I'm looking for an idiom that means something like "to give someone a brutal talking to":

For example:

After Jim failed the first two exams, Prof. X gave Jim ____, which set Jim straight.

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    Specifically one that works with the verb "give"?
    – Stuart F
    Commented Feb 12 at 22:50
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    You’ve already found your idiom: to give a talking to. A talking to is “a rebuke, a reprimand, a scolding; chiefly in to give (a person) a (good) talking to...” (OED). Commented Feb 13 at 3:12
  • I would have considered using chastise instead of giving a lecture. At least that's what fathers of unruly youngsters used to do back in the day. I suspect that there are differences my non-native ear/brain is not picking up. Commented Feb 13 at 13:49
  • Are you interested in whether the action is punitive (i.e. just punishment) or reformative (to try to get Jim to change)?
    – StuperUser
    Commented Feb 13 at 16:43
  • 1
    @StuperUser "set Jim straight" suggests the latter.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 13 at 17:23

22 Answers 22


"Dressing down" may not have the "stern but fair" meaning that your example suggests, but it's what first came to mind.

a severe reprimand

In your example, the usage would be something like "Jim was given a brutal dressing down".

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    OLD mentions that this term is old-fashioned and informal.
    – LPH
    Commented Feb 13 at 4:49

One expression is, from Farlex

read the riot act
To scold, reprimand, or reprove one severely for an error or mistake.

I was read the riot act by my boss last week for messing up the accounting software.

So in the OP's example, perhaps

After Jim failed the first two exams, Prof. X read Jim the riot act, which set Jim straight.

The expression is possibly related to the Riot Act of the 18th century, which involved making a proclamation to the parties who needed to be brought to order.



A harsh verbal reprimand (Farlex Dictionary of Idioms)

After Jim failed the first two exams, Prof. X gave Jim a tongue-lashing, which set Jim straight.


Perhaps Prof. X decided to haul him over the coals, in other words "to criticize sharply; censure; scold" him. Collins

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    We say rake rather than haul in AmE. Commented Feb 13 at 2:54

Even thought Tinfoil Hat mentioned this in a comment, I thought it deserved an answer on its own.

In , the phrase "a good talking-to" fits:

After Jim failed the first two exams, Prof. X gave Jim a good talking-to, which set Jim straight.

This would be used in a situation where someone did something wrong and that person deserves a stern lecture on what they did wrong and possibly how they should have handled the situation better.

Collins dictionary has the closest definition to how I've used this phrase, and how I've heard others use it:

If you give someone a talking-to, you speak to them severely, usually about something unacceptable that they have done, in order to show them they were wrong.


Synonyms: reprimand, lecture, rebuke, scolding

TheFreeDictionary.com has a more terse definition that doesn't seem to suggest this idiom fits the ending of your sentence: "which set Jim straight".

To rebuke, scold, or berate someone thoroughly and intensely.

Cambridge has a similar definition:

a severe talk with someone who has done something wrong

Anecdotally I use this as a dual purpose idiom to basically yell at someone to make it crystal clear they did something wrong while also including information to make sure they don't do it again. This could be a not-so-subtle suggestion about what to do instead, or a stern enough explanation of the problem that the other person wouldn't dare do it again.

  • Same in British English (for once!)
    – nigel222
    Commented Feb 14 at 10:39

Give someone an earful: To scold someone.


In the UK at least, the metaphorical use of carpet can be used in informal contexts:

carpet ... [British English]


  1. [transitive verb] [informal]: to reprimand [Collins]

carpet (informal, British English): to speak angrily to somebody because they have done something wrong

  • Senior officials were carpeted for leaking information to the press. [OLD]

Collins licenses the related expression on the carpet for US use:

on the carpet [in American English] a. before an authority or superior for an accounting of one's actions or a reprimand

  • He was called on the carpet again for his carelessness

which goes a long way to explaining the use of the metaphor.

