What does the idiom "by trial and error" mean?

You are wondering about the meaning of the phrase by trial and error, maybe you heard it in a TV show, movie or theater play. Although this idiom is not used very often, it enriches your capacity of expression and strengthens communication. In which case is the expression by trial and error used and what is its meaning?

Meaning of "by trial and error"


The phrase 'by trial and error' is an idiom used to describe a process of gradually learning through experimentation. It means to find a solution to a problem or to learn something without having a specific plan in mind. It is a slow process, but the end result is usually better than if the person had followed a predetermined plan.


The phrase ‘by trial and error’ originated in the late 1600s in England. The phrase was first seen in print in 1672 in the book The Character of a Trimmer by English preacher Edward Stillingfleet. He wrote “The way of finding out truth by arguing, is like the practice of Physic by trial and error.” This phrase is now used in both official and colloquial English to describe a process of attempting and discarding different solutions to a problem in order to find the best one.


The phrase 'by trial and error' is used in everyday language to refer to a process of learning or discovery through experimentation. It is used in educational contexts to describe how students may learn a subject by trying different methods and techniques and seeing what works best for them. It is also used to refer to the process of inventors or entrepreneurs attempting different strategies to find the most successful method.

In addition to its educational and entrepreneurial applications, the phrase can also be used to describe everyday tasks, such as cooking. Attempting a new recipe for the first time is an example of trial and error, as the cook must try different combinations of ingredients to achieve the desired taste. It is also used metaphorically in the sense of making a decision without having a specific plan in mind.

Example Sentences

  • The best way to learn a new language is by trial and error.
  • The first time I made this cake, I had to figure out the recipe by trial and error.
  • He was trying to fix the car, but it ended up being a process of trial and error.
  • We went on vacation without a plan, it was basically a trial and error approach.

The meanings of the words in the "by trial and error" 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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