Learn English Phrases – Play it by ear / Play it safe


Everyday English Speaking Course

Hello students, this is Shayna, your teacher at EspressoEnglish.net, and today’s phrase of the day is “I’m going to play it by ear.” The expression “play it by ear” means to make decisions about your actions while you are in the process of performing those actions without previous planning.

Here’s an example that will make it clearer. Let’s say you’re going on a trip to Europe, you’re taking a vacation, and while you’re in Europe, you want to visit various countries; Spain, France, Italy, Germany etc., but you haven’t decided exactly how long you’re going to spend in each place.

If somebody asks you “How long are you going to spend in each country?” – you could answer, “I’m not sure. I’m going to play it by ear.” This means you will make the decision in the moment; after you experience each country, then you will decide whether to stay there for a longer time, or stay for just a short time.

So, again, “play it by ear” means to make those decisions in the moment of performing the actions without planning out all the details previously. This expression comes from music. If you play a piece of music “by ear,” it means you play it after hearing it, after getting familiar with the melody and not by looking at a piece of sheet music, that’s the music written down on a piece of paper.

Another expression with the word play is “play it safe.” To “play it safe” means to take action to avoid risk, or avoid bad consequences. Here’s an example with that. Let’s say you need to go to the airport to catch your flight to go Europe, and let’s say it’s an international flight, so you need to arrive 2 hours before the flight is scheduled to leave, but you could say, “I’d like to play it safe, so I’m going to arrive 3 hours before my flight leaves.” You want to avoid the risk of missing the flight in case of an unexpected delay, so you “play it safe,” in this case by choosing to arrive earlier than necessary.

So those are our two phrases for today: “I’m going to play it by ear,” meaning I will make the decisions in the process of my actions, without previous planning, and “I’d like to play it safe,” meaning I’d like to take steps to avoid risk or avoid something bad happening.

Thanks for joining me for today’s English phrases, and I hope to see you next time. I’ll be back tomorrow with more spoken English expressions.

You’ll learn hundreds of conversational English expressions in this course:

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