  • John's been carpeted again for not handing in an essay.
  • 1
    The verb form is almost definitely BrE only, I've never heard of it over here.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 13 at 15:42
  • ... Yes. Longman has the caveats: [especially British English; informal]. Commented Feb 13 at 17:00
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    Although in AmE I've certainly heard the phrase "called to the carpet." Commented Feb 13 at 18:40
  • There's also the metaphor 'pull the rug out from under someone'. Commented Feb 13 at 20:02
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    This is a pretty archaic usage, even over here in the UK.
    – Brondahl
    Commented Feb 14 at 15:55

Two informal options:

tear a strip off (someone)

PHRASE [VERB inflects] If you tear a strip off someone or if you tear them off a strip, you speak to them angrily and criticize them severely. [British, informal]

He heard Nora tearing a strip off an orderly for not returning the food bins to the kitchen soon enough. The police arrived to tear him off a strip. (Collins dictionary)

After Jim failed the first two exams, Prof. X tore a strip off of Jim, which set Jim straight.

Or if you comfortable with being cruder:

a bollocking

NOUN slang a severe telling-off; dressing-down (Collins dictionary)

After Jim failed the first two exams, Prof. X gave Jim a bollocking, which set Jim straight.

N.B. Bollocks is crude slang for testicles.

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    If "bollocking" is too strong for you, it's often euphemized to "rollicking". Commented Feb 13 at 22:23

To tell someone off is to speak angrily when reprimanding them.

To give someone a piece of your mind is to speak very candidly with someone about something, often expressing anger or disappointment at them.

I will say that these both suggest a somewhat personal attack, so it may not describe something you'd see in a professor-student relationship as in the example.

Another term is a come to Jesus talk, which is a more caring approach to having a difficult conversation in the hopes of changing someone's behavior.

  • 1
    I think "tell off" is more like arguing, not reprimanding. If someone insults you, you might tell them off in response.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 13 at 15:44
  • I think "tell off" is reprimanding, not arguing, but not necessarily with anger. A teacher might correct a child's bad manners by telling them off, for example. .. Seems this is a term to be avoided if you want unambiguity Commented Feb 15 at 20:59
  • @Barmar Agree that "tell off" is a more aggressive than a reprimand, and that it's done in response to something that someone did which you didn't like, but "arguing" to me implies a back-and-forth. A telling-off is pretty much a one-sided affair. Commented Feb 15 at 21:07
  • +1 for "come to Jesus talk" based on the example in the OP. The other two examples don't really fit though. Those are more about argumentation than admonishment.
    – Jagerber48
    Commented Feb 16 at 5:43

Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United Football Club, was famous for his yelling at underperforming players.

As noted in this BBC Learning English article the players referred to this as the hairdryer treatment.

When Sir Alex Ferguson was angry with his players, he shouted at them with such force, it was like having a hairdryer switched on in their faces. It became known as the hairdryer treatment.


"The fear of getting the hairdryer was the reason why we all played so well. He was a manager you wanted to do well for." (David Beckham)

In the UK, this became a well-known expression outside of the footballing context and is still used as an informal term for "giving someone a brutal talking to".


An old expression (my grandfather used it) is take to the woodshed. I mention it only for completeness; many other expressions are briefer, clearer, and more modern.


come down hard on (someone or something)

To treat someone strictly or with severe reproach.

I know I didn't do well on the exam, but I didn't expect my dad to come down so hard on me about it—he grounded me for a month! (Farlex Dictionary of Idioms)


Another option would be to rap on/over the knuckles:

to speak officially to someone in a severe or angry way because you disapprove of their actions:

He was rapped over the knuckles by the management. (Cambridge)


"What for"

To give someone what for Is to speak angrily to someone whose behaviour you strongly disapprove of

Somewhat old fashioned.

  • This sounds not unfamiliar, but can you give a full sentence with it? (and possibly a link where someone has used it). Is it regional do you think?
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 13 at 16:37
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    In my experience (southern England, 1950-1980) "what for" would be a physjcal punishment, a punch, slap or kick.
    – NL_Derek
    Commented Feb 13 at 20:39

To speak/talk to someone like a Dutch uncle.

After Jim failed the first two exams, Prof. X spoke to Jim like a Dutch uncle, which set Jim straight.

Dutch uncle is an informal term for a person who issues frank, harsh or severe comments and criticism to educate, encourage or admonish someone. Thus, a "Dutch uncle" is the reverse of what is normally thought of as avuncular or uncle-like (indulgent and permissive).

