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“To err on the side of caution” — Meaning, Usage & Examples

“To err on the side of caution” — Meaning, Usage & Examples

They say wisdom comes with age, which may help explain why some of the best advice we hear has been passed down through the centuries and comes to us in the form of well-worn proverbs and adages. 

While there is certainly something to be gained from ancient wisdom, much of the language used in old sayings is quite dated and archaic.

This can make it difficult to figure out exactly what they mean.

This is the case with the phrase “to err on the side of caution,” which is more or less the only remaining way the word “err” is used in modern conversational English.   

We all have experience with the internal debate of whether to take risks or play it safe, and this old piece of advice might come in handy next time you find yourself on the fence.

If you value restraint, you may just end up feeling grateful for the wisdom of old!

 

What does it mean “to err on the side of caution”?

“To err on the side of caution” means to take the safer course of action when given a choice between two or more options. It means to behave prudently and not taking risks in order to avoid causing harm, being harmed or making a mistake.

 

While the general sentiment conveyed by the phrase is indubitably clear, there is some disagreement, at least among some linguists, about the precise meaning of the expression “to err on the side of caution.” 

One camp believes that “err” should be interpreted in the usual modern way, namely as “to make a mistake.” 

Members of this camp, therefore, believe that the phrase “to err on the side of caution” means it is better to make the mistake of being too cautious than the mistake of not being cautious enough. 

Those who disagree with this point of view believe that “err” should be interpreted here as being more closely related to the Old French word errer, which means “to stray.”

If this interpretation is correct, the meaning of the phrase “to err on the side of caution” would essentially be to stray towards the safer side of the path in order to avoid making mistakes or putting yourself in unnecessary danger.

Whichever interpretation you think is accurate, they both have essentially the same core meaning. 

In conclusion, the expression simply means that it is wiser to be overly cautious than it is to take unnecessary risks. 

 

How to use “to err on the side of caution in a sentence”

One way to use this phrase in a sentence is together with the “with”. You can do this by saying “It is better to err on the side of caution when doing X,” or alternatively, by saying “When doing X, it is better to err on the side of caution.”  

Below are three examples of sentences that use “when” to join the phrase “to err on the side of caution” with the remainder of the sentence.

Before James left for his surf trip to Hawaii, his cousin Seamus told him to err on the side of caution when choosing which waves to ride. 
When it comes to believing the claims made about the aesthetic benefits of skincare in cosmetics commercials, it is better to err on the side of caution. 
As a goalie, you should err on the side of caution when coming out of your goal in order to make a save. 

Another common way to use the phrase “to err on the side of caution” in a sentence is to use “than” to introduce a comparison by saying “It is better to err on the side of caution and to X than to Y.”

Here are three examples of sentences that make use of this grammatical structure.  

Talk is cheap: It is better to err on the side of caution and keep your thoughts to yourself than to make promises you will not keep. 
It is better to err on the side of caution and to check that you have turned off your stove than to burn the house down by accident. 
It is better to err on the side of caution and check the plant care guide for your cheese plant than to blindly assume you are giving it the right amount of water.

 

Common misuses of the phrase “to err on the side of caution”

One common semantic error made when people use the phrase “to err on the side of caution,” is that to assume that “on the side of” can be used interchangeably with “to prefer.” 

People will sometimes say things like “I like swimming in both mountain rivers and beaches, but I err on the side of mountain rivers.” This is an incorrect use of the phrase “err on the side of.” 

People will also sometimes say that they “err on the side of intelligence,” or that they “err on the side of nervousness.” Neither of these uses of the phrase makes sense. 

To ensure you are using correct grammar, you should only use the phrase “to err on the side of” when combined with the word “caution.”

Another common error made when using the phrase “to err on the side of caution,” is to misspell the word “err” as “air.” 

If you ever see a text which says, “to air on the side of caution,” be aware that this is a misspelling of the phrase “to err on the side of caution.” 

This mistake is most commonly made by people who speak American English, because in the USA “err” is pronounced the same way as “air”.

In the majority of English-speaking countries, by contrast, “err” is pronounced as rhyming with “fur”. 

 

Alternatives and opposites of “to err on the side of caution”

Two alternatives to the phrase “to err on the side of caution,” are: “It is better to be safe than sorry,” and “it is better to be on the safe side.” 

Both of these alternatives use simpler language and will be more widely understood. 

To convey the opposite meaning and encourage someone to be bold and take risks, or to counter someone telling you to “err on the side of caution,” you might use one of the following phrases or expressions: “Walk on the wild side”, “jump in the deep end,” or “throw caution to the wind.”