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.

In my native language, we use an idiom to warn someone that they're doing something which has no result at the end:

Trying to convince him is like squashing water ...

Is there any idiom in English with the same meaning?

share|improve this question
10  
I would note that most English speakers will likely understand your translated "squashing water" comment - as a matter of fact, I am going to try to remember that, that's great! –  KennyPeanuts Apr 13 '12 at 10:08
16  
Raising teenagers has been described as nailing Jell-o to a tree. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Apr 13 '12 at 12:47
4  
In mine, it's carrying water to sea. –  reinierpost Apr 13 '12 at 13:05
6  
Rather than finding an idiom to substitute, you could just say "pointless". –  Steven Rumbalski Apr 13 '12 at 17:53
2  
One of my favourites is pissing into the wind, though this can carry the further implication that trying to achieve the task could actually result in you making things worse for yourself. –  Graham Snyder Apr 13 '12 at 20:00

22 Answers 22

up vote 26 down vote accepted

There are a few idioms like that. One is:

You're just beating your head against the wall.

another is

Like trying to squeeze blood from a turnip.

and another is:

It's like trying to herd cats.

They each are used is slightly different situations. To be most analogous to your expression it sounds like I'd use the first one: Trying to convince him is like beating your head against the wall

share|improve this answer
24  
I'm (UK) more familiar with blood from a stone, rather than turnip. –  Wudang Apr 13 '12 at 10:53
9  
Just FYI, another British English difference: in the UK the first one is nearly always phrased "...against a brick wall", not "...against the wall". In my experience. –  callum Apr 13 '12 at 12:07
3  
+1 for herding cats –  user14070 Apr 13 '12 at 13:17
8  
For me, "herding cats" implies that it's difficult or exasperating, but lacks an element of pointlessness. I sometimes describe setting up meetings with busy colleagues as "trying to herd cats", but I do want to meet with them--it's just hard to get all of them to agree on a time and place. –  Matt Krause Apr 13 '12 at 15:35
5  
If you're referring specifically to talking/convincing a person, another common idiom is like talking to a brick wall. –  ajk Apr 13 '12 at 16:46

Sisyphean labor. "Sisyphean" means endless and unavailing, as labor or a task. Comes from Greek mythology, Sisyphus was made to roll a giant boulder up a mountain as punishment by the gods, but the boulder would always roll down before he could get it to the top, forcing him to begin the pointless exercise anew.

share|improve this answer
5  
I LOVE Greek and Roman mythology. They had some cruel punishments in Hades. My favorite was Tantalus who was placed in water up to his neck but if he tried to drink, it would drain away. And there was delicious food floating around his head that would fly out of reach if he tried to grab it. It's where we get Tantalize from. –  Mike Brown Apr 13 '12 at 14:43
    
@MikeBrown nice, I didn't know that! –  kotekzot Apr 13 '12 at 15:35
    
Great, great word! –  Ste Jul 30 '12 at 23:01
    
This is an international idiom. It also exists in Russian. –  Anixx Jul 31 '12 at 1:27

There are very many idioms that you could use for a Sisyphean task. Take your pick.

  • I think the most generally applicable would be "pushing water uphill with a rake".

  • If you want to say that you're doing the right thing, but you're doing it too late to have any effect, you'd say "shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted". This is sometimes known as "stable door shutting" for short.

  • If you want to say that there are too many unpredictable factors to make your task possible, you'd talk about "herding cats".

  • If you want to say that you're trying unsuccessfully to get someone to do something or give you something, this is "trying to get blood out of a stone".