  • Interesting. I have never come across that expression until now. It makes sense though.
    – Peter
    Commented Feb 13 at 1:00
  • @Peter "It makes sense though" ? How does that make sense? How many stern uncles do you have that are Dutch?
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 13 at 16:35
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    It should be noted that referring to someone in a negative way with an ethnicity is currently considered pejorative, informal, and would be considered vulgar by most, and should most likely not be used.
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 13 at 16:36
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    @Mitch That caveat sounds a little "over the top" to say the least. The Dutch are remarkably laid back and cheerful lot. Do you feel the same about "Going Dutch" and "a Dutch treat"?
    – Greybeard
    Commented Feb 13 at 18:09

My suggestion is the verb remonstrate, roughly meaning 'to argue against' or 'to oppose'.

After Jim failed the first two exams, Prof. X remonstrated with him, which set Jim straight.

Although I haven't checked specifically, the Latin-based structure of the word seems to mean something like 'show the opposite', i.e. recognising the logic of another person's view or behaviour, and specifically arguing to oppose it.

When I find the word useful, it is typically because it can easily describe someone making a case that can be entirely calm, and even kind, but still painstakingly stern: the other person can be in absolutely no doubt as to the strength and reasoning of your thorough opposition.

So, I suppose, remonstration could be described as a very non-aggressive alternative to 'carpeting' or similar: 'I am not here to punish you, but to help you understand why your perfectly understandable thoughts [or activities] are actually mistaken.'

  • Nice. If you want to go with the 1800's style, I would prefer the use of expostulate. Also provided here as an alternative to your choice since the original poster requested brutal in the request for terms and phrases.
    – Devon Kiss
    Commented Feb 14 at 17:04

You can also say that

Prof. X chewed [or bawled] Jim out.

It means to reprimand, especially loudly or severely.

Source: Merriam–Webster.


I'm amazed that "berate" has not already been offered as a one-word alternative:

to scold or condemn vehemently and at length

Prof. X berated Jim for failing the first two exams, which set Jim straight.


In the Southeastern United States we say "come to jesus moment"

  • 1
    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Feb 13 at 15:34
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    Already offered... Commented Feb 13 at 17:33
  • A different phrase to the "Come to Jesus Meeting" is also called a "Prayer Meeting" sometimes. Also, regarding context, its difficult in the Southern United States to provide context on phrases and idioms with many only being verbally passed on in conversations and not written in a book, journal, or other publication and not enough time has passed to begin writing modern age Southern American idioms as the majority of the Educational community dejects commentary and history based in the south as invalid and unimportant as a method to erase history or intentionally avoid it.
    – Devon Kiss
    Commented Feb 14 at 16:58

Here are some single words that could be used for the give "a stern lecture" or the lecture itself. Scold (v) Upbraid (v) Harangue (n) Diatribe (n) Declaim (v) Rebuke (v) Reprimand (v, n) Reproach (v) Admonish (v)

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    Those are all great single words, but the OP is asking for an idiom.
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 13 at 16:39
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    Admonish or reprimand come the closest to the intended connotation: they imply a more formal, polite but stern warning. When used as technical or legal terms, an admonition would be a verbal warning that goes on the person’s record, and a reprimand is in writing.
    – Davislor
    Commented Feb 13 at 23:24
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    There is no requirements that common idioms be multi-word phrases, nor that idiomatic sentences contain phrasal clauses.
    – david
    Commented Feb 14 at 10:19

You can say 'tore them a new one' or 'ripped them to shreds' 'or 'gave someone a piece of their mind' its pretty extreme these but lots of people use them in the UK for if you're chatting to your friends

so for this its...

  • 'Prof. X tore Jim a new one' (kinda a jokey way of saying it)
  • 'Prof. X ripped Jim to shreds' (this implies it affected Jim a lot and left him upset)
  • 'Prof. X gave Jim a piece of his mind'

A flea in his ear


flea in one's ear (plural fleas in one's ear)

(idiomatic) A stinging rebuke or rebuff. If he bothers me again, I'll send him home with a flea in his ear.

After Jim failed the first two exams, Prof. X sent him back to his books with a flea in his ear.

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