I came across the phrase ‘the line had turn on us’ in the following paragraph of the article titled “Running in the red: How the U.S. on the road to surplus, detoured to massive debt,” appearing in Washington Post (April 30.)

“Still, Hoagland (CBO analyst, William Hoagland), said, the abandonment of fiscal discipline in the wake of the surpluses clearly didn’t help. ‘Nobody pushed for paying for this stuff,’ he said. Not even after “it became very clear in the middle of 2003 that the line had turned on us. And the surpluses as far as the eye could see were no longer there.’”

I searched for the definition of ‘the line had turn on somebody,’ through Google to find no entry of this phrase. Isn’t “the line turns on somebody’” an idiom? What does ‘the line’ here stand for, and what does this phrase mean at all?

  • Changed the title to better match the quote. Often "Turning on someone" has to do with sex or drugs, which isn't what your quote was about at all. (And for that reason, I'd highly advise against using this phrase yourself if you are a non-native speaker).
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 16, 2011 at 15:21

3 Answers 3


He's talking about the line as a plotted line on a graph. At one point the U.S. had been putting up surpluses, but expenditures rose to cancel those out and put the country into a deficit again. The "line" turned and went below even — right at around the point where Bush passed his tax cuts and engaged us in two costly wars.

Here's the line he's talking about:

enter image description here

And you can read more about it.

  • @Robustosan. Thank you for your quick answer accompanied with a visual aid comprehensible at a glance. It's very helpful. I took ‘the line turned on us’ for an idiom. Now I understood it means ‘the surplus / deficit line dropped in 2003.' I’m still curious to know why the author didn’t say the line simply ‘turned downward’ or ‘started to drop,’ instead of saying ‘turn on us’? Would you elaborate why there is ‘us’? Commented May 3, 2011 at 23:40
  • 2
    The expression "turn on" also means "betray", especially in a vicious or violent way. Saying "the line turned on us" made it sound particular catastrophic. Commented May 3, 2011 at 23:51
  • @Malvolio / Robusto-san.Turn on = Betray. That's I didn't know. Now it's all clear to me. Thank you very much. Commented May 4, 2011 at 0:20
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    @Yoichi Oishi: Oishi-san, to "turn on" someone or something can mean "to betray" but I don't think it means that here. I think this means the trend simply did an about-face and turned in the other direction. To attribute "betrayal" to a trend line would be to shift the blame for the reversal onto the wrong culprit.
    – Robusto
    Commented May 4, 2011 at 1:25
  • @Yoichi Oishi: It is an idiom, albeit a more comprehensible idiom than some. Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 2:28

This is an example of a more general idiom. To say that something has happened "on" someone adds (to the bare statement that it has happened) the implication that the fact that it has happened has affected him adversely. Some examples would be: 1) My car broke down on me. 2) The weather turned bad on them. 3) The winds shifted on him. 4) Our business venture failed on us. I don't think this is related to the idiom "to turn on" someone, which means to betray, as noted.


This looks like a rather dry economics text, so its is possible the meaning is limited to the meaning of reaching an inflection point on a function/graph. The idea being that it was going one direction, but "turned" a bit to be going in a different direction after.

However, this is rather overloaded phrase, and some of its other meanings can be rather ... er... colorful. So if you aren't completely confident with your English, avoid putting "turn" and "on" together yourself.

For example, in the context of there being some kind of possible conflict, "X turning on Y" could refer to X deciding to stop running/acting passive/being cooperative and instead becoming hostile. For example, a hunted animal with no place to run will often "turn" on its hunters and attack them.

In the context of drug use (and sometimes foods or pleasurable activities), "X turned on Y" means that person X introduced Y to the (supposed pleasures of) the thing in question.

In the context of sex, "X turned on Y" means that person (or sometimes activity) X got Y sexually excited.

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