What does the idiom "in black and white" mean?

Are you using the idiom in black and white but not sure about its meaning? Using idioms, which are important elements of spoken and written language, in the right place strengthens your language skills. Examine the meaning of the in black and white idiom and the situations in which it is used.

Meaning of "in black and white"


The expression “in black and white” is used to mean something that is absolute, certain, or definitive. When something is “in black and white”, it is clear, unambiguous, and not open to debate. It is a formal way of indicating that something is clearly written or stated, and that there is no room for misunderstanding or doubt.


The expression “in black and white” likely originated with the idea of words written down in black ink on a white piece of paper. This is the traditional color scheme of the written word, and thus the phrase “in black and white” came to be associated with clarity and certainty. While one could also make the argument that the phrase originated with a nautical background, referring to the written shipping instructions that were sometimes painted onto the hull of a boat, the written word is the most commonly accepted explanation.


The phrase “in black and white” can be used in both formal and informal contexts. In a more formal context, it is often used to indicate a legally binding document or statement, such as a contract or an agreement. In such a context, the phrase implies that the document is written in clear, precise language and that all involved parties understand their respective obligations and rights. In more informal contexts, the phrase can be used less literally to indicate any situation in which the facts are clear and absolute, such as a well-known industry standard. It can also be used to indicate a situation in which the written rules or laws are clear and indisputable.

Example Sentences

  • “I need you to sign this contract so that our agreement is in black and white.”
  • “It’s in black and white – if you don’t follow the rules, you will be disqualified.”
  • “It’s a well-known fact in the industry, so it’s in black and white.”
  • “The regulation is in black and white, so there’s no room for interpretation.

The meanings of the words in the "in black and white" 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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