Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Does the phrase "to err on the side of ...," specifically "err on the side of caution," indicate that it is wrong to be "on the side of," the object? "Err" makes me think of "error," and is such the word in question in the phrase. Additionally, is this phrase considered an idiom?

share|improve this question
    
A slightly different phrase with a slightly different meaning is, "The lesser of two evils." This much more strongly implies that neither of two available options are "good" but rather that one is more preferable than the other. –  MrHen Mar 24 '11 at 18:22
add comment

5 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

In the phrase “to err on the side of…”, the meaning of err is closer to that of the Old French errer, which is “to stray”. The image implied is that, if you can't for sure walk on the right line, you might want to err on one particular side rather than the other.

So, just to make sure I answer your actual question: no, “to err on the side of…” does not indicate wrongdoing.

share|improve this answer
    
Very interesting info, thanks. –  Albus Dumbledore Mar 24 '11 at 15:25
3  
@Albus: aren't you supposed to be dead? –  F'x Mar 24 '11 at 15:38
4  
Yes, I am indeed dead. But, Harry can write my messages for me while I dictate from my portrait at Hogwarts. There's even Wi-Fi there nowadays :-D –  Albus Dumbledore Mar 24 '11 at 15:50
    
@F'x: I must disagree. The phrase "...to err on the side of..." is roughly equivalent to "...to be on the safe side of...". Thus, IMO in this case "err" is not used as if it was derived from errer; rather, it's used to indicate a preference for a safe position. YMMV. –  Bob Jarvis Mar 24 '11 at 17:10
2  
I think that both meanings are applicable. Both the English word err and Old French errer ultimately derive from Latin errare, which means both to wander/stray or make a mistake. –  Yozomiri Mar 24 '11 at 17:39
show 1 more comment

"To err on the side of caution" means that if you are wrong you will at least be wrong in a cautious way. Let's say you have some chicken in your fridge. You're not sure if it's edible or not because you don't recall how long it's been there. Even though you are hungry and want to eat it, you throw it out to avoid any chance of food poisoning. Then your wife/husband/roommate gets home and says "I just bought that chicken today!". Well, you erred in throwing it out, but it was through caution.

Basically it means to act conservatively even if your actions are more conservative than they need to be.

share|improve this answer
    
It doesn't actually matter if you erred in the end. It's about potential results: if throwing away the chicken is an error then you're out some money and convenvenience; if it's an error to eat the chicken then you get sick. –  Monica Cellio Aug 20 '12 at 15:33
    
@MonicaCellio: If you didn't err in the end then you didn't err at all. But erring on the side of caution means you err where it hurts the least, if it is an error. Throwing out good chicken is an error, but a cautious one. Throwing out bad chicken is simply right. Eating good chicken is right. But if you don't know it's good, you act cautiously, and potentially err. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 20 '12 at 17:12
add comment

No, it just means that in a situation involving an unclear distinction between what may be right and what may be wrong, the speaker is going to try to choose a course that is closer to the right side.

It's like when surgeons cut out tumors. They cut out healthy tissue as well to leave clean "margins" — erring on the side of clean, in that case.

share|improve this answer
add comment

No, the phrase is used to describe where the margin of error is placed. (Although, that might not be the exact origin of the expression.)

To err on the side of caution is to choose to be as cautious as to be sure to always be cautious enough, so when uncertain, rather be too much cautious than too little.

share|improve this answer
add comment

It is used in a situation where you have to make a choice where the desired outcome is uncertain.

Example: You have to make a decision from data about marketing drug A (95% safe, 70% effective) or drug B (70% safe, 95% effective).

Your goal is to make the most amount of money considering both safety and efficacy. However, in life, nothing is absolutely reliable such as this safety/efficacy data.

Which is more important to make the most money — safety or efficacy? You have to make a decision. Let’s say you decided that safety is more important in making more money so that doctor’s and patients feel more safe about the drug to continue sales. However, this could be a mistake — an error — it may very well be that efficacy is more important in making more money.

By choosing to market drug A based on safety concerns even though it may be an error in terms of revenue, you have just erred on the side of safety.

In other words, let’s say if you had to make a mistake (the choice that leads to making no money) which would you choose?

Keeping in mind that your goal is strictly to make revenue, would you rather choose drug A and make the error of being safe but making no money or choose drug B which is effective but not as safe and make no money?

If you’re not a greedy bastard you probably erred on the side of safety and chose Drug A.

share|improve this answer
2  
This would be a reasonable answer except for lots of typos, mistakes, and informal writing. If you clean this up a bit it might be up-votable. –  Mitch Jan 25 '12 at 1:53
    
This is no longer a bad answer, but it's still incorrect, because it doesn't deal with erring at all. To err on the side of safety* in this situation would be not to market either drug: people will still suffer because of your decision, but you choose the course that keeps people safe (but uncured) rather than the one that cures them (at risk of side-effects) –  TimLymington Nov 2 '12 at 22:02
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

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.