It's on the tip of my tongue.

Example: "Replacing the hard drive of this computer would be [idiom]. It's going to fail completely soon enough."

  • 7
    "lost cause" and "moot point" are the first things that come to mind.
    – KnightHawk
    Dec 30 '14 at 17:55
  • 15
    "Throwing good money after bad", or "a lost cause"
    – Gus
    Dec 30 '14 at 17:55
  • 11
    flogging/beating a dead horse ?
    – 0..
    Dec 30 '14 at 17:59
  • 38
    "Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic". Dec 30 '14 at 17:59
  • 9
    "Windows update"
    – seo
    Dec 31 '14 at 20:18

17 Answers 17


"Grasping at straws" is probably the best I can think of but I think it is a weak phrase.


  1. A fool's errand
  2. Herding cats
  3. A Sisyphean task
  4. A Pyrrhic victory (if you accomplish the immediate task)
  5. To win the battle but lose the war


  1. Tilting at windmills, or battling windmills
  2. Banging your head on the wall
  3. Bailing out a barge with a bucket
  4. Biting off more than you can chew (more about the aptitude of the actor than the futility of the task)
  • 1
    The one I was thinking of was the barge-and-bucket one, but I love the rest. Thanks!
    – Cheezey
    Jan 3 '15 at 0:42

Consider 'futile' or '... an exercise in futility.'

  • It's a great word, but is it really an idiom? Dec 31 '14 at 8:20
  • 9
    @HunterHogan, “exercise in futility” is a fairly common idiom, yes. Dec 31 '14 at 23:03

"lost cause"

as @Joseph-Neathawk wrote.

or just simply "doomed" (which is just an adjective not an idiom)


From a different perspective

"Replacing the hard drive of this computer would be pointless. It's going to fail completely soon enough"

  • 3
    Is this really an idiom? It has its normal meaning in this context.
    – Barmar
    Dec 30 '14 at 19:31
  • 5
    @barmar, true, but its normal meaning is perfectly suited to the given context.
    – Hellion
    Dec 30 '14 at 20:38

In the computer trade the idiom for this is polishing a turd:-

you can't polish a turd

1.(vulgar) Something inherently bad cannot be improved. [Wiktionary]

although I think this reference slightly misses the point, which is, that you can polish a turd, but after you have finished polishing it, it remains a turd.


One of interest that sprang to my mind:

"Like polishing brass on the Titanic."

Which I gather was popularized by author Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club, but exemplifies what might normally be a worthwhile act overshadowed by the big picture.

  • 9
    The Titanic reference I'm most used to is "rearranging deck chairs on..." Dec 31 '14 at 21:10

Short and sweet and it's an idiom: not worth while. When doing something that will not save time nor money in the long run, we can say

Replacing the hard drive is not worth while

Related is the following 17th century phrase, not worth the candle and its longer version the game's not worth the candle. Meaning that the task at hand does not even merit the cost of lighting a candle.

Replacing the hard drive is not worth the candle. It's going to fail completely soon enough.

  • Surely the sense is that the potential winnings from the game wouldn't cover the cost of the candle. Jan 1 '15 at 8:35
  • @DominicCronin that may be the meaning of the phrase as you understand it, but it is not strictly connected to winnings. oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/…. See also the Phrase Finder link which I posted in my answer. Happy New Year BTW!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 1 '15 at 10:39
  • Ok. The definition you reference uses the phrase "potential advantages". I don't see how that contradicts what I said. Jan 1 '15 at 10:49
  • @DominicCronin The potential advantage is the computer continuing to work until it fails completely.
    – DCShannon
    Jan 2 '15 at 16:22

closing/shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted

trying to stop something bad happening when it has already happened and the situation cannot be changed Improving security after a major theft would seem to be a bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

From TFD.

Actually not an idiom, but a simile. There must be other expressions as well.

  • 1
    This usually refers to something that was preventable, but you failed to do so, and now it's too late.
    – Barmar
    Dec 30 '14 at 19:33
  • 1
    I agree with Barmar; this idiom is about a bad thing that happened in the past (the horse has bolted), while the question is about a bad thing that going to happen in the future (the hard drive's going to fail completely soon enough).
    – user1635
    Dec 30 '14 at 19:55
  • 1
    That's not a simile; it's a metaphor.
    – person27
    Dec 30 '14 at 22:58
  • @Barmar Oh, right. Somehow I got that the problem was that the drive had not been fixed soon enough. It is a simile as used in the example sentence above (...is a bit like....). If we said Improving security *is closing the door....*, it would be a metaphor. Dec 31 '14 at 2:48

"fight a losing battle" may work here.

to try hard to do something when there is no chance that you will succeed (usually in continuous tenses)

Example (from above link):

We try our best to cope with the workload but we're fighting a losing battle.


What about flogging a dead horse? Not the usual context for the idiom, but it seems to fit well enough.


"Too little, too late."

"A day late and a dollar short."

"Like spitting in the wind."

"A wasted effort."


the juice isn't worth the squeeze.

  • I see the relationship, but I think the meaning here is different: It suggests producing something that is not valuable enough or good enough to justify the effort in making it. But it's quite a particular use of the idea to communicate not being valuable or good enough at saving something or preventing loss or ruin. Dec 30 '14 at 19:25

"Like putting lipstick on a pig"


The first that springs to mind is:

You can't bail faster than the leaks

This relates directly, because it deals with the save-ability of the thing, rather than more-abstract futility. "spitting into the wind" is about futility, or worthlessness. Saving / salvation, is another matter.

I think I've also heard an expression like

"alms for thieves"

... or similar, but I don't recall where – so I'm not sure that it can be as reasonably applicable. The 'thief' here is 'not possible to save' with charity, because they are at odds with the principal dynamics of the situation. That may not always be true to the measure of whether somethings is "beyond saving."


If you want to say "beyond saving", then say just that. It's a perfectly good way to express your meaning. As others have noted, your missing blank can perhaps be filled with pointless or futile.


My first thought was "a fruitless attempt"

Example: "Replacing the hard drive of this computer would be fruitless. It's going to fail soon anyway."


as useless as a fence around a cemetary.

  • Why is a fence around a cemetery useless? In my experience, most cemeteries seem to be surrounded by something like a fence or wall. Jan 2 '15 at 0:04

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