So, I have this expression from Portuguese that says that "A dog with two owners dies of hunger"

It has the main objective of expressing that if you assign more than one person to take care of something (usually a problem), they'll all think that the other one will take care of it and end up doing nothing.

Is there anything similar in English? I thought about "Too many cooks spoil the broth" but it doesn't have the same intrinsic message - this one comes across to me that if you have too many people taking care of the same thing, there will be too much done and in the end it will get bad from EXCESS of action, while the Portuguese saying has the underlying meaning of neglect.

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    I think the tragedy of the commons is a relevant expression here (if everyone is responsible for looking after something, then in practice no-one looks after it). There's also diffusion / dissipation of responsibility, recognised as a problem within many large organisations. Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 13:26
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    It's also called bystander apathy, but I know of no idiom that fully conveys it. Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 14:02
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    In my experience on the other hand a cat with two owners usually manages to eat very well.
    – Al Maki
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 17:28
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    "A slave with two masters is a free man" celebrates a positive aspect of unclear responsibility. Commented Jul 17, 2019 at 19:51
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    I don't know, but to add the obligatory Douglas Adams reference, that poor dog has a "somebody else's problem field" around it.
    – Will Cain
    Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 13:43

4 Answers 4


There are a lot of expressions that don't quite make it.

"A man with one watch knows what time it is. A man with two is never quite sure." Does not quite get it since it talks about one owner and two possessions instead.

"Too many cooks spoil the broth." Again, it's not quite the same. Overly competitive chefs getting in each other's way is not the same as forgetting to feed the dog. With two chefs the dog might eat badly prepared food but he would eat.

"Go ask your mother. Go ask your father." It's almost getting it. Here each parent is pushing responsibility to the other parent.

"Next window please." That almost gets it, but it's often straight-up lazy or straight-up nastiness rather than the idea that the clerk thinks another clerk really will do the job. Or it's just that the clerk really is going on his scheduled lunch break.

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    The "Go ask your mother. Go ask your father." is the closest one, I think. But well, not all expressions or idioms translate well and that's life. Thank you! Commented Jul 16, 2019 at 7:25

I'm not sure if it qualifies as an "aphorism", but an awful lot of people have observed that...

When/If everyone is responsible [then] no one is responsible


The British English expression "to fall between two stools" usually means to vascillate between two courses of action but it can also mean to be neither one thing nor another as shown by this Longman's dictionary entry which defines the phrase as

to be neither one type of thing nor another, or be unable to choose between two ways of doing something

I believe this carries a similar connotation to the Portuguese proverb. The only difference is that the Portuguese does suggest that each owner will leave the feeding of the dog to the other whereas the British phrase is less blame laden.

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    Thank you for the answer! :) The "fall between two stools" for me looks more like Buridan's ass or choice paralysis (inability to choose becoming no choice in the end) and that's not the exact meaning... the Portugese proverb is more about diffusion of responsibility. Commented Jul 16, 2019 at 7:24

A baby with seven nannies has lost its eye (or without an eye).

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