Plus all the other excellent suggestions in the other answers here.

share|improve this answer

To add to the other good examples:

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

This is my goto for these situations because I think it really creates a nice visual of futility.

share|improve this answer
3  
It does but it also conveys a vision of impending catastrophe which does not appear relevant. Still a nice image though. –  Wudang Apr 13 '12 at 10:46
    
@Wudang interesting point. When I have used this, I never really thought about the sinking as a pending catastrophe but rather just a very significant issue that was being ignored in favor of busying oneself with a futile task. –  KennyPeanuts Apr 13 '12 at 14:19
    
One of my bosses had a saying for that..."killing the fly on the wall instead of removing the shit from the room" but I don't think it quite matches what the OP is asking. +1 anyway because I like the image...especially on the centennial of the sinking. –  Mike Brown Apr 13 '12 at 14:44
    
I've always thought "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" is intended to convey not merely a sense of futility but more specifically of focusing on the mundane in the face of an overwhelming need to focus on something much more pressing. "Fiddling while Rome burns" conveys the same meaning to me. –  Simon Whitaker Apr 13 '12 at 23:01
    
@DQdlM - yes I think I may have overstated it. –  Wudang Apr 14 '12 at 12:56

I would use ... like beating (or flogging) a dead horse
It even has its own wikipedia entry

I would not use Jim's suggestion beating my head against the wall with the word like - so

  • I am banging my head against the wall trying to convince him

  • Trying to convince him is like flogging a dead horse.

are two ways of expressing your problem

If the original is Water naar de zee dragen then it is a Sisyphean task

share|improve this answer
8  
Beating a dead horse has a different meaning. Beating a dead horse means that the topic has been thoroughly covered and there's no more use in going over it any more. I've never used it heard in this context. –  Kevin Apr 13 '12 at 13:31
    
Look at the WP entry: Trying to rouse Parliament from its apathy on the issue, ... would be like trying to flog a dead horse to make it pull a load –  mplungjan Apr 13 '12 at 13:41
1  
Interesting, maybe BE and AE have different but very similar idioms. –  Kevin Apr 13 '12 at 13:49
    
@kevin: I think your interpretation of the idiom is the same. The reason there is no use going over it is that it won't move. –  horatio Apr 13 '12 at 16:05
1  
@horatio - Q:What do you call a dead dog? A:Doesn't matter. He won't answer anyway. –  MT_Head Apr 29 '12 at 18:34

Perhaps:

It's a fool's errand

share|improve this answer
    
Not "fool's errand"? –  moteutsch Apr 29 '12 at 0:35

Depending on context, Pissing in the wind.

share|improve this answer
2  
That implies more of a negative result than no result. –  hammar Apr 13 '12 at 12:13
    
Good phrase, but it's not quite the same: it means a problematic/precarious task – slightly different from a pointless exercise like squashing water, which doesn't achieve anything. You might end up covered in piss, but you've still had a piss. –  callum Apr 13 '12 at 12:22
    
In the native language of OP, there is an equivalent idiom: Pissing on a solid ground. –  Meysam Apr 13 '12 at 13:11
1  
Pissing in the wind is not a problem. As long as you do it down wind and not into the wind. –  Peter Ajtai Apr 13 '12 at 20:52

Like trying to carry water in a sieve

Like trying to empty the sea with a thimble

UPDATE

I did a search for "is like trying to convince a" and came up with a lot of really amusing results:

like trying to convince a cat it wants to go swimming.

like trying to convince a cat anything.

like trying to convince a two-year-old that a shot won't hurt.

like trying to convince a five-year-old that vegetables taste like candy.

like trying to convince a pacifist that violence solves everything.

like trying to convince people that "white trash" is derogatory and "redneck" isn't.

like trying to convince a mouse that the cat is her best friend.

like trying to convince a corpse that physical therapy is the only answer to its problem.

like trying to convince a newborn that crying is illogical.

like trying to convince a scientist that the moon is really made of green cheese.

share|improve this answer

I like

trying to push on a rope

to express doing something in a way that is clearly not going to produce the desired results.

share|improve this answer

English is not my native language

However, some time ago I read something like taking coals to Newcastle.

share|improve this answer
    
No, sorry. I see why you read it that way but the main idea is that you're doing something unnecessary because it's superfluous or already done. –  Wudang Apr 14 '12 at 12:58

In the specific case that you are trying to convince to someone who will not listen, you are talking to a brick wall or a blank wall.

