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All dictionaries give examples with this expression in the negative:

  • He just watches TV and never lifts a finger to help with the dishes.(Cambridge)
  • He never lifted a finger to get Jimmy released from prison. (OxfordL)

and so on.

What I need is an expression that would mean the opposite. The sentence I need it for sounds something like this:

You will never be abandoned in this community. You only need to ________ [expression which would mean something like lift/move a finger] a little bit.

What I mean to say is that one only needs to contribute the minimum to receive support, the slightest effort. However, I would prefer if the expression would contain the image of a movement. Does moving one's finger imply slight effort in English?

When I looked at antonyms of the expression not lift a finger I found expressions that are too strong for what I need:

  • break your neck
  • Jump through hoops
  • put one's back into it

All these involve movement and/or parts of the body, but imply great effort. Is there any expression or phrase that would express the minimum effort needed as a contribution that would lead to receiving support?

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  • 7
    The desired sentence has a conflict. Lift a finger means do a minimum amount of work, have at least some skin in the game. Your sentence needs only ask, not act. Jul 12 at 14:17
  • 12
    Lift a finger is a negative polarity item (NPI). That's why dictionaries cite it in negative contexts. It's a member of the "verb plus minimal object" class, like drink a drop, eat a bite, sleep a wink, do a (solitary) (single) thing, ... Like all NPIs, it doesn't have an opposite. Rather, it is an opposite -- the opposite of everything else that might fit the slot it's in. So you can't just pick one word. Negation is complicated. Jul 12 at 14:58
  • 2
    @JohnLawler The language I am translating from is Greek and the sentence literally says: we only need to move our little finger ... makes no sense in English, but is so accurate in Greek! Even the expression the least necessary is helpful!
    – fev
    Jul 12 at 15:11
  • 10
    @JohnLawler However, you could rescue this by using but, which has a kind of negative meaning: "You need but lift a finger and someone will be there to help you" or something like that. Or as FF said just above, you could use only. Jul 12 at 20:03
  • 2
    As long as you create a negative environment. Jul 12 at 20:22

15 Answers 15

15
+100

In their investigation of lift a finger, the Original Poster has happened across a ɴᴇɢᴀᴛɪᴠᴇ ᴘᴏʟᴀʀɪᴛʏ ɪᴛᴇᴍ (henceforth ɴᴘɪ). These are items that tend to only occur in negative contexts. An example might be the word ever. Consider:

  1. *I have ever been to France. (ungrammatical)
  2. I haven't ever been to France (grammatical)

Here we see that ever is ungrammatical in the positive sentence in (1), but grammatical when occurring in the negative version in (2).

As it turns out, there are many types of context which covertly involve some sort of negation. Take for example closed questions:

  1. Have you ever been to France?

Example (3) is perfectly grammatical. We might wonder why. Well closed questions like (3) clearly allow for two possibilities, on the positive side that you have been to France, but also on the negative side that you have not. For this reason they are often referred to as 'yes/no' questions or 'polarity' questions. Arguably, it is this negative possibility that that licenses the NPI ever.

But open questions, too, often allow for negative propositions and negative answers:

  1. When have I ever let you down?

The question in (4) clearly allows for the possibility that the speaker hasn't let the listener down. And here we see, of course, that ever is completely grammatical.

The if-clauses in conditionals are semantically similar to closed questions. Consider the conditional in (5):

  1. If you have ever been to France, you will have come across ...

The if-clause in (5), just like the question in (3) expressly allows for two ideas, the positive polarity one that you have been to France and the negative polarity one that you have not. And lo and behold ever is grammatical here too!

Notice that it is the semantics that seems to allow for ever here. Other constructions used with a conditional meaning will also allow ever:

  1. Ever go to France without me and you'll regret it.

The first conjunct in (6), just like a regular conditional protasis allows for both possibilities that you will go to France without the speaker and that you won't.

Certain single word items may also sneakily host semantically negative ideas or entailments. Some examples might be the words only or but (when used with a similar meaning to only):

  1. You only ever go to France in January.

Although (7) looks like a positive sentence, part of its asserted meaning is:

  1. You don't go to France outside of January.

And again we see in (7) that ever occurs happily in this environment.

There are all sorts of other situations which covertly involve negative ideas and entailments, for example comparative constructions, but we have probably covered enough here already.

The Original Posters question

The Original Poster asks how one can use the negative polarity item lift a finger, or a phrase with a similar meaning, in a positive sentence. In this case they have in mind that when someone makes even a minimal effort to help a certain group of people (i.e. they 'lift a finger to help'), that group of people will show solidarity with them for ever.

