To tread water

What does it mean?

In a literal sense, treading water involves moving your body in a way to keep your head above water. This is something you might do if you fell into a large body of water like a lake or the ocean until someone can help you. When you tread water, you aim to stay in the same spot, rather than swimming in a direction.

The idiomatic sense of treading water means to stay on top of a difficult situation but not to make any progress with it. This could be, for example, because your salary only just covers all of your expenses. In this case you are not saving any money so you are not making progress.

to tread water idiom meaning

Where does it come from?

The idiomatic use of tread water is an extension of the use of the term in swimming.

How can I use it?

We most often use this idiom to report on a situation where we are not making progress. Therefore we are most likely to use this phrase in a continuous tense. Often we use just to emphasise that this is not really a situation we want to be in:

  • I‘m just treading water in my job at the moment.
  • After a few months, I realised I was just treading water.
  • I‘ve been treading water for the past six months.

We tend to use the phrase tread water after verbs like to keep, continue, try and struggle.

  • We need to keep treading water for the moment.
  • I couldn’t continue just treading water in my job.
  • I’ve been trying to tread water for the past few months.
  • I’m struggling to tread water right now.

As we often use this phrase in continuous tenses, we often continue it with while or until:

  • I’m treading water until I get my big break.
  • I’m treading water while I get experience.

What are some examples?

  • I’ve been treading water for as long as I remember now.
  • Many actors do hospitality jobs to tread water while they are waiting for their big chance.
  • If I don’t change something, I’m not sure how long I can continue treading water.
  • I would hardly call the project a success. We’ve been treading water for three years at best.

What are some similar or related expressions?

  • to keep one’s head above the water
  • to break even

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Photo by Erik Dungan on Unsplash

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