The words in bold in the quote below are meant to express something that I don't know how to put in English. The main idea is that someone is spending too much energy in many different areas thinking that he is going to achieve some considerable progress in all of them while in fact he is only going to enjoy a small amount of success (if any) in all those areas due to the enormous scale of area.

Jack: So what project did you choose for this semester?

Linda: The children illiteracy in in-land towns in Uganda, The correlation between humans' eating habits and their behavioral patterns, The possibility of practical application of the Poincaré conjecture solution in the nearest future, The affect of globing warming on blue whales migratory patterns...

Jack: Wow! Isn't it too many? Why not focus on only one project and research it thoroughly instead? I suggest that you should not shallowly spread yourself on so many projects.

2 Answers 2


I can't think of an idiom that exactly expresses your meaning. We can suggest to Linda that she should not spread herself so thinly, but that suggests the risk of failure, rather than insufficient progress.

If Linda lives her life this way, she might become a jack of all trades, but master of none. I.e. she has acquired many "shallow skills" through her diverse experiences, but no deep ones.


The colloquial form is you should not spread yourself so thinly.

  • thinly? Or thin? (thinly would modify spread, thin would modify yourself)
    – sq33G
    Dec 21, 2011 at 9:03
  • If I spread butter on bread I modify the verb with 'thinly', not the noun with 'thin'. That's the analogy. Dec 21, 2011 at 9:06
  • The Carpenter said nothing but "The butter's spread too thick!" The Walrus and the Carpenter
    – sq33G
    Dec 21, 2011 at 9:09
  • 2
    @sq33G: Yes, in such contexts 'spread' can be seen as a copulative verb having the adjective phrase as its complement. However, in the OP's example 'thin' risks being read as a non-standard adverb. That's fine if that is the intention, but in most contexts it probably won't be. Dec 21, 2011 at 9:43
  • 1
    checked this on NGram. Both forms seem to be in use, though there's a reason why "thin" sounds more right to my mind's ear. And when limited to American English, "thinly" disappears altogether.
    – sq33G
    Dec 21, 2011 at 9:47

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