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I made an unwittingly controversial remark in a recent draft of an intra-company technical document. I wrote, regarding my acceptance of an exceedingly challenging software engineering task:

Like the proverbial "man with no teeth," I may have bit off more than I can chew.

This offhand remark created a firestorm of criticism. The internal squabbling arose because team members couldn't seem to agree on why the sentence was incorrect, or even if it were incorrect at all. Here are the reasons that were provided to me. Which one(s) are correct?

(1) There is no well-known proverb or parable that features a man with no teeth: The counterargument is that the word "proverbial" can refer not only to a proverb, but to something or someone who is well known. Surely all readers have known or met a man with no teeth.

(2) "Man with no teeth" shouldn't be in quotes. It's not a movie title. Is this a valid criticism? Can't quotes be used to indicate a common characterization of a person? Referring to a man's title or characterization in quotations, as in "the Heisenberg of Newport Beach" for example, characterizes the subject as a Newport Beach drug manufacturer. Presumably there is no movie titled "the Heisenberg of Newport Beach," yet the quotes properly indicate how the subject is perceived and referred to by the locals.

(3) A man with no teeth cannot chew. The argument here is that it takes at least one good tooth to execute a proper chew and as such, changing the phrase to "man with loose teeth" or "man with one tooth" would solve the problem. One of my critics used an extreme example to illustrate the problem: Having lost both of his arms in the Iraq war, Sonny Boy found it extremely difficult to clap along with the Katy Perry song. His point being that a "man with no teeth" cannot chew any more than a man with no hands can clap.

(4) The word "bit" should be changed to "bitten." Even after consulting a dictionary, I'm not sure which word is more appropriate here.

(5) The word "bit" is past tense but "can" is present tense. Could this disagreement in tense be corrected by replacing the word "can" with "could" ? But what if what I bit off (in the past) is greater than what I can currently chew (in the present).

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    Tell people to get a life, or maybe an education: there is nothing wrong with what you’ve written and they’re just being weenies. Sure, you could provide documentation for all this to defend yourself, but why bother wasting your time on them? – tchrist Jan 4 '15 at 18:07
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    As written, your sentence makes no sense based on reasons 1 and 3. "I may have bit off more than I can chew" is perfectly acceptable in the vernacular, although 'bitten' is more grammatically correct. – IconDaemon Jan 4 '15 at 18:14
  • @IconDaemon When there are two acceptable variants of a form in active use by native speakers, it is not possible to claim that one is “more correct” than another. As for the rest, that’s equally inapplicable. – tchrist Jan 4 '15 at 18:17
  • The meanings of 'proverbial' have been covered in the thread What does “proverbial” mean?. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 4 '15 at 19:40
  • By using the word 'proverbial' you are linking your phrase to some well-known phrase, but no such phrase or proverb exists. This is what jars in the sentence, much like the proverbial giraffe in the room. If you had used "Like a man with no teeth..." then this false linkage would not exist and there would be absolutely no cause for concern – Marv Mills Jan 4 '15 at 19:42
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There is no well-known proverb or parable that features a man with no teeth: The counterargument is that the word "proverbial" can refer not only to a proverb, but to something or someone who is well known. Surely all readers have known or met a man with no teeth.

There is a sense of proverbial that means "often talked about in a common idiom, saying or cliché". (See this question).

The question isn't whether we've known or met men without teeth, but whether there's a common saying or comparison about men without teeth.

I know of no such saying, or rhetorical trope, so I'm inclined to object.

"Man with no teeth" shouldn't be in quotes. It's not a movie title. Is this a valid criticism?

So far no. Movie titles are not the only thing we use quotes for and indeed by many style guides they are not something we use quotes for at all; they are italicised.

Can't quotes be used to indicate a common characterization of a person?

As a general characterisation, no.

Referring to a man's title or characterization in quotations, as in "the Heisenberg of Newport Beach" for example, characterizes the subject as a Newport Beach drug manufacturer.

I'd like to think that would make people think of a Newport Beach theoretical physicist. Either way this refers to a particular person by quoting what other people call him.

In such a case we can use quotes or not, tending to favour them if we want to distance ourself from the characterisation; to say that other people use the phrase, but we ourselves do not. They're sometimes semi-jokingly called "scare-quotes" or "shudder-quotes" for this reason; we're using the phrase, but making it clear that it's not something we'd say ourselves.

So, if there really is a common phrase about "the man with no teeth" then you could choose to use quotes or not, but since you've already distanced yourself from the phrase by describing it as proverbial, I'd recommend you don't.

A man with no teeth cannot chew.

This is the one way in which a the analogy works.

The word "bit" should be changed to "bitten."

Bit as a past participle of bite is found in some dialects. It was once more common, and more commonly accepted than it is now.

It is still used though, so it's fine, but you might choose to use bitten especially in formal use due to it being more widely used, and also clearer since bitten is only used for the past participle and never for the simple past.

The word "bit" is past tense but "can" is present tense.

This objection is nonsense. Imagine if right now at this moment your mouth was literally so full of food that you couldn't chew. It would be correct to say that in the recent past, "you had bitten" (or bit if you prefer). It would also be correct to say that right now in the present, you cannot chew. (Except obviously you couldn't say anything, since your mouth was full).

Could this disagreement in tense be corrected by replacing the word "can" with "could"?

Yes, if you were talking about the past. Tenses don't have to all agree with each other, as long as they are each appropriate to what you are trying to say.


