Hitting the Nail on the Head

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Somewhere, in an email or on Facebook or on a news blog, I saw this:

But she hammered the head on the nail with this quote.

How odd, I thought. Shouldn’t it be, “she hammered the nail on the head”?

A Google search brings up 683,000 results for “hit the head on the nail” compared to 1,580,000 for “hit the nail on the head.” The phrase “the head on the nail” registers on the Ngram Viewer, but barely, compared to “the nail on the head.”

The earliest citation of the expression in the OED is dated 1438.

It’s not so easy to hit a nail squarely on the head. For that reason, “to hit the nail on the head” is a term of approbation. Figuratively, people who hit the nail on the head succeed in accomplishing what they are aiming for.

Most of the examples I’ve found of the reversed idiom have been in readers’ comments, but I have found a few in presumably professional writing. For example, this one, with inexplicable hyphenation, is from a technical review:

You have to remember though that Apple may or may not be upgrading the iPad again before the end of the year (this comes from John Gruber a known Apple pundit that tends to hit-the-head-on-the-nail when it comes to Apple rumors).

A site dedicated to test preparation has this topic header:

SAT Improvement or Hit the head on the nail

This one is from a sports blog:

These commercials are cool…but rarely do they hit the head on the nail of a player like Nike has done with these Calvin Johnson, P. Diddy advertisements.

I found one example in which the reversal seems intended to be humorous:

I could try for a long time to hit the head on the nail (as one of my writing students once said)—Writing advice site

A review of the film Fifty Shades of Grey includes the following bit of dialogue:

Christian – Have you been drinking? 
Ana – Yup, you hit the head on the nail.

It could be that this reversal is the result of Ana’s alcohol-impaired thinking.

Changing “hit the nail on the head” to “hit the head on the nail” is jarring, to say the least. Writers who wish to be taken seriously will avoid doing it.

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5 thoughts on “Hitting the Nail on the Head”

  1. It sounds odd, yet it is logical enough. In fact, it is more direct. Hitting a nail is a by-product of hitting the head of the nail. This usage may be intentional, or for effect, but there is no reason to believe it is from alcohol impairment.

    Somebody got up from the bed on the wrong side.

  2. It goes with “A tough road to hoe.” That’s been said a number of times by TV announcers. I don’t know about where you live, but our Department of Transportation looks askance upon those hoeing a road.

  3. While “hit the nail on the head” is more common, I see nothing wrong in reversing it. It makes you think about the words instead of the phrase. It’s the same action whichever way you phrase it.

  4. I too find it jarring, an annoying turn of phrase that for the most part appears to be unintentional and uneducated. It is an expression that is kind of a cliche already, and reversing it, while basically meaning the same thing, makes the reader stop to think about something that does not–and should not–require stopping to think. It’s bad enough the cliche is there but OK, the eye skips over it quickly and gets the message, but what is the point of reversing the words, where there is no real change in meaning and there is not even anything humorous about the reversal? The reader has to do a double-take, think about it, come to the conclusion that the meaning is the same, and then refocus and start reading again. IMO the only example above that uses the reversal to good effect is the one from Fifty Shades of Grey.
    And this is not at all like “tough road to hoe,” because there is no reversal of words there; I am assuming the phrase should be “tough row to hoe.” In spite of that, it got a laugh from me.

  5. I have a friend who frequently says, “You really hit it on the nail.” He’s a native speaker of English (from Ohio), and I don’t know whether this is a regional variation of the idiom or just a personal oddity. The effect is to make one think of hitting a different kind of nail–that of one’s thumb, perhaps–rather than the metal fastener. In response to the second comment above, I’d say that the order of words in “hit the nail on the head” is a better way to convey precision: that one’s aim in the statement made has been not just generally correct (hitting the nail), but exactly on point (hitting it most directly).

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