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“Like Chalk and Cheese”: Meaning, Usage, Examples

“Like Chalk and Cheese”: Meaning, Usage, Examples

English has plenty of odd proverbs that you can use to describe just about everything.

In this post, we’ll look at expressions used to describe differences between two people or things.

 

What does the expression “(like) chalk and cheese” mean?

The expression “chalk and cheese,” more fully written as “like chalk and cheese” or “as different as chalk and cheese,” is used to describe two people or things that are extremely unlike one another. To use this expression in a sentence, you just need to state the two different things and then add “are as different as chalk and cheese.” Similar expressions are “like oil and water” and “comparing apples to oranges.”

 

What kind of expression is “chalk and cheese”?

The expression “chalk and cheese” is a metaphor.

In a metaphor, you use a comparison to make a point about something. For example, you might call someone “cold.” This person isn’t literally cold, but rather the comparison shows the listener how uncaring they are.

Similarly, when you say that two people are as different “as chalk and cheese,” you aren’t literally saying one is like chalk and one is like cheese. You’re just saying that they’re different.

It’s worth noting that the exact figure of speech is a simile. A simile is a metaphor that uses “like” or “as” to make its comparison.

So the expression “like chalk and cheese” and the expression “as different as chalk and cheese” are both similes.

 

The usage of “chalk and cheese” in more detail

When you hear two people described as being “like chalk and cheese,” that means the two are about as different as you can imagine.

They might have different interests, different personalities, preferences that are extremely far apart from one another or just in general not be the same.

It’s kind of a weird expression, but if you think about it as a metaphor it makes sense. You wouldn’t want to eat a chalk sandwich, and you can’t write on a chalkboard with cheese. That means these two things are about as far apart as can be.

Examples

“My mother and her wife are as different as chalk and cheese, but they still love each other.”
“His two cats are like chalk and cheese. The only thing they have in common is their obsession with tuna.”

These two sentences show common uses of the expression “chalk and cheese.” In both cases, the meaning is that the two people (or cats) mentioned are different from one another.

How do you use the expression “chalk and cheese” in a sentence”?

To use “chalk and cheese” in a sentence, you need to connect it to two things you’re comparing.

The first way to do this is to put the phrase “are like” in between the people you are referring to and the expression “chalk and cheese.”

Alternatively, you can use the slightly longer and more explicit “are as different as” before “chalk and cheese.”

No matter which method you choose, you shouldn’t place a comma anywhere in front of the expression “chalk and cheese” or in front of the words you use to connect it to the people you’re comparing.

If you are continuing your sentence after the expression with an additional clause, it’s likely that you will need a comma after the word “cheese,” but this has more to do with the grammatical rules of connecting clauses than with this expression. You can also simply put a period after the expression.

Examples

“We’re as different as chalk and cheese, aren’t we?”

Here, the question “aren’t we?” is separated from “chalk and cheese” with a comma.

This isn’t because the expression requires a comma, but because the rules for joining two independent clauses requires one.

“My teacher and his class are like chalk and cheese. His jokes never go over well because we don’t understand them.”

In this case, “chalk and cheese” ends the sentence. The second sentence explains the expression by providing an example of their differences, but it is not strictly necessary.

 

Is “chalk and cheese” an insult?

If someone compares you and another person to “chalk and cheese,” you aren’t being insulted. The person is simply saying they think you are different from someone else.

 

Similar Expressions to “chalk & cheese”

English has several expressions you can use to compare two things or people.

Some of these are essentially synonyms for “like chalk and cheese,” while others are quite different in meaning.

 

When you compare “apples to oranges”

One expression you might hear regularly is people saying that discussing two things is like “comparing apples to oranges.”

Although both are a type of fruit, they are different. Apples are crunchy and fleshy, while oranges are mostly juice and skin. Oranges have a thick peel that you can’t really eat, but apples have a thin skin you can happily munch on.

The expression “comparing apples to oranges,” then, means that it doesn’t make sense to compare two things. That’s not quite identical to “like chalk and cheese,” but it is close.

Examples

“The student soon found out that talking about the writing styles of Edgar Allan Poe and Ha Jin was like comparing apples to oranges.”

Edgar Allan Poe is a 19th-century American writer of horror and poetry, while Ha Jin is a modern Chinese novelist. It makes sense that they wouldn’t have much in common, as shown by “like comparing apples to oranges” in this example sentence.

 

Is “like chalk and cheese” the same as “like oil and water”?

When you try to mix oil and water, they simply won’t go together no matter how hard you try. It’s science!

This expression, then, means that two people are just so different they can’t stand each other. It’s less neutral than “chalk and cheese,” since it implies distaste as well as difference.

Examples

“My brother and sister get along like oil and water.”
“They’re like oil and water. Every time they meet, there’s an argument.”

The first example seems to suggest the siblings do get along, but in fact they do not. The second example makes this clearer.

 

What is the origin of “chalk and cheese”?

According to the etymology sleuths at World Wide Words, this expression dates to the late 1300s, with its first use recorded as coming from poet John Gower.

In Gower’s case, he accused a shop owner of changing “chalk for cheese” at “ful littel cost” (that is, with no consequence).

Although its true origin may be lost in time, someone must have noticed how chalk and cheese are superficially similar while being incredibly different.

As a result, the expression “chalk and cheese” has been in heavy use as a proverb for hundreds of years.

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