In reference to my question about the meaning of “It’s one thing to dance like Fred Astaire, but Ginger did it backwards in high heels,” on the Time magazine’s article (June 29) of John Roberts’ ruling on Healthcare, I found the phrase, “strike the match” in the following sentence in the same article, “Roberts rules.”

“When Roberts took his seat at the center of the bench on June 28, the final day of the court term, and began reading aloud his opinion, he sounded at first as if he were striking the match. The conservative critique of the so-called individual mandate was correct, he intoned: Congress lacks the power to require citizens to buy insurance they don’t want.”

To me whose mother language totally lacks the concept of article – a/an, the, non-article - in its language system, interpretation and distinction of definite / infinitive/ non-article is always a serious headache.

Although I see “strike a match” and “strike the match,” both of which are in constant currency since around 1980 in Google Ngram, I can’t find either of them as an idiom in Cambridge, Oxford and Merriam-Webster.

Only McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs defines “strike a match” as to light a match by rubbing it on a rough surface, with an example, Mary struck a match and lit a candle.

What does “John Roberts was striking the match” mean? Was he lighting a match to fuel the serious dispute, or bringing the dispute to the end?

What is the difference of “strike the match” from “strike a match”? Are they exactly same or totally irrelevant idioms or expressions?

2 Answers 2


Oishi-san, the match is part of an extended metaphor used by the writer. Looking further back in that article, we see

After a party-line vote by the court to decide the disputed 2000 election for George W. Bush over Al Gore, and another in the controversial Citizens United campaign-spending case, the Washington atmosphere reeked of gasoline, and the Obamacare case looked like a match ready to fall.

The image is of gasoline all around, rendering the President's agenda extremely combustible, and a match (Obama's health care bill) being readied to ignite it. Roberts' initial words seemed to be "striking the match" that would set fire to the gasoline.

So in this case there is no difference between the two expressions save use of the definite article to refer to a particular match being struck.

  • 2
    Although it is not just any old match, it is the match which is suspended above and ready to fall onto the gasoline.
    – Jim
    Aug 31, 2012 at 4:33
  • @Jim: Exactly. Which is why I specified "a particular match."
    – Robusto
    Aug 31, 2012 at 11:46

What is the difference of “strike the match” from “strike a match”? Are they exactly same or totally irrelevant idioms or expressions?

I'll answer in an indirect way.

Think of the proverb "The straw that broke the camel's back", also expressed as "The last straw".

In the story, the unfortunate camel had many straws piled onto its back but only one straw was 'the straw that did the damage'.


He placed a straw on the camel's back, then he placed another straw on the camel's back and finally he placed the straw on the camel's back that broke it.

Similarly, in your context, there may have been many metaphorical matches being struck but the important one was the one that caused the metaphorical fire.

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