This week, I was stuck trying to explain to my boss that I started to “débroussailler le projet” (a French expression, literally: remove brushwood from the project). What I meant with this expression is that I already explored some lines, tried several approaches, analyzed important parts, although I've not got to the core yet.

The best I could find, without resorting to complex periphrases, was “to explore the project”, but I believe a better translation exists, closer to what I meant. Any ideas?

  • 2
    Your 'clear the brush', suitably surrounded by weasel words, would sound fine metaphorically in English.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 11:33
  • Many of tanantish's suggestions are good. At a simpler level I might say I've made some progress or I've started digging into it.
    – Old Pro
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 5:56

8 Answers 8


Excuse the verbose reply, I had a bit of a challenge finding a single phrase and I came to the conclusion that it's kinda hard to describe the activity of trialling various approaches, investigating leads, and analysing the problem, and the stage of analysis you're at in one go - in my head, these aren't strongly coupled.

If I extrapolate out and imagine that you can skip past it all and just want to express the current result of your work, that's a third thing, but I figure that might deliver the most relevant information in one go.

So, with that preamble:

  • If you're after something to express that you're getting close to really understanding the project/issue, you could say that you were getting a handle on it. That would be providing a sense that it was a problem that you didn't know how to solve before, but that you're getting to a point where you know how deal with it, or that you're getting a clearer understanding of it. (Another alternative for this sense would be: getting your head around the problem.)

  • As a sub note if you're wanting to emphasize the sense of getting past the distractions and getting close to the real issue, you could also say that you're getting to the heart of the matter.

  • If you want to talk about what you've done to get to that point, I can't think of anything I'd use in preference to exploring the issues (which you've already got), or perhaps exploring alternatives. If you're trying to express that you've done all the required things as specified in a procedure or something like that, perhaps something like done due diligence? (someone might want to sanity-check me on this one though, this could be a very localised public service usage)

  • If you want to say you're still working on the problem - then you could be still hashing out the details (actually working and defining out detail), working your way through to the nitty-gritty (getting to the detail), or be in the thick of it (some unspecified point, probably nearer to the start, rather than the end, where it's still a bit unclear)

If you wanted to put all of them together for the fun of it...

Boss, this week I've been exploring alternatives and I think the team is slowly getting a handle on the issues. We're still in the middle of hashing out the details but come Monday? I think we'll have got to the heart of the matter and will be ready to present you a solution.

  • @Martha Thanks for the edits - will try be less sloppy in the future looks sheepish
    – tanantish
    Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 16:40
  • No need to be sheepish; I mostly just added some italics to aid readability, I don't think you were sloppy at all.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 16:55
  • 1
    @tanantish: I am familiar with and would use the expression "due diligence" in a engineering context in California. There's your sanity check. Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 5:32
  • 1
    Due diligence is a term of art with a specific meaning and not applicable to the OP's situation. In particular, if you've done due diligence then you are done with the task, but the OP is just getting started.
    – Old Pro
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 5:53

(The first thing that came to mind was dégrossir. Rats, wrong language!)

How about 'hash out the details'?


Probably the best English can offer is the prosaic I've made a start.


Thinking about this again, I think the nearest to the French might be I've done the groundwork.


Consider debride ("To remove necrotic tissue or foreign matter from (a wound or the like)") or debridement if the clearing-away amounts to removing bad or diseased code or cruft.

Consider clear the undergrowth as an alternative to clear the brush. There is a strong difference between British-English and American-English use of these terms. In the British-English corpus, Ngrams shows clear the brush with practically zero use, but clear the undergrowth much used. The American-corpus ngrams shows clear the brush used several times as frequently as clear the undergrowth.


Started to investigate the issue is what I'd have used (mimicking what my US colleagues are using in similar contexts).


Clear the cobwebs, maybe? Not an exact rendering from the original, but could convey similar meaning. Used literally, it might apply to unattended tasks, but figuratively it should be fine.

  • Well ... "Brush off the cobwebs", "clean off the cobwebs", and similar phrases are a common idiom meaning to take something that is old and hasn't been used in a while and start using it again. Like, "I dusted the cobwebs off this 10-year-old video game and started playing it again." OP seems to be indicating this is a NEW project.
    – Jay
    Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 13:47
  • Which is what my answer's rider says, in fewer words.
    – Kris
    Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 13:58

Sounds like you haven't finished peeling the onion.


You could just say, "I have not yet got down to the nitty-gritty of the project."

  • 1
    In AmE, only the singular 'nitty-gritty' is ever used ir heard. Is yours Indian-English?
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 11:32
  • @Mitch: Lack of prior usage rather than Indian English ;) Edited now...
    – Bravo
    Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 12:59
  • Another similar one is "to get down to brass tacks". I always thought nitty-gritty is more about getting into detail, while brass tacks has a more 'we're getting to the essence of the issue'
    – tanantish
    Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 15:14

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