“There is a fine line between being controversial and not thinking at all.”

This is one of the most wonderful “fine line” sentences I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them—mostly wrong, although not as deliciously wrong as this one.

I don’t know where students (and others, for that matter) get their idea of what the expression “fine line” means. Do they think “fine” in this context means “very nice,” “praiseworthy,” “good”? There’s a really nice line between…? I suppose if that’s what the expression means, then yes, the line between being controversial and not thinking at all is a praiseworthy line: let’s keep those two separate, by all means!

But the expression that actually means that is “bright line,” which in my experience is primarily a British usage, not “fine line.”

A “fine line” is something else entirely, drawing on the meaning “thin, delicate, subtle,” and maybe also drawing a bit on “very precise.” “Fine” hair isn’t “very nice” hair; it’s thin-shafted hair. “Fine” embroidery is precise embroidery using very thin threads. A fine line is a line so narrow, so thin, so slender, as to be almost undetectable, visible only to a precisely discerning eye. That’s the line they sang about in “It’s a thin line between love and hate”: the two have a common edge of passion so similar as to be nearly invisible and easily crossed. Thin line=fine line.

So, if my student had meant what she wrote, she would have been observing that the difference between, or dividing line between, being controversial and not thinking at all is so slim as to be virtually invisible.

Well, if the current batch of political candidates and their backers is any indication, maybe my student was right after all on this one.

But in the general world, I like to think there’s quite a difference between having controversial thoughts and having no thoughts.

Keep an eye out for those “fine lines” (and I don’t mean the wrinkles there are creams for): I’ll bet you’ll be surprised at where people think they can be drawn.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““There is a fine line between being controversial and not thinking at all.”

  • Philip Schaefer

    There is a fine line between stupid thinking and not thinking at all.
    Just as, in current fashion magazines, there is a fine line between haute couture and unbelievably ugly and unflattering shit. Only, in the case of fashion, the difference is several thousand dollars a pop.

    This is Mary Jane, by the way. On Phil’s account. It happens.

  • wardo

    I would replace “fine line” in that sentence with “chasm”, or, in honor of the Hardy Boys, “ravine”.

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