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I recently learned on the brink in context of to teeter on the brink of disaster.

Now, when I want to mention that something is marginal or borderline I remember on the brink.

This question is on the brink of off-topic.

The testimony is on the brink of truth.

Are these acceptable, or does on the brink only refer to negative circumstances?

Note: The latter example works very well in my native language whereas the first one is awkward.

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7 Answers 7

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Your first example is grammatically dubious (off-topic is an adjective, which is uncomfortable in the situation), but on the brink of being off-topic is unexceptionable.

The second example is interesting. I would regard on the brink of as a metaphor rather than an idiom, meaning 'one step more would fall into'. If this is right, on the brink of truth is difficult to understand; you don't stumble into telling the truth. On the brink of falsehood is clear precisely because it is possible to push the truth to the limit, and also possible to go one step too far into actual lying. But it isn't simply 'negative results only', either. Somebody may be on the brink of giving all his money to charity, or indeed on the brink of getting married. My view is that the phrase implies no more than (being close to) a sudden change, but others may see it differently.

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There is no restriction of 'on the brink of' to negative situations. Anything that has a perceived edge or threshold to it would work, for example, 'on the brink of success' - you're almost winning.

For your two examples, 'truth' is pretty clearly recognizable as a sharp concept, but 'off-topic' (an adjective used for a more unwieldy ('off-topicality') or blatant ('irrelevancy') noun for the concept, is a bit blurry edged. Also, 'off-topic' as a noun is somewhat informal; it sounds OK spoken but is pedantically ungrammatical (would work in People magazine but not the NYT) so maybe that's why it doesn't 'work' in your native language.

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if you are on the brink of sth, you are almost in a very "new", "dangerous" or "exciting" situation. In this sense, brink refers to the point beyond which an action, state, or condition is likely to begin or occur. E.g;

Scientists are on the brink of making a major new discovery.

So, as @Schroedingers Cat clearly explained, your examples will not have the sense you mention.

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The meaning of "on the brink of" is fine, but the context needs to be understood. If you say that someone's testimony is "on the brink of truth" you are calling them a liar. Quite politely, but still definitively.

"On the brink of off-topic" doesn't really work because you have two two location ideas in one - the brink, and off topic. It may work in some cases, but not generally. It would work better to simply say "just about on-topic" - not only does this give a clearer meaning, but it doesn't mix images.

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+1, but I'm not sure "on the brink of truth" is actually "quite polite". If anything, I'd describe it as "quite witty", which can often be the opposite of polite: it's on the brink of mockery. :-) –  ruakh Feb 10 '12 at 16:37
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Macmillan defines the brink as

the point in time when something very bad or very good is about to happen

A related word, verge, means

to almost be in a particular state

and so is a better choice for what you are trying to say:

The question verges on being off-topic.

His testimony is on the verge of perjury.

To be on the brink is to be on the edge of something negative, while to be on the verge implies that you're still in bounds; you can look down, but one little push isn't going to send you over the edge.

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If you say in the metaphorical sense "I'm on the brink of A", that implies that you are out of A. Yet.

If you want to say that someone who is hiding the reality could give it out the next moment, it is the situation, "The testimony is on the brink of truth." But it looks you meant something else.

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What does "... you are out of A. Yet." mean? –  jwpat7 Feb 10 '12 at 23:49
    
If you are on the bring of dishonor, you are do not have that dishonor, yet. Instead of "dishonor" you can put practically every state and many other things, too. I think, use of A is much shorter. And for me, more understandable. –  Gangnus Feb 11 '12 at 21:47
    
In English, one says "... out of A, still" or "... not in A, yet", while "... you are out of A. Yet" is not a sensible construction and does not have the meaning you suggest it has. –  jwpat7 Feb 11 '12 at 22:41
    
I am finishing the sentence. And adding a word that I missed in it, to stress it, for a joke. Of course, normally it is a spoken form only, but joking, we could use it in written speech, to, AFAIK. –  Gangnus Feb 11 '12 at 22:53
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I'd say "marginally relevant," "tangentially relevant" and add "at best" if I wanted to push it further. The construct "on the brink of off-topic" is very stilted.

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