The idiom “errands to run” can be confusing the first time you see it. Who is running where?
In fact, however, it has a fairly straightforward meaning. It means undertaking a short journey to complete one or several tasks.
Idioms are a group of words that have a figurative meaning that is difficult to deduce from the literal meaning of their individual words.
They can contribute to how fluent a person’s English sounds, because they make up a good deal of the spoken language.
Most native English speakers use idioms all the time without even thinking about it, even if they do not necessarily understand the precise meaning of what they are saying!
Having errands to run means there are tasks you need to complete outside of your home. These are usually things to do with personal administration and home economics, including shopping, picking up dry cleaning, going to the bank, and delivering things to friends.
Funnily enough, the fact that the word “errand” is almost exclusively used in the context of the phrase “running errands” or “errands to run”, means that there is some confusion, even among native English speakers, about what it actually means.
The word errand has two crucial elements. The first is a short journey or excursion, and the second is a task or tasks that need to be completed.
The fact that this word has this dual implication sets it apart from other words like journey, excursion, or outing, which share only the first meaning, namely that of going somewhere.
It also sets it apart from words like chore, duty, job, or task, which only imply the second meaning, namely that of doing something that needs to be accomplished.
You can do chores or tasks at home, but you cannot run errands at home.
How to use “errands to run” in a sentence
Using the phrase “errands to run” is fairly straightforward. “Errands to run” is something you have.
You can therefore use it in the same way as you would use anything else that you have, such as, “I have a yoga class at 4 pm”, or “I have a meeting with my boss today.”
So, for example, if you were going to ask someone to meet you for a coffee while you were in town to pick up some dry cleaning, you might say the following.
Another common way the phrase is used involves someone running an errand on someone else’s behalf.
If you have to inform your superior at work that you will be taking a slightly longer lunch break because there is something you need to do for a friend or loved one, you might phrase it as follows:
The origins of the phrase “errands to run”
The term “errand” derives from the Old English ǣrende, which is of Germanic origin, and which means message or mission.
Knowing the origins of the phrase helps us make sense of why we say we “run” to complete a mission or deliver a message.
Before email and the organized postal system, all messages used to be delivered by hand.
Many cultures have a long tradition of “message runners,” who would run along postal routes to transmit written or oral correspondence across long distances.
Alternative ways to describe what you are doing
Most people, particularly in written correspondence, do not actually want to hear what errands you have to run.
The fact that you have to pick up your dress at the dry cleaner and buy diapers because you are running low, does not make for really riveting conversation!
Most people will recognize the experience of doing these fairly mundane tasks from their own life and understand everything they need to know when they hear the phrase “I have errands to run.”
That said, if you are close to someone and would like them to understand more specifically what it is you are going to spend your afternoon doing, you can of course skip the expression “errands to run” and let them know precisely where you’ll be going.
For example, you might say “I am going to go grab some groceries before I pick up Jill from soccer practice.”
If, however, you don’t want to give the person you are speaking to your day’s itinerary, but would like to avoid saying you have “errands to run,” you might say one of the following synonymous phrases: “I have some tasks to complete in town,” or “I have to go check some things off my to-do list,” or “I have to go pick up some things at the store.”
Depending on the circumstances, it can often also be helpful to give someone a timeframe for how long you will be gone.
If, for example, you are asking a babysitter to watch your child while you are out, you might say something in the same vein as the following:
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