share|improve this answer

Spinning your wheels

is what I use. As in a car that's stuck in the mud or a bank of snow.

share|improve this answer

Something that fits and has not yet been mentioned:

It's like swimming in treacle*

*Substitute treacle for your local high-viscosity liquid.

share|improve this answer
    
Treacle (a.k.a. molasses) might be considered low-viscosity compared to honey however, compared to the most abundant liquid, namely water, it's relatively high-viscosity. –  Chris Nov 13 '12 at 5:09
    
@Chris - Absolutely. I've corrected my error. –  Ste Mar 28 '13 at 14:26

pounding sand

Usually used in the context of assigning useless busy work to keep employees busy when there's no real work to do.

share|improve this answer
1  
I see that phrase used a lot more often as a nasty form of 'go away' with implications of doing something stupid/dangerous instead of merely pointless. phrases.org.uk/meanings/go-pound-sand.html –  Dan Neely Apr 13 '12 at 18:58

I always called it a Wild-goose chase

I tried to tell him he was going on a wild-google chase.

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/wild-goose_chase

share|improve this answer

You're on a hiding to nothing trying to convince him.

It means that your possible outcomes range from heavy defeat (a hiding) to nothing, and they exclude even a minor victory. It's not quite as evocative as other idioms, but it's commonly used.

share|improve this answer

There is a very similar idiom in English, treading water, but it doesn't exactly fit into the sentence you've provided. It means working very hard yet achieving nothing.

We've tried to fix it, but it's as if we're treading water.

share|improve this answer
    
I always thought that treading water meant an idle task, as you don't get anywhere. I don't see where your "working very hard" comes from. –  Chris Nov 13 '12 at 5:19

Man I tell you what, I felt like A one legged cat try'in to burry turds on A frozen pond out there.

-Tom Anderson from Beavis and Butthead

share|improve this answer

Shooting at the sun

Shooting at the moon

Killing a Dodo

Racing a Cheetah

share|improve this answer
    
+1 for killing a dodo! I like it! –  J. Walker Aug 5 '12 at 0:02

Barking up the wrong tree

Wikipedia: if you are barking up the wrong tree, it means that you have completely misunderstood something or are totally wrong.

share|improve this answer

There is a plethora of expressions you could use for this, but I've compiled a list of phrases that I've heard which I don't think anyone else has put in their answers. Here are a few of them...

  • spitting in a lake/ocean
  • emptying the ocean
  • digging to China
  • convincing a woman
  • spinning your wheels
  • talking to a wall
  • sweeping a dirt floor
  • spitting in the desert
  • listening to a rock
  • burying a house
  • kicking water
  • putting the kettle in the fridge
share|improve this answer
    
Yeah, "convincing a woman"! That's it! –  Gigili Jul 30 '12 at 22:47
    
Some might consider it derogatory, unlike other idioms mentioned. –  American Luke Jul 30 '12 at 23:16
    
Putting the kettle in the fridge? I fail to see how that fits the criteria. –  American Luke Jul 31 '12 at 17:50
    
Hey Luke, welcome to English SE. Perhaps it is called a teakettle wherever you come from. Anyway, the point of a kettle is to keep things hot. Putting it in the fridge is kind of pointless. There is a English language SE for people who are new to the language if you would like to look into that. –  J. Walker Jul 31 '12 at 18:10

Here are two from Sting's "Be Still My Beating Heart" (from ...Nothing Like the Sun [1987]):

"Never to be wrong,
Never to make promises to break.
It's like singing in the wind.
Or writing on the surface of a lake."

I came here to add "Pissing in the wind," as that's quite common, but already mentioned. However, I haven't yet seen "Pissing up a rope" mentioned. That one is sometimes used as an insult (e.g. "He can go piss up a rope"). It's possibly a corruption of "pushing a rope," also a fairly futile thing to attempt.

I think "talking to a wall" is a good option, especially if you rephrase your original slightly: "Talking to a wall would be as effective as trying to convince him of anything."

share|improve this answer

protected by RegDwigнt Apr 13 '12 at 14:25

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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