Is there a popular phrase or idiom to capture the following very particular scenario? Person A and person B are arguing over something. Person A repeatedly gives ground to B until the argument becomes a matter of A trying to secure small details in favour of them, while having had to accept B's position.

The metaphor that I thought of for this was that someone threatens to kill you, but lets you choose at what time of day.

I realise that the phrase "winning the battle but losing the war" comes close to this, but I think there is a difference. There is the implication here that one's opponent is happy to allow one small victories having won the day. Obviously, a "hollow victory" is relevant here, but does not capture the particular cases I have in mind.

To give a common example:

When the UK political parties of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition, then the LDs were able to affect policy. But in doing so, they had to accept the fundamental outlook of the Conservatives. So they could haggle over the extent to which one or other benefit was cut, but in doing so they were conceding the very idea that there should be such cuts at all.


I have found an idiom that comes pretty close: Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

This is not a perfect fit, since it means something more like "doing something that makes no difference because the major facts in the situation are already decided."

Perhaps the closest expression, rather than idiom, is something like "if you're arguing about detail x, then the other side has already won the argument".


4 Answers 4


1) trying for a consolation goal

(sports) A goal scored by the losing team near the end of a game, that has no effect on the outcome. — wiktionary.

Person A had long since won the match, and person B was reduced to trying for a late consolation goal [or score or prize].

2) Also a consolation prize has similar connotations.


3) The Lib Dems are fighting a losing battle.

  • I think this definitely captures an aspect of the idea, but not enough to be an answer -- that said, I'm not sure there is an answer, i.e. no idiom that captures it.
    – DavidR
    May 18, 2016 at 11:42
  • Added a #3 option
    – k1eran
    May 19, 2016 at 1:11
  • I would say that the consolation goal is the closest suggestion. I'm not sure it is the answer as such, because I'm starting to doubt there is one. Should I accept it as the answer on the basis of its being the closest?
    – DavidR
    May 19, 2016 at 7:41

I would suggest...

Tilting at Windmills - is an English idiom which means attacking imaginary enemies. The word "tilt", in this context, comes from jousting.

The phrase is sometimes used to describe confrontations where adversaries are incorrectly perceived, or courses of action that are based on misinterpreted or misapplied heroic, romantic, or idealistic justifications. It may also connote an importune, unfounded, and vain effort against confabulated adversaries for a vain goal.


  • 1
    This idiom doesn't convey the submission to the main points of argument, which is key to what was requested. Nov 19, 2021 at 13:45

I would say that this is nitpicking:

minute and usually unjustified criticism


If you're wanting to imply that they had given up some major ground and now are criticizing the minutia, one could say that "now, they are just nitpicking."


I think the essence here is "idioms related to pointless efforts", for which a related SE question contains a lot of answers: "Doing something useless and has no result at the end". Some of them are listed below:

  • You're just beating your head against the wall.
  • Like trying to squeeze blood from a turnip.
  • It's like trying to herd cats.
  • pushing water uphill with a rake
  • shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted
  • trying to get blood out of a stone
  • beating (or flogging) a dead horse
  • fool's errand
  • to carry water in a sieve
  • to empty the sea with a thimble
  • to convince a cat it wants to go swimming
  • Pissing in the wind.
  • trying to push on a rope
  • talking to a brick wall

There are plenty more.

My earlier suggestion was:

A wild-goose chaseTFD

a situation where you waste time looking for something that you are not going to find, either because that thing does not exist or because you have been given wrong information about it.

"After two hours spent wandering in the snow, I realized we were on a wild-goose chase."

"When I found out that there was no Anita Hill at the university, I began to suspect that I had been sent on a wild-goose chase."

So the person is on a wild-goose chase in order to save their face.

Save faceTFD

Avoid humiliation or embarrassment, preserve dignity

"Rather than fire him outright, they let him save face by accepting his resignation."

  • Saving face is a particular goal one might have, where one way to achieve it is as described above. Not sure it fits quite.
    – DavidR
    May 18, 2016 at 17:31
  • @DavidRowthorn Depending on circumstances, it can be a very ingrained behavior supported by cultural norms and expectations. The behavior described can be a proforma part of many arguments. It's just the other side of "throwing a bone" to ones adversary. But you make them beg a little before you do that.
    – Phil Sweet
    May 19, 2016 at 16:34
  • @PhilSweet I guess the difficulty is that what I'm trying to capture is the idea not just that one is doing something pointless or trying to save face, but more like something captured by a phrase such as "if you're arguing about X, then the other side has already won". I'm fully willing to accept that I'm not being that helpful in spelling this out!
    – DavidR
    May 20, 2016 at 9:44

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