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I found the word, “at turns” in the beginning sentence of the article of Time magazine (September 18) titled, “How Mitt Romney’s Luck Ran Out” that reads:

“For a good long while, Mitt Romney was the luckiest man in politics. He joined the 2012 race as the default Republican front runner after more-formidable challengers chose not to run. His declared rivals were at turns ineffectual, ridiculous, or self-destructive — granting Romney a fairly easy, if occasionally fraught, path to the nomination.

I was almost overlooking the phrase, “at turns” as a commonplace idiom, but curiously enough I couldn’t find this phrase in any of Cambridge, Oxford, OALED, and Merriam-Webster Dictionary though they register “by turns,” “in turn,” “at every turn” “on the turn,” and you can name it.

On the other hand, GoogleNgram indicates track of pretty high usage of “at turns” dating back to 1840.

Because no dictionary I consulted does offer me the definition, I cannot get exact idea of ‘at turns.’ Is it the same as ‘at every turn,” “by turn(s),” "one after another,"or “respectively?” Is “at turns” a familiar idiom as these idioms?

Of course it’s freedom of the editors of dictionaries what words and idioms they pick up in their dictionaries. But I wonder why none of wellknown English dictionaries accommodates the idiom of which high incidence of use being evidenced in NGram.

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At turns in this sense is indeed common enough. I have seen the use, and Google returns lots of results. However, the point to note here is that your reference is a media publication, not a textbook on the English language, so it can make liberal use of colloquialisms or even experiment with the language. –  Kris Sep 20 '12 at 11:01
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4 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

As others have said, it's a general term conveying the idea of one by one.

I'd like to add, though, that at turns may have been used because there are two things that could be said to have come one after another: the candidates, and their gaffes. So, in no particular order: Bachman was perceived as ridiculous, Cain was perceived as self-destructive, Huntsman was perceived as ineffectual, etc.

The author probably didn't want to be so specific, partly because the correlation between candidates and gaffes isn't as clear-cut as I've indicated here, and partly because a single candidate may have compounded the said gaffes atop each other in a series of political missteps. So, an efficient way to convey this sentiment is to state the generality:

His declared rivals were at turns ineffectual, ridiculous, or self-destructive...

leaving the reader to work out the details of who stumbled when, and how each one stumbled. Meanwhile, the author can move straightaway to the main point of the sentence, which is that Romney had "a fairly easy, if occasionally fraught, path to the nomination."

I'd conclude that at turns is not idiomatic, but instead an efficient way to describe a sequence of people independently making a series of mistakes.

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I think "at turns" is like one after the other.

I think the phrase "at turns" here has a literal meaning, rather than having an idiomatic meaning.

The following sentence:

His declared rivals were at turns ineffectual, ridiculous or self-destructive—granting Romney a fairly easy, if occasionally fraught, path to the nomination.

It simply states that:

Turn by turn (one after the other) his (Romney's) rivals were either ineffectual, ridiculous or self-destructive, which made his path to nomination easy.

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So this is not an idiom, but is a simple set of a preposition (at) and a noun (turns). That's why no dictionary carries this phrase. Eureka. –  Yoichi Oishi Sep 20 '12 at 10:55
@YoichiOishi Exaclty... –  Rohan Shah Sep 20 '12 at 14:43
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British people sometimes talk entertainers having a turn. In a more sinister way, someone is said to have had a funny turn if they are taken ill or start to behave peculiarly.

The idea of 'turns' is quite straight forward. One person follows another.

In the world of entertainment, particularly Variety, the performers would perform one after another.

The idea of having a 'funny turn', is that you behave in a way that is not normal.

Fits, faints and funny turns:


Turns in the question, means 'as one follows the other'.

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I think the question is about the phrase "at turns". No offense, but your answer does not seem very much relevant. –  Rohan Shah Sep 20 '12 at 14:55
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Here the phrase at turns means the same thing as by turns

one after another; alternately

It indicates that the rivals took turns being ineffectual, ridiculous, or self-destructive.

In English, we often see different prepositions being used in phrases but providing identical or nearly identical meanings.

The concept could also be conveyed by the phrase in turn.

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