#127 – TO PIN DOWN

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1. to understand, explain or describe something specifically
2. to keep people contained in a particular place (especially used when talking about military action)
3. to force someone to make a decision
4. to hold someone on the ground so they can’t move
For examples and explanations, listen to the episode.

Hello, this is Luke Thompson. You are listening to ‘A Phrasal Verb a Day’. Here comes another phrasal verb for you and this one is ‘to pin down’, ‘pin down’. P-I-N and down, okay? ‘To pin down’ or ‘pin something down’. It’s often separated.

So, we are going to look at three meanings here. The first one it to identify something, like to explain, to understand or describe something specifically or to identify something like, for example… Let’s see…

– I have been reading another book about The Beatles, my favourite subject and I found it interesting that The Beatles, they were such a success but it is hard to, kind of, pin down exactly why they were so big. You know, it’s hard to try… It’s hard to really understand specifically why they were so successful and popular. It’s hard to pin down the reason. You see? Was it the voices? Was it the song writing? Was it the personalities or was it something else, some other factor? It’s really hard to pin down the reason why they were so successful, okay? There you go.

You could say, like in the news at the moment there’s been this terrorist situation in Paris and there is a headline here from The Business Times and it says:

‘Update: Police pin down terror suspects in Paris flat ‘

and in that case it’s to actually identify where the terrorists are and, in fact, contain them within the flat. So, that’s another meaning to, kind of, keep people in a specific place so that they can’t move. And it’s usually used in conflicts like in war or in this case in a police situation. So, the police have pinned down these terror suspects in a flat and, in fact, I believe this morning there was a shootout and a couple of terrorists are now on the loose. It’s a bit scary. So, there you go.

Going back to the first meaning, which is to try and understand, explain or describe something specifically, often we use this with the word ‘hard’ like or ‘difficult’.

– It’s hard to pin down, or… It’s difficult to pin down the atmosphere in Paris at the moment. It’s really difficult to pin down exactly what the mood is. There is a sense that people are a bit sort of sad or a bit scared but at the same time there’s also a sense of community. People are being a bit more kind to each other in the streets, so it’s really difficult to kind of pin down exactly how people feel about these events. Whether they feel negative or if it’s making people feel somehow stronger in the face of the challenge. It’s really quite hard to pin down how people feel. Okay? So, that was ‘to understand or describe something specifically’.

And also we had ‘to keep people in a specific place’ like the soldiers may keep, you know, their enemy in a particular place. They managed to, you know… The soldiers managed to pin down the enemy troops inside the forest, for example. Okay. So, that’s two of them.

Now, here’s another one. It means to force someone to choose or force someone to make a decision. Let’s say, for example, you’ve asked someone to make a decision and they keep putting it off and putting it off and then they’re not making the decision, maybe they just… it’s a difficult decision and they do not want to make it and then eventually you would say:

– Look, we really need to pin him down to a decision

to force someone to make a decision.

– We’ve finally pinned him down and we’ve got him to agree to a meeting with us

Okay? There you go, pin somebody down.

And then the final one is quite literal and it means to hold someone on the ground. Now, if you literally pinned someone down, you would use a pin, which is like a metal spike that we usually use as a pin to attach a notice, like a paper notice to a notice board, to pin something on a board. If we have pin… You can use a pin to attach a badge on your clothing as well or a hairpin. So, it’s like a sharp piece of metal. If you’d pinned someone down, it would mean that you literally sort of attached them to the floor so that they couldn’t move. But if you pin someone down usually it doesn’t mean you are using a pin. Instead you, sort of, force them onto the floor in another way. So, if you’re having a fight with someone, you know, if you’re fighting and you’ve managed to pin the guy down, let’s say, he’s a violent drunk attacker or something and you fight with him and you’ve managed pin him down on the ground, that means that you’ve just… you’re holding him down firmly so that he can’t move, okay? Like, for example, me and my brother. I used to fight with my brother when we were kids and he, because he was like a couple of years older than me, he was usually stronger and he always used to… We’d have fights and he would pin me down on the ground and he would like hold my arms on the ground and I couldn’t move. It was really annoying. Except for once, I think the last time we ever had a fight, he pinned me down on the ground but because I was stronger at that point I managed to get my hand free and I hit him in the face. So, we haven’t had a fight since then.

Okay. So, to pin down, pin someone down.

– Officials are trying to pin down the cause of the power failure

They’re trying to understand exactly why the power failure happened.

– The soldiers… You know… The army have managed to pin down the soldiers in the woods.


– We, you know, we really need to speak to Jeff and to pin him down to a meeting

and then

– We were fighting and he pinned me down on the floor but I managed to get my hand free and I punched him in the face.

There you go. There’s another phrasal verb for you. There’ll be another one coming soon but for now… goodbye.