I noticed the line “the exchange was not the clear winner” in the following sentence of the article titled “The Take: Perry’s challenging road ahead” appearing in Washington Post Sept. 24 issue:

“On Thursday, Social Security was a principal point of contention between the two, and it illustrated Perry’s problems. The exchange was not the clear winner that Romney might have hoped, but that ‘s largely because Perry’s position remains something of a muddle.”

To me, the expression “exchange = (not) clear winner” sounds somewhat illogical, because “the exchange” can’t be equal (or not equal) to “the clear winner,” though the result could be. A person can be a winner or loser, but can the abstractive noun like 'exchange' be a winner or loser, unless used as a metaphor?

Shouldn’t it be something like “The exchange did not show (prove / result in / turn out) the clear winner.

Maybe I’m nit-picking, but I wonder if this kind of expression; “His argument was a winner,” “Ryo Ishikawa’s play was a loser” “Obama’s Middle-East talk was a loser,” “Sarah Palin’s speech was a creater,” are common English expressions?

  • The exchange is effectively shorthand for participation in an exchange of views. What Romney hoped for was that the act of participating would be a clear winner for him (i.e. - he would gain political stature from it). It's a rather odd usage, but the implication is that Romney wasn't concerned with winning that particular argument as such. He hoped being in the argument would be "a winner" for him (i.e. - part of a winning strategy for his higher political ambitions). There's nothing really ungrammatical or illogical about it - just a bit odd, especially to non-native speakers! Sep 27, 2011 at 2:39
  • Certainly things that people do can be "a winner" or "a loser". This usage normally implies there's some higher level of competition involved, and there can be anomolous cases where losing at the lower level is "a winner" at the higher level, or vice-versa. But people's actions are never called creaters (or creators, to be exact). Sep 27, 2011 at 2:45
  • @FumbleFingers. I’ m comfortable with the expression, “the Bible is our teacher,” but still uneasy with “the exchange was (not) the winner,” though I can’t explain the reason why effectively. Sep 27, 2011 at 9:26
  • This particular exchange [of views] is simply one of many activities that Romney undertakes in order to climb the greasy pole of politics. Others might include kissing babies, for example. Some will be winners (i.e. - help him to realise his ambitions). Others will be losers in that context. Feasibly if Romney very publicly won a lottery, this might be describes as a "loser" for him in terms of his higher ambitions. Google quotated "is a loser for him", for example, to see how this turn of phrase is commonly used. Sep 27, 2011 at 11:21
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    In this context, think of "winner" as synonymous with victory, not victor. (And, @FumbleFingers, Romney would just donate the winnings to a charity that offers rifle lessons for blind kids, thus regaining his popularity.)
    – user13141
    Sep 27, 2011 at 12:06

2 Answers 2


The earlier comment to the effect that exchange here denotes participation in an exchange of views while helpful and suggestive of correct interpretation, is somewhat off the mark. More precisely, exchange is referring directly to the series of comments exchanged by Romney and Perry.

The wording The exchange was not the clear winner that Romney might have hoped is, when analyzed, something of a garden-path sentence. As you note, it may seem to mean "exchange was not the victor"; in fact, it's intended to mean "exchange was not the winning stroke." [See Update 1] That is, the structure is analogous to "The volley was not the clear winning stroke ..." (even though a volley is a series of strokes).

I think that in context the meaning is clear enough that most newspaper readers can understand and appreciate the sentence while speed reading. The sentence could be rewritten for clarity along the lines of "Romney's comments in this exchange were less winning than he hoped, being bogged down by the muddle of Perry’s position", but that's probably a less vigorous sentence.

Update 1 onomatomaniak's comment, think of “winner” as synonymous with victory, not victor, leads to a better contrast, as follows: While “exchange was not the winner” may seem to mean “exchange was not the victor” it instead means “exchange was not the victory”.

  • @jwpat7. My basic question was why an abstractive noun (exchange) which is inanimate object (discussion, argument, debate, logic, truth, love ...) can be an animated object – living person (winner, victor). However, if I take ‘winner’ as an adjective as a simile or modifier used as winning (tool, result, idea) as you say, my problem is solved out. Is my analogy viable? Sep 27, 2011 at 8:09
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    To "be a winner" can mean "to be the thing which results in victory". English does not really make much distinction between animate and inanimate objects, especially in relatively flowery writing. Sep 27, 2011 at 8:50
  • Part of the confusion here stems from the fact that the "winner" here (the debate), is in itself an activity which can contain winners and losers. But the not a winner referred to in OP's sentence isn't really concerned with who won that debate. It's about whether participating in that debate is a "winner" or "loser" in terms of furthering Romney's political career. Tina Turner was obviously the loser when husband Ike was knocking her about, but years later one could say what happened to her was a winner in terms of her world-wide reputation as a rock icon/goddess. Sep 27, 2011 at 11:32
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    +1 for winner=victory in this usage, rather than victor. Sep 27, 2011 at 17:27

"X was a winner" is a common idiomatic expression. The others you mention -- "was a loser", "was a creator", etc, are not in use and sound quite odd.

A winner when used in this way is something or someone with a capability to do very well at some goal or objective. A clear winner would be something that is very obviously the best at some goal or objective.

Saying something "was not the clear winner" is the same as saying "was not a breakthrough." It is not redundant or meaningless to point out that some event wasn't as miraculous or groundbreaking as one might have hoped.

  • Here are several thousand instances of "was a loser for him". I can't agree this is "not in use", or "sounds quite odd". It's a bit less common than "was a winner", but still a standard turn of phrase. Sep 27, 2011 at 11:36
  • Merriam-Webster has under loser "also : something doomed to fail or disappoint: his position is a loser politically" but no equivalent definition for winner (except in sports). This might be accidental, but supports the idea that "loser" in this sense is as valid as winner.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 8 at 15:39

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