An English Idiom You Should All Know Ep 371

A vibrant photograph of bright orange carrots, which are the star of our English lesson on an English idiom.

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Everyday English Idioms

I think it’s true that positive rewards are a better motivation for most people, rather than negative ones. However, if you need someone to do something, and suitable rewards cannot encourage them to act, you sometimes need to highlight negative or even threatening outcomes.

Especially if people will not do what you need them to do. Now that took quite a lot of English vocabulary to explain a simple scenario, a native English speaker would prefer to use an English idiom, a metaphor which explains the scenario in a much simpler idiomatic way.

We experience this influence all the time in our everyday lives. Someone wants you to do something and they offer a reward if you do it, or sometimes they want you do something you might not want to do and you face repercussions if you don’t do it.

We do it with our children to get them to finish school homework or projects. We do it with our pets with food and treats. We do it with ourselves when we need motivation. So it’s hardly a surprise that the English language has a perfect English idiom to save us all time when we need to explain that this coercion is taking place.

As always, we have lot’s of English lessons on English idioms here. Recently one of our listeners said that English idioms are the most enjoyable part of English. Well, well we would agree, but if you're new to English and you have not heard a particular idiom before you might get confused. Adept English is here to help with a complete breakdown of the most popular idioms in everyday use here in the UK.

Most Unusual Words:


Most common 3 word phrases:

Carrots And Sticks11
Carrot And Stick5
A Carrot And4
Most Common Words3
I’M Not Sure2

Listen To The Audio Lesson Now

The mp3 audio and pdf transcript for this lesson is now part of the Adept English back catalogue . You can still download and listen to this lesson as part of one of our podcast bundles.

Transcript: An English Idiom You Should All Know

Hi and welcome this latest podcast from Adept English.

What about an idiom today – or rather words which are used together idiomatically? This is one which you might come across in politics, or in economics or in business when we are discussing motivation. And motivation – M-O-T-I-V-A-T-I-O-N – is a noun, an abstract noun – and it means what makes you act, what makes you do something. If you have a motivation, you have a purpose, a reason which is driving you.

The carrot and the stick are pervasive and persuasive motivators. But if you treat people like donkeys, they will perform like donkeys.
⭐ John Whitmore, Was a pioneer of executive coaching, an author and British racing driver.

A carrot and stick approach – donkeys and horses?

So we might talk about a ‘carrot and stick’ approach to motivation. Or we might say ‘Is it better to use carrots or sticks?’ There’s not really a set phrase here, but when these words ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ are used together in a sentence, usually they’re being used idiomatically.

So what do we mean here? Well, we are talking in metaphor, we’re talking symbolically about how you motivate people, how you give people an incentive. So vocabulary first of all. A carrot, C-A-R-R-O-T is a vegetable – one that grows in the ground. It’s pointy, usually orange and has green leaves at the top, which grow up from the ground. And a stick, S-T-I-C-K? Well that word can be used in various ways, but usually it means a stick of wood.

It could be a branch from a tree. Often sticks are easily found on the ground in the countryside – you might throw them for your dog. And they’re useful for all kinds of things. So carrots are not very exciting and neither are sticks, so how and why do we use these terms, these words to talk about motivation? Well if you can picture a donkey, D-O-N-K-E-Y – an animal a bit like a horse, but smaller and an animal which traditionally has the job of carrying heavy things, perhaps working on a farm or pulling a cart behind it.


A photograph of a woman feeding some donkeys, who seem to prefer the carrot over the stick when it comes to motivation in our English idioms lesson.

©️ Adept English 2020

Then in theory, if you hold a carrot in front of the donkey, he will move forward, because he’s motivated to try and eat the carrot. Carrots are motivating to donkeys. I can attest that carrots are certainly motivating to horses. When I was still riding last year, I know that as soon as you turned around on your ride and you were heading home, the horses would all go faster, because they knew there were carrots waiting for them when they got back! So carrots may not be that motivating for humans, but they are for horses and donkeys! Another way of making a donkey move might be to hit it with a stick.

And similarly with a horse, you might use what’s called ‘a riding crop’ or even spurs, S-P-U-R-S, which actually hurt the horse to make it go faster. I’m not keen on either of those ideas, but we use the idea of spurs idiomatically. ‘To spur someone on’ means to motivate them. So obviously the carrot is kinder than the stick – and as long as the donkey or the horse actually gets some carrot in the end, it’s a kinder way to motivate them.