Assuming that there really is such a saying about men with no teeth, there remain issues.

While men without teeth can't chew, nor can they bite. You're mixing a metaphor about a person who bit too much food with a simile about a person who is incapable of biting. There's no rule against mixing metaphors, but the point of a metaphor is to use the imagery to convey your meaning and convince your audience, while mixed metaphors evoke conflicting images and so befuddle and sound unconvincing.

Mixed metaphors can work well when either bringing two familiar metaphors together in a way that still makes both metaphorical and literal sense (this doesn't) or when funny (this isn't).

It's not wrong, but it's not good either.

Quantity is not an issue when it comes to chewing without teeth, so it doesn't make sense as a comparison.

And you're so unhappy with the phrasing yourself that you point out that it's not yours through both the quotes and the term proverbial which is understandable, but why use it at all then?

"I've bitten off more than I can chew" works much better.

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On the find-a-proverb front, here are some candidates that you might consider offering your detractors after the fact. From James Kelley, A Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs Explained and Made Intelligible to the English (1721),

Never shew your teeth when you cannot bite.

[Explanation:] Never show your resentment when you cannot do it to purpose.

Never bite unless you make your teeth meet.

[Comment:] This, and the former, savour too much of malice and revenge. Vile unchristian vices. The more noble way is to forget and to forgive.

From Robert Christy, Proverbs, Maxims, and Phrases of All Ages (1887):

The toothless man envies those that can bite well. Latin.

From Charles Spurgeon, The Salt-cellars (1889):

Some do not bite because they have no teeth;/Some give a kiss but hate is underneath.

[Explanation:] Hatred has been often veiled where it still prevailed. In other cases it is held back by inability, and not by amiability.

From Wolfgang Mieder, The Prentice-Hall Encyclopedia of World Proverbs (1986):

He that has no teeth cannot crack nuts. American

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One must chew according to one's teeth. Norwegian

So you could claim that the proverbial "man with no teeth" is the guy in the American proverb who cannot crack nuts. (That saying also appears in Bartlett Whiting, Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (1977), citing William Cobbett, Porcupine (1795) as one place where it occurs.) Or you could invoke the toothless man in the Latin proverb who envies those who can bite well.

  • One could say "I never learnt to paint, and seeing my friend's exhibition, like the proverbial man with no teeth I envy those that can bite" and so on with the other sayings, but none of your finds seem relevant. – Jon Hanna Jan 5 '15 at 0:00
  • @JonHanna: I should have made clear that my answer was strictly directed toward the assertion in the OP's question "(1) There is no well-known proverb or parable that features a man with no teeth." So I set myself the task of seeing whether there were any arguably well-known proverbs involving a man with no teeth. Whether the ones I found were in fact "well known" is debatable, but they certainly feature toothless people. Having said that, I agree that the ones I found aren't particularly relevant to the comment that the OP made to his coworkers, so perhaps I shouldn't have posted anything... – Sven Yargs Jan 5 '15 at 0:38
  • ...but I thought that you had dealt with the main issues fairly thoroughly, and I was intrigued by the assertion that there were no proverbs about a man with no teeth. In any case, your answer deserved to be upvoted, as it has been, and mine probably did not, as it hasn't. – Sven Yargs Jan 5 '15 at 0:41
  • How about -1 for not directly answering the question, but +1 to cancel that since you could hardly have fitted it into a comment, and another +1 because it's good stuff :) – Jon Hanna Jan 5 '15 at 0:55
  • You are too kind. Too often I get excited about some peripheral aspect of a question, and I write it up—and it really isn't relevant to what the OP wants to know. Sometimes, a bracing, admonitory slap in the face is just what I need. – Sven Yargs Jan 5 '15 at 1:00
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I'll bite.

A man with no teeth can neither bite nor chew.

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    Thus, he wouldn't try to bite off anything. By using this metaphor, OP admits to being incapable of tackling any project; arguably not the impression he meant to convey. This is the substantive grounds on which co-workers could have objected, but apparently they didn't, instead seizing on the supposed ungrammaticality and unrelated quibbles. – Brian Hitchcock Jan 5 '15 at 7:13
  • The toothless man bit off more than he could chew. Sounds like something anchorman Ron Burgundy might practice saying in his warm-up routine. – TRomano Jan 5 '15 at 12:38
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(1) There is no well-known proverb or parable that features a man with no teeth:

That is a valid objection.

(2) "Man with no teeth" shouldn't be in quotes.

Likewise

It's not a movie title.

But this is stupid. Movie titles are not the only thing you put in quotation marks.

(3) A man with no teeth cannot chew.

I agree.

(4) The word "bit" should be changed to "bitten."

Correct. In modern English the past participle of “bite” is “bitten”.

(5) The word "bit" is past tense but "can" is present tense.

The main verb in your sentence in “may” (present tense). “Can” is in the same tense and is correct.

  • 'In modern English the past participle of “bite” is “bitten”.' You claim to know better than AHDEL and Collins, both corpus-based dictionaries. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 4 '15 at 23:36
  • The OED calls the participle bit "archaic". – fdb Jan 4 '15 at 23:40
  • These Google Ngrams don't seem to endorse that. Though 'was bitten' is the most usual (and the version I'd use), 'I got bit by' figures more prominently than 'I got bitten by' – and the results hardly suggest that the past participle bit is rarely used. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 4 '15 at 23:57

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