot have been on a tear even as the company’s store count shrinks. That‘s done wonders for Foot Locker’s profit margins and stock price.

As I’m unfamiliar with the idiom, ‘on a tear,’ I consulted English dictionaries in both print and online.

None of Cambridge, Oxford, Merriam-Webster English dictionaries and Oxford American Dictionary carries ‘on a tear’ as an idiom. I suspected it could be “in a tier,” but it doesn’t add up in the context.

However, I found ‘on a tear’ in Collins English Dictionary and urban dictionary.

Collins defines ‘on a tear’ as;

(slang) showing a sudden burst of energy. ex. Final domestic demand, then, was in a tear now plug in foreign trade, an important matter for Canada.

urban dictionary defines it as;

on a streak or series, usually a winning streak. Will sometimes be used semi-sarcastically to define a losing streak. ex. The market went up 14% in the least four weeks. The market is on a tear! –

And, Google Ngram shows that the usages of both ‘on a tear’ and ‘in a tear’ have been observed since early before 1840. The incidences of ‘on a tear’ is on rise from 0.000001 in 1970 to 0.0000025 after 2000 and onward, but incidences of 'in a tear' have been flattened out at the low level of 0.0000012 - 0.0000016 throughout the tracked period.

Now here are my questions:

  1. What is the plain and exact meaning of ‘on (in) a tear’ in the context of the above quote?
  2. Is ‘on (in) a tear’ a popular idiom?
  3. Why none of major English dictionaries such as CED, OED, OALED, MWED accommodates this phrase as an idiom in spite of a long presence of the phrase as shown in Google NGram?


The Barrons’ magazine seems to be fond of using "on a tear." It repeated this phrase again in its June 19 news-report (through AFN radio broadcast) reporting a marked improvement of U.S.'s largest closeout chain, Big Lots’ sales performance. It says;

(the chain’s) Sales growth in Canada is on a tear. Any signs of the progress will likely allure investors back to Big Lots.

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I'm familiar with on, but in looks new to me. Then again, this happens to prepositions from time to time. – J.R. Jun 13 '13 at 9:24
Note that basically all the older (19th-century) hits for on a tear refer to the Complete Works of Lord Byron where a poem (I presume?) named On a Tear by someone called Mr. Rogers is mentioned. This could well be a tear /tir/ rather than a tear /tɛr/. There are probably other false hits too, like “X is located on a tear fault in the Appalachians”, etc. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 11 '14 at 10:01
"On a tear" does indeed appear in Merriam Webster under the definition of "tear" a a noun. – StellaLuna Mar 11 at 15:28
up vote 8 down vote accepted

In a tear (or on a tear) does appear in OED:

3b. A spree (U.S. slang).

1896 Harper's Mag. Apr. 775/2 Got me off on a tear somehow, and by the time I was sober again the money was 'most all gone.


Draft additions 1993

A spree; in Sport, a successful run, a winning streak; esp. in phr. on a tear. U.S. slang.

The quote may be explained as

Foot Locker is proving that expansion isn’t everything. The sneaker chain’s sales per square foot have been rocketing even as the company’s store count shrinks. That’s done wonders for Foot Locker’s profit margins and stock price.

As to your other questions, the answer is that in a tear in that sense is probably not all that common, which is why it's not included in dictionaries. Google Ngrams may be misleading, because a large number of results will be for the lachrymal tear-stained or for a literal tear (=split, rent).

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Illuminating answer. What is the pronunciation of the word "tear" in this idiom? – Irene Jun 13 '13 at 9:15
@Irene: tear here rhymes with air, not ear. – J.R. Jun 13 '13 at 9:17
There's a British English expression "to be on the tear" which is fairly common and means "out to party/get drunk" e.g. "I finished my exams so I'm going out on the tear tonight" – tinyd Jun 13 '13 at 15:48
@J.R., I agree it doesn't rhyme with ear but air isn't quite flat enough. More like tare. Wiktionary shows air and tare both rhyming with -ɛə(r) but I suggest diphthong -eə(r) for tare and this use of tear – jwpat7 Jun 13 '13 at 16:10
@jwpat: There are the tears we get from chopping onions (rhymes with ears) and the tears we get in our notebook paper (rhymes with airs). As you know, there are two ways to pronounce tear; when Irene asked her question, I assumed she was asking which of those two pronunciations were used in the expression on a tear. I was only trying to disambiguate in a straightforward way; I wasn't trying to write a precise pronunciation guide. Regional accents may vary. :^) – J.R. Jun 13 '13 at 18:46