One way to do this is to use the NPI lift a finger in a positive clause which also allows for or entails a negative polarity proposition of some sort. In other words we can use the NPI in a clause which involves some sort of covert negation. Two clear possibilities are 1) to use it in a conditional protasis, or 2) to use it in a clause under the scope of a word like only or but:

  1. If you even lift a finger to help them, they will be your allies for life.
  2. You need but lift a finger to help them to secure a friend for life.
  3. You only have to lift a finger in support and they'll be by your side for ever more.
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    At last! I will go with your sentence number 10, thanks for GETTING IT! This was my actual problem and only realised this when you gave the answer in that comment. Fascinating! Why is it com. wiki? Does that mean that the rep will not be awarded to you?
    – fev
    Jul 14 at 10:52
  • @fev I'm not generally answering questions on EL&U at the moment - don't want to give the impression that that's changed :) Jul 14 at 11:29
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    Fair enough. Thanks for the effort anyways, I am sure it is beneficial to all.
    – fev
    Jul 14 at 11:30
  • Isn't "never" basically just a contraction of "not ever" though? You see it in some early-middle English written as "n'ever" or more commonly "ne'er". Jul 18 at 13:40
  • @DarrelHoffman Yes, you can think of it that way , but it doesn't make any difference, I don’t think. :) [Unless I misunderstand you]. Jul 18 at 13:55
13

The least you can do is make a token effort (or make a token gesture). This describes something which is the minimal action, at best suggesting that you have the will to act even if you don't intend to do much just now, or at worst being a form of mockery.

One of Lexico's meanings of "token" as an adjective is "for the sake of appearances or as a symbolic gesture." Examples:

In response to growing public concern over the plight of the unemployed graduates, the government has made a few token moves to provide jobs.

These largely token measures have done little to quell public anger at the violent actions of the police.

But even the head acknowledges that her school is beyond such token gestures.

Cambridge Learners Dictionary has

A token action is small or unimportant and may show your future intentions or may only pretend to:

He made a token effort to find a job.

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    The idea of "symbolic gesture" is very close to what I need, but the expression you are suggesting has a certain negative, even ironic connotation at times. I want to avoid that.
    – fev
    Jul 12 at 14:30
  • 2
    @fev you can just leave off "token" and say "Make a gesture" which ties in nicely with lift a finger, since lifting a finger is technically a kind of gesture.
    – barbecue
    Jul 15 at 14:41
9

The collocation do the bare minimum fits:

The smallest possible quantity or the least fulfilling, but still adequate, condition that is required, acceptable, or suitable for some purpose. — Wiktionary

This is slightly rude, however.


In your specific context, I also think "get off (one's) ass" fits (definition from Cambridge), though it may not be socially appropriate:

a rude phrase meaning to force yourself to start doing something and to stop being lazy

This has a sense of motion that you were looking to capture.


If you want to be more polite, you have to be more specific. For example: "Please spend a little time replying to those who have reached out to you."


The expression "lift a finger" is overwhelmingly used in the negative, to the point where Cambridge Dictionary even includes "not" in the definition, so I wouldn't use it here.

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    You are the first who understood exactly what I need. I will probably have to go with *do the bare minimum* in the end. As you say, there might not be any such expression that would be socially acceptable.
    – fev
    Jul 12 at 14:26
  • I don't think you're going to find a phrase which is 100% socially acceptable as the whole enterprise of doing the base minimum tends to be rather frowned upon, however it's phrased! I think "do the bare minimum" is fine.
    – Dannie
    Jul 12 at 21:58
  • Other possible suggestions (I don't like making a separate answer when someone has really got it right, so I'll just leave these here and if you want to incorporate, please feel free: "show the least bit of initiative" "demonstrate even a small amount of initiative" "make a nominal effort" "show that you are trying" "show you're willing to pull your weight [maybe stronger than you want]". "get off your ass" in some instances could be replaced with "get off the couch".
    – msouth
    Jul 13 at 22:13
  • Fitting this into the sample gives "You will never be abandoned in this community. You only need to do the bare minimum". That's a confusing sentence -- "bare minimum" here makes it sound as if the community is terrible and not worth getting involved more than you're forced to. Jul 14 at 3:13
7

You will never be abandoned in this community. You’ll only be asked to pitch in if the need arises.

If the OP prefers, adding "once" will suggest the minimum amount of collaboration is expected.

pitch in

to start to do something as part of a group, especially something helpful:
If we all pitch in together, it shouldn't take too long.
Cambridge Dictionary

5

You will never be abandoned in this community. You only need a modicum of effort.

Lexico defines modicum as

A small quantity of a particular thing, especially something considered desirable or valuable.

0
4

For the example I suggest

You will never be abandoned in this community. You only need to involve yourself a little bit.

This suggests some kind of minimal action, which would be reciprocated by the community.

Merriam-Webster has

involve oneself in
to participate in
She involves herself in everything her children do.