Carrots and sticks in business

So we use it as an idiom in all kinds of places. In business, you might use ‘carrots and sticks’. You might say to your sales team – the person who makes most sales this month, will get a bonus, will get extra pay. But anyone whose sales fall below a certain target figure, then there’s a punishment – you’ll be paid less than usual. So the bonus is like the carrot – and being paid less is like the stick.


A reminder of the 500 Most Common Words Course

Just pausing the carrots and sticks for a moment, to remind you about our Most Common 500 Words Course. If you feel that you’d benefit from consolidating, from improving your basic English, but still using our ‘Listen&Learn’ method instead of traditional classroom learning – then the Most 500 Words Course is for you. Focus on the basics. Make sure you know all the most commonly used words. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this course doesn’t have some challenge in it!

Boost Your Learning With Adept English

Some of the most common words are also the most difficult – either in their pronunciation or in the number of uses which they have. Think about modal verbs. These are usually made up of the most common words – like ‘get up’, ‘get on’, ‘get by’. All simple words, but with different meanings. So if you want to make sure you have a firm base in English, then go to our courses page at and buy this course. You’ll be pleased that you did.

Carrot and stick motivation around exam study

So wherever you want to motivate someone, you might talk of using carrots and sticks. My daughter is currently supposed to be revising for a Sociology A level exam. She did get good A level results in the end this year, despite the UK government’s mess-up on A level results. However, in one subject, we felt she could do better – so the plan is she resits the exam in October. But, it’s really hard to motivate her.

She’s already moved on, she’s on a different course – and doesn’t want to be bothered with work to improve her grade in Sociology. So I’ve tried carrots – ‘Just think of what good grades you’ll have’, ‘I’ll do the washing up for you’ – and then sticks – I’ve even threatened to take her car keys off her, if she doesn’t do some revision. But I think I’m going nowhere with that one, as she’s bought the car and paid for it herself! So carrots and sticks for her at the moment, but I’m not sure either are working.

Carrots and sticks in politics

This wording of ‘carrots and sticks’ is used quite a bit in newspaper reporting. For example in September this year, European Council President, Charles Michel was quoted in the news as saying ‘We’ll use a carrot and stick approach’, when he was talking about supporting Greece, Cyprus and Turkey to resolve a dispute over oil and gas. To quote Charles Michel direct, he said “We will identify tools in our external policy, a carrot and sticks approach - what tools to use to improve the relationship and what tools to react (with) if we are not being respected.”

Carrots and sticks around UK lockdown

And there was a BBC News article just a couple of weeks ago, talking about the lockdown in the UK, which had the headline ‘Covid in Scotland: Boris's stick and Nicola's carrot’. So of course here, ‘Boris’s stick’ means measures that Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister is talking about and in contrast, those which Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland was talking about.

Download The Podcast Audio & Transcript

The piece was reflecting on how Boris was preferring to use sticks, meaning asking people for example to report their neighbours for breaking any Covid rules by having parties. Whereas, the piece was saying that Nicola Sturgeon was preferring to motivate people to follow the rules by saying ‘We’re in all this together, let’s protect the vulnerable, let’s look after one another’. I’m not sure that that characterisation of their messages is entirely true.

I think both leaders have talked carrots and sticks – and if you read the whole article, this headline which grabs your attention is really just a tiny part of what’s written. Just an aside – what about the Scottish MP who travelled by train down from Scotland to Westminster, while she was waiting for her corona virus test? Then when she’d heard the news that she was positive, she got back onto another train and travelled all the way up from Westminster back to Glasgow in Scotland? How can you be taken seriously, when you’re giving messages about the virus, when you do this? Oh dear.

Carrots and sticks for learning English?

And what about carrots and sticks, when you’re trying to motivate yourself to learn English? Clearly carrots work better than sticks when it comes to this type of motivation. What are the advantages to you, in learning English perhaps? Hopefully in our podcasts, we give you a little bit of a carrot in that it’s interesting to listen to as you learn? And sometimes intrinsic interest and connection are more important to learning than carrots are! I hope so.


Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.



The voice of Adeptenglish, loves English and wants to help people who want to speak English fluently.
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