In serve one's/its turn, 'turn' signifies "an individual's time for action, when these go around in succession". But 'turn' must signify something else beneath, as there's no agent.

If 'turn' is synonymizing 'hitch' or 'snag', then how did 'turn' shift to signify this? What semantic notions underlie 'snag' and 'turn'?

Source: Rebecca Gowers. Plain Words (2014 ed). p. 87 Top.

A reader of Milton must be always upon duty; he is surrounded with sense, it arises in every line, every word is to the purpose; there are no lazy intervals, all has been considered, and demands and merits observation. Even in the best writers you sometimes find words and sentences which hang on so loosely you may blow 'em off; Milton's are all substance and weight; fewer would not have serv'd the turn, and more would have been superfluous." — Jonathan Richardson, Explanatory Notes and Remarks on Milton's Paradise lost, 1734

  • @FumbleFingers - It's your turn to answer this one.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 21:46
  • It's the turn in taking turns, or turn-taking that's implied. Everyone "serves" or "takes" their (own) turn; it's part of being social, and part of using language. Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 21:46
  • @JohnLawler Thanks Professor. But what 'turn' is being implied? 'Turn' for what activity?
    – user50720
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 22:16
  • Any social activity that allows more than one participant, which means it requires speech, which in turn requires taking turns at speaking. A turn is not a physical thing, but a social structure. Anyone who doesn't know how to take their turn at speech is not part of society; it's something children pick up before speech itself. Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 22:53

2 Answers 2


To serve the turn is an almost archaic expression meaning to satisfy a purpose or need. Thus, Richardson's meaning in 1734 was that in Milton's work, fewer words and sentences would not have been enough to satisfy the requirements of the work he was writing.

Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary

Serve the turn

to suffice for one's immediate purpose or need

  1. Turn: a special purpose or need

That will serve the turn.

Turn (Merriam-Webster)

  • Please see english.stackexchange.com/questions/448820/….
    – user50720
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 22:16
  • Can you please respond in (by editing) your answer? A chain of comments is more cumbersome to read.
    – user50720
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 22:16
  • I'll note that this usage is pretty much only seen these days in the idiom "turn of phrase".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 1:05

turn etymonline.com etymology

Meaning "spell of work" is from late 14c.

a turn TFD noun definition

  1. A distinctive, graceful, or artistic expression or arrangement of words

and: a turn Merrimam-webster

a : a fashioning of language or arrangement of words : manner of expression

'skillful turns of phrase'

Thus: Serve the turn

In this case Milton serves the 'turn' (his writings) precisely and elegantly. His work needs no more ... or no less words or sentences.

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