To pull a part, divide by force. The denotation paints the picture of the connotation: one is ripping through an expected obstacle or opponent which can be to the upside or down. Most often, the usage appears to the upside or in a positive direction.

While the usage may seem as slang, it is just an artful use of a well defined word into a term clearly understood by most.

It is not possible to be in a tear.

Not every common, or common sense, use of a word or term is documented as an idiom. If you catch my drift.

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At least in the field of economy, investment and finance, the term: on the tear, is widely used to describe a burst, a quick rise of stock prices, etc. See: For those of you who haven’t noticed, emerging markets have been on a tear.

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There are multiple meanings to this idiom. There is "on a winning streak" which I take to be meant by your quote and also "drunk"/"on a drunken spree", both of which have already been described. However, I have also heard this phrase used to mean something more like "ranting and raving" or "righteously indignant". (I would pronounce "tear" in this usage to rhyme with wear or bear rather than year or fear.)

"On a tear" is the more common formulation, but with this usage, I believe, "in a tear" is sometimes used—I associate "in a tear" with old-fashioned, Southern, or "countrified" American vernacular, while "on a tear" doesn't have that connotation for me.

For example:

"Reed had learned to respect Sylvie Morrisette, even if he did have to walk on eggshells upon occasion. This morning she was flush in the face and looked as if she could spit nails. . . . Her west-Texas drawl was stronger than ever when she was on a tear and she was on a major one this morning. 'Bastard. That's what he is! A card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool, fucking bastard.'" —Unspoken by Lisa Jackson


"' . . . I'm not going to write twentieth-century drivel. What do you want? Another rerun of "Ozzie and Harriet" or "Leave it to Beaver"?' She was on a tear. 'Earth to Maynard, turn off the TV. "Cheers" is dated bullshit. . . .'" —Women of Harvard Square by Michael Lieberman

For "in a tear":

"First she was complainin' about how William Allers was gonna marry Alice Hagginbotham, after Chloe thought he'd been courtin' her for the past few months. Well, she was in a tear." —Letters from the Trail by Emily Winters (note that it is clear from the larger context that this does not mean Chloe was crying)


"'I have a bit of a headache, that's all. Mama was in a tear this morning.' That explained everything. Mama in a tear was worse than a barrel of ale for making your head ache." —Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner


"'Morons!' Terry was in a tear. Her outburst surprised me. She was taking this almost as personally as I was." —Lost and Found by Mary Lou Quinn

Hmm, looking at these examples (not cherry-picked) it appears that "in a tear" is a gendered phrase, used more often by female authors and describing almost exclusively female characters. I find no Google Books results at all for "he was in a tear" and most of the results for "he was on a tear" are using the winning streak or drunken idioms. A search for "was in a tear" turned up only the above three quotes, all by and about women, and "she was on a tear" shows examples of the usage I've described in all of the quotes visible on the first page of results. I wonder if this gendered split in usage holds true in spoken English, as well (I'm female, and this is the first definition that springs to mind for me, not the sports or drinking definitions).

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"On a tear" means doing a lot of something or doing something with unusual intensity or frequency. Also never say "IN a tear." Only ON. IN A TEAR is not colloquial.

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Answers are much better when they actually address the OP's question. He understands (and defined) the idiom. – medica Nov 11 '14 at 8:21

I always believed it was "on a tare" referring to empty trucks (at tare weight) that have delivered their loads and are now barreling down the highway towards home, not struggling with hills and curves, full speed ahead.

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Do you have any reference to support your answer? – Rathony Jun 21 at 12:17

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