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I'm trying to come up with a saying to express when one tool or solution is being used for multiple purposes in a situation that really calls for two separate approaches, and not doing a great job at any of them as a result. I feel like this exists but it's on the tip of my brain and driving me crazy. Anyone know what I might be thinking of?

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  • A broad-brush approach is sweeping, but may or may not be overly general. A broad-spectrum antibiotic may well prove efficacious. But a Swiss Army knife usually does the trick. Oct 22, 2019 at 18:29
  • @EdwinAshworth, that is close, but the slight difference here would be that I'm less interested in expressing the impossibility of doing two things with the same method/killing two birds with one stone, and more expressing the wrongheadedness of attempting to do so in this particular case where the problems are more complex than the single solution would allow.
    – Jane
    Oct 22, 2019 at 19:13
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    This is the sort of thing that involves specific writing specifications and you need to be a good writer to come up with one. There is no one-size-fits-all tool for that.
    – Robusto
    Oct 22, 2019 at 19:24
  • So you want a synonym of (or) 'a broad-brush approach' (but these sometimes do work. // 'Wrongheadedness' is not inferrable from your question.). Oct 23, 2019 at 14:29

3 Answers 3

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When talking about a person (as opposed to a tool), I use the phrase "jack of all trades, master of none".

However, I can't think of an equivalent expression when referring to a tool. I have heard "Swiss Army Knife" being used to describe the concept. I've also personally used the word "compromise" (as in "that system is one big compromise"), but that's not common and may be slightly different in connotation.

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If Your Only Tool Is a Hammer Then Every Problem Looks Like a Nail

Attributed to just about everyone according to Quote Investigator. I have heard versions of this for a variety of different tools.

The quote implies using the same tool for many jobs, even when this is not going to get the best results. It's not a nail and it only looks like one because you are already intending to use your hammer.

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  • It's a great expression, but can you explain why you think it fits? Doesn't seem like it does to me, but maybe I'm missing something.
    – David M
    Oct 23, 2019 at 16:50
  • @DavidM the question has been updated. But originally it asked about using a tool in the wrong situation. The quote above is about that, it has an implicit follow on that 'not everything is a nail and sometimes you need different tools.'
    – Jontia
    Oct 23, 2019 at 16:53
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    That makes more sense. Perhaps you should still explain the idiom, though. It's a great idiom worthy of explanation.
    – David M
    Oct 23, 2019 at 16:55
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You can say they are trying to use a cure-all, which according to Merriam-Webster means

a remedy for all ills

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