The straight and narrow?

2012-04-17 15:49



The straight and narrow?

Reader question:

When someone is described as “a bureaucrat who has always walked the straight and narrow”, what does it mean?

My comments:

Oh, the life of a bureaucrat. I’ve worked in an office all of my life and so you can imagine that I’m bit tired of talking about bureaucrats, people who come to work at 9 and leave at 5, who do the right thing when he’s ordered to and occasionally do the wrong thing when he’s ordered to do so, who are, by and large not a lot of fun to be around with.

However, so long as he does what he’s ordered to do, he cannot do wrong.

That pretty much sums up the bureaucrat “who has always walked the straight and narrow.”

This is, I freely admit, interpreting the phrase “straight and narrow” in a very narrow sense regarding the bureaucrat. A bureaucrat, you see, does more than follow orders from above. A bureaucrat also does... Well, you’ve got to fill in the blank yourself here – I’ve given it a full ten seconds and have failed to come up with anything creative and exciting that bureaucrats do and so I’m giving up.

Anyways, the phrase “straight and narrow” actually suggests that the bureaucrat is upright, morally sound. He follows the conventional course and is law-abiding. That is to say, he follows the rules of the office and the laws of the land at large. He toe the line, the correct line, carefully and never stray from it – not just following orders from above perhaps but also from the moral perspective. In other words, he has morals.

Now, that’s something nice to say about a bureaucrat, I am sure. At any rate it’s something nice to say about “our” bureaucrat “who has always walked the straight and narrow”.

“Straight and narrow”, as you see now, stands for the right path. Take it as the main road, for instance. This is the way most people travel by. Follow the main road and you’ll get to places, without getting lost. The main road might be understandably crowded, and therefore sometimes too “straight and narrow” for your comfort but it gets you to places. You won’t have to worry about getting lost. As a bureaucrat, for instance, if you follow the rules and never accept additional pay for doing paperwork, i.e. do not accept bribery, you’ll never be punished accordingly.

Hence, you see, “straight and narrow” represents the strict or restricted but correct line of path one walks, or a path a bureaucrat, of all people, are supposed to walk. Precisely because this correct line of path is restricted and limiting, it is not always comfortable and not easy of accomplishment. Hence those who actually walk the straight and narrow path are commended for the moral fortitude they have, allowing them to stick with it for so long.

“Straight and narrow”, by the way, is a term that originates from the Christian Bible. “Strait” and “narrow” do, as a matter of fact. This, from

‘Straight’ is a much more frequently used word than ‘strait’ these days and so the most common question about this phrase concerns the spelling - should it be ‘strait and narrow’ or ‘straight and narrow’? Well, that depends on just how pedantic you want to be. The source of the expression is the Bible, specifically Matthew 7:13/14. The King James’ Version gives these verses as:

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

“Strait” is an old word for the passage way between two, say, islands in the sea. Taiwan Straits, yes. The strait is necessarily narrow, which helps explain why “strait and narrow” became a set phrase.

Straight, right?

Well, you’re right. Nobody knows for sure how, over time, the populace comes to take “straight” for “strait” but the populace can do no wrong, right?

Language-wise, certainly so. It makes sense, too. After all, to the general populace, straight is a more commonplace, and, therefore, accessible.

Now, media examples:

1. strait and narrow:

Since the calamitously expensive loss of the legal fight over whether to pay airport employees what the airport commission had agreed to pay them, one might have expected the county commissioners and their ambitious county manager to carefully walk the strait and narrow. Alas, no. The seven commissioners and their professional leader cannot help themselves. Two weeks ago we learned that the county engineer, an otherwise well-trained, competent, useful, and just slightly visible professional employee of the county, had been deputized to write parking tickets along State Beach. Not only that, but the tickets Steve Berlucchi wrote began appearing in September on cars parked, not on the sand or beach grass, over which the county worries, but on the pavement facing east when they ought to have been facing west. The tickets, labeled Oak Bluffs, and signed Berlucchi, suggested that an Oak Bluffs officer had written them. Mr. Berlucchi is not an Oak Bluffs officer, as inquiries by irritated ticket recipients revealed. The tickets were dismissed.

- Call the question, The Martha’s Vineyard Times, October 5, 2006.

2. straight and narrow:

Which of these three events, all from the last week, most clearly signalled that the US election is underway?

a) Mitt Romney’s decision, on Tuesday, to pool resources with the RNC.

b) Obama’s decision to call out his rival by name for the first time when addressing the Newspaper Association of America on Tuesday.

c) The president’s brief televised introduction of the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird on the USA Network channel on Saturday night.

The answer, as any seasoned politico will tell you, is the third event. The first is just economics and the second is forgotten within a news cycle. But no election is complete without movie endorsements. The election of 2008, in the end, boiled down to a battle of the Brandos: on the one hand, Marlon Brando making us an offer we couldn’t refuse in The Godfather (Obama’s favourite film), versus Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata! (John McCain’s favourite film) making us an offer you couldn’t quite understand, in a thick Mexican accent. Nothing told you more about the way the election was going than that face-off between the stealthy and the florid.

Obama’s choice of the Harper Lee classic was a deft, multivalenced piece of branding-by-association. After weeks of the networks squeezing the Trayvon Martin case for the last drop of controversy, the president aligned himself with a much-loved classic whose message on race comes wrapped in a sweet nostalgia for small-town values.

Pivoting towards the election, it retrenched Obama's status as the defender of the American mainstream, evoking a blissful, pre-Palin era when “small town” and “liberalism” could be spoken in the same sentence, and no problem seemed too big that it couldn’t be solved by an afternoon of sombre, sun-dappled reflection by decent, reasonable men in horn rims and seersucker suits.

“He is the protagonist for middle American aspiration, pathfinder to the straight and narrow and able to suggest a false ease and gloss that go with probity,” as critic David Thompson has put it. He was writing about Gregory Peck but he could equally well be talking about Obama, who is cut from exactly the same liberal oak as Peck’s Atticus Finch. “If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks,” Atticus tells his daughter. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It’s pure Obama – the unrufflable paterfamilias and empath-in-chief, with his beer summits and no-drama managerial style – right down to his favoured use of the word “folks”.

- Obama as Atticus Finch is the defender of the American mainstream,, April 8, 2012.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


Don’t wear it on your sleeve

Leaving it at that

A qualified ‘yes’?

Small beer?

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)



















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