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I noticed the phrase “It comes with a hitch” in today’s (October 24) New York Times article, titled “Precious water: Empty fields fill farmers’ pocket,” followed by the lead copy:

“With water increasingly scarce in the West, a new program is allowing some farmers to sell their allotment of it for whatever price they can find, but it comes with a hitch.”

From the context of the sentence, I understand “It comes with a hitch” means “It comes with a problem” or “It faces an obstacle.”

I checked online dictionaries including Oxford, Cambridgie and Merriam-Webster, none of which registers the usage of “(It) comes with a hitch.” as an idiom associated with the word, “hitch.” But I found many examples of “Come with a hitch” being used, for example:

  • Harry's' Trailers Come With a Hitch; Warners Forces Theaters to Run Double the Usual Film Previews. – Washington Post (Nov. 24, 2001)
  • China’s high-speed rail record comes with a hitch. – Smart Planet (July 22)
  • No Child Left Behind waiver comes with a hitch. – USA Today (Sept 26)

Shoud I understand “Comes with a hitch” just as a plain statment, not a fixed or well-used pattern of the words, I mean, an idiom? Is that the reason why no dictionary registers this expression?

If it isn't an idiom, which is a fixed word pattern, can I replace “(It) comes with a hitch” with “(It) comes with a glitch or an "obstacle” or "difficulty," "hardship," whatever to purport the same meaning?

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I wonder if the writer of the 'Harry' headline was aware of the double meaning connecting trailer and hitch. –  Sam Oct 24 '11 at 8:07

4 Answers 4

I consider "comes with a hitch" to be something of a set phrase/idiom, mostly because the word hitch (as a noun meaning obstacle) isn't used much in American English outside of a few specific phrases.

The other common phrase that comes to mind is to go off without a hitch, which is used when a plan is executed perfectly, with no problems or complications.

Hitch is maybe a bit more common as a verb, but there it has a different meaning. You may see it in phrases like hitch a ride and hitch up one's pants.

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+1, also idioms.thefreedictionary.com/hitch –  Unreason Oct 24 '11 at 9:11
@Unreason Ah, nice. So both come with a hitch and go off without a hitch can be understood as uses of the idiom with(out) a hitch. –  onomatomaniak Oct 24 '11 at 9:13
Maybe I'm weird, but I've occasionally used "hitch" as a noun meaning "obstacle". I'm not sure whether I picked it up from others or back-formed it from the two common idiomatic expressions. –  jprete Oct 24 '11 at 12:15
@jprete That's not weird. See definition 5 of hitch: An impediment or a delay: **a hitch in our plans.** –  Hugo Oct 24 '11 at 12:52
I agree, not "weird"; it's a valid word, just used sparingly outside of set contexts. I'd add that a hitch in our plans is another pretty standardized phrase. You wouldn't really say an obstacle in our plans, and you most likely wouldn't say we encountered a hitch along the way. –  onomatomaniak Oct 24 '11 at 12:55

A more common way to say something similar:

...but there's a catch.


...it comes with a catch.

Catch in this sense means a caveat or restriction. I'd interpret hitch in the sense of without a hitch as meaning almost the same thing: a down side to selling water your rights instead of planting.

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Onomatiomaniak gave a nice answer to which I don't have much to add. However let me point out one thing in your question.

There term idiom has strict and relaxed meaning:

noun: an expression whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up
noun: a manner of speaking that is natural to native speakers of a language
noun: the usage or vocabulary that is characteristic of a specific group of people

Now the comment: in the text of your question you are leaning more towards the two relaxed definitions, while in the title you are consistent with the first (in contrasting 'simple statement' with an idiom).

So, under the strict definition it is not an idiom - since the meaning can be inferred by composing together the meanings of the words (as with other 'simple statements'). However, at the same time there are instances where the word is used as a part of a fixed pattern - something which would be natural to native speakers.

EDIT: Finally

it comes with a hitch


it comes with a glitch

do overlap in meaning and can be interchanged (especially if you are talking about a system or a machine).

One of the differences between a hitch, obstacle and glitch, fault or defect in a system or a machine is that faults and defects in systems tend to repeat. Since glitches can be considered obstacles there is an overlap, but in general sense obstacle is any obstruction that stands in the way.

Another note, when I went to look for examples of glitches that are not hitches I searched through ngram results. Here you can see that the dominant idiom is "without a hitch" which is much more common compared to "(comes) with a hitch" (roughly two orders of magnitude and even then there are many examples of literal meaning i.e. not idiomatic). This also supports interchangeability - if the idiom is not common then usually its deviation from principle of compositionality is not so pronounced (i.e. the specific idiomatic meaning is not so far from meaning obtained by combining meaning of its parts).

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I don't know how you make the strict/relaxed distinction. All I can see is different meanings of the word with different usage patterns. –  z7sg Ѫ Oct 24 '11 at 10:41
@z7sgѪ, strict means "contradicting the principle of compositionality"; for you can not understand the idiom "to kick the bucket" if you simply read the dictionary entries for "kick" and "bucket". You need to know the meaning which is attached specifically to the phrase (better dictionaries will list it, but usually not directly under definition of the word, but as idiom which uses the word). Some phrases are in between - "lay one's cards on the table" and "easy as pie" are more transparent and the meaning can be obtained by looking at the metaphor (though some context helps). –  Unreason Oct 24 '11 at 12:04
OK I get your argument and I agree that something like "easy as pie" isn't a strict idiom (1), just as "going without a hitch" isn't either, because the meanings can be inferred though they may not be immediately obvious to a non-native speaker. The other meanings of idiom (2,3) you listed aren't relevant to this issue and I found the reference to them a bit confusing. –  z7sg Ѫ Oct 24 '11 at 12:30
@z7sgѪ, I think they are relevant. Remember 2010? Max: Hey, piece of pie. / Curnow: Cake, piece of Cake. / Max: Easy as cake, yes? Curnow: Pie, easy as pie. These idioms are 'a manner of speaking that is natural to native speakers of a language' and for others they are problematic, even though they are transparent idioms (the problem arises mostly in usage; not in understanding - similarly as with OP). Also, I listed it for completeness. –  Unreason Oct 24 '11 at 12:51

I don't think comes with a hitch is a common idiom at all.

The standard expression is comes with a catch, for which NGrams gives a couple of thousand written instances (but none for hitch).

Ordinarily, a hitch refers to a temporary hold-up interupting the smooth flow of something, as in He spoke without a hitch. You can't substitute catch there, because in the context we're talking about here, a catch means something which [unexpectedly] catches you out. As in Catch-22.

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protected by RegDwigнt Jul 6 '12 at 10:02

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