Lexico has

involve
VERB
1.2 be/get involved
Be or become occupied or engrossed in something.
Her husband had been very involved in his work.

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    I commented to Laurel's answer before noticing yours :) You beat him by 3 minutes. Your solution is good also!
    – fev
    Jul 12 at 14:28
  • Good socially acceptable wording
    – qwr
    Jul 12 at 22:48
4

Since you say you'd like the expression to contain the image of movement, I'd suggest

You will never be abandoned in this community. You only need to pull a little weight.

Merriam-Webster defines the phrase "Pulling one's own weight" as

to do the things that one should be doing as part of a group of people who are working together

Thus pulling only a little weight is less than the fair amount, which seems to match what you want to express.

4

Araucaria provided a positive context in the three sample sentences, and thus saved the expression from its usual sarcastic tone. However, in general, un-negating "lift a finger" is hard to pull off without alienating your listener.

Therefore I suggest

Make a bit of an effort

Examples:

I took that class and it's not very hard. Make a bit of an effort and you'll get at least a C.

I know that keeping your room clean is not a priority for you. I just need you to make a bit of an effort. Keep the clean clothes separate from the dirty ones; pick up the clothes from the floor every day; don't leave food or dishes in your room. That's all I require!

Another option (which would fit in the above examples) would be

Take care of the basics

3

Most of the answers are answering your question satisfactorily, but for the original context I think the proper antonym would be "speak up".

"You will never be abandoned in this community. You only need to speak up" implies the help is always available for the asking, with the only effort required to receive it being a simple request - not so much as lifting a finger.

Generally "say the word" is a set phrase for this kind of armed-and-ready help. "Speak up" is a shortened version of essentially the same thing that fits better without a specific task being referenced.

1
  • With young children, "say the [magic] word" is a reminder to be polite and say "please". I'm now wondering, is this usage the same origin?
    – nigel222
    Jul 13 at 14:40
2

Make a perfunctory gesture.

This implies doing the absolute minimum that you're socially expected to, where doing anything less might be considered rude. Examples might include: bringing the cheapest possible gift to an office holiday gift exchange, tipping the waiter 10% at a restaurant (15% has long been the generally accepted minimum in the US, though nowadays 20% is becoming the norm), signing someone's group birthday card even though you don't particularly like them, sneaking out of a party you didn't want to go to 10 minutes into it just so people could see that you came, etc. At least you made some minimal effort, showed up, or whatever.

Similar though subtly different terms might be cursory or pro forma.

2

A common idiom prompting people to request aid is, "just say the word."

For example, "You will never be abandoned in this community. Just say the word, and you will have more help than you can use."

It means that, at the slightest hint, your request will be answered.

1

I don't think there's an obvious phrase you've overlooked, i.e. a movement based perfunctory minimum contribution.

However as a fun option, you could rework the sentence to use "lift a finger"?

You will never be abandoned in this community. You only need to lift a finger, occasionally.

-1

You will never be abandoned in this community. You only need to raise your hand to receive support.

-1
  1. "say the word"
  2. "at the drop of a hat"
  3. "lift a finger"

Contrary to your assertion, I have seen "lift a finger" used in the positive context.

"You need only lift a finger and we will come running to assist you."

Alternatively:

"You need only say the word and we will come running to assist you."

Also:

"We will come running to assist you at the drop of a hat."

This last one isn't necessarily an action being done by the addressee, so that may or may not work for what you want.

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    Yes, technically your examples have positive verbs, but surprise surprise, ONLY does negate. If you read the answer I have accepted, you will understand that You need only lift a finger contains a "covert" negation, as the author of this answer called it.
    – fev
    Jul 14 at 18:03
  • @fev "only" is not a word of negation, plain and simple. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/only Instead, it conveys exactly what the question was getting at: to specify that we're talking about the minimum amount of effort.
    – levininja
    Jul 14 at 18:10
  • Your final sentence is going to need to have the word "only" in it (or its equivalent) because you're trying to convey the meaning of talking about the bare minimum effort. That meaning is not a part of any of these phrases; it's the meaning of "only."
    – levininja
    Jul 14 at 18:12
  • ONLY says YES to one element, but also NO to all the rest.
    – fev
    Jul 14 at 18:18
  • @fev "only" is a part of the example sentence that you gave in your own question. "You only need to..."
    – levininja
    Jul 14 at 18:24
-2

I would say the opposite of 'not lift a finger' is 'does everything in his/her power'.

  • Instead of just watching TV he does everything in his power to help with the dishes.
  • He did everything in his power to get Jimmy released from prison.
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    I think you missed the crux of the question: "Is there any expression or phrase that would express the minimum effort needed as a contribution that would lead to receiving support?"
    – Laurel
    Jul 13 at 16:11

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