What does the idiom "be on the defensive" mean?

The phrase be on the defensive is often used in English, but what does this idiom mean? When idioms are used in the right situations, they strengthen communication and enrich the language. You can communicate more effectively by learning the meaning of be on the defensive.

Meaning of "be on the defensive"


The phrase 'be on the defensive' means to be guarded or prepared to protect oneself from potential criticisms or attacks. It can be used both literally and figuratively. In the figurative sense, it can refer to defending oneself in an argument or reacting to a situation with a cautious or reserved attitude.


The term 'be on the defensive' finds its origin in military terminology, as soldiers would position themselves in a defensive formation as a means of protecting themselves from an impending attack. The phrase has since been adopted in everyday language and used to mean being prepared for criticism and setbacks.


The phrase 'be on the defensive' is used in both professional and personal contexts. In a professional setting, a person may be on the defensive when responding to a difficult question from a colleague or supervisor. In a personal setting, it can refer to bracing oneself for a potential argument or defending one's opinions or values in an emotionally charged situation.

Example Sentences

  • When asked to explain the discrepancy in the reports, she was on the defensive and refused to answer any further questions.
  • I could tell he was on the defensive as soon as I mentioned his past decisions.
  • When confronted with a difficult situation, it's best to remain composed and be on the defensive.

The meanings of the words in the "be on the defensive" idiom

Beyond the Literal: Figurative Language in Idioms

Idioms often use figurative language to convey a message that is not meant to be taken literally. For instance, the idiom "bite the bullet" means to endure a painful or difficult situation without complaint, while "hold your horses" means to be patient and wait. Other idioms, like "kick the bucket" or "pop your clogs," use euphemisms to talk about death.


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