No strings attached?

2012-07-31 14:31



No strings attached?

Reader question:

Please explain this sentence: All donations came with no strings attached.

My comments:

Put another way, the money (or materials) donated were given to you for free.

Completely free.

Without condition.

In other words, the donor or donors puts you under no obligation – they won’t question as to how you are going to spend the money.

That’s what it means to give somebody a gift with “no strings attached”, which is an American idiom essentially meaning unconditionally.


You can understand “string” as the leash attached to pet dogs we see everywhere in the city. The leash attached to the neck of a dog allows its owner to maintain control of the pet. The owner, you see, can always pull at the string – string is a more common word for leash or any such piece of thin rope – whenever its owner deems the dog is straying too far.

As you can see, with such strings attached to the neck, pet dogs are never entirely free. That’s the idea, with the leash reminding the dog all the time who is boss.

Or you can understand the word “string” as the string to a purse.

In olden days in America, many money purses are said to have had strings attached to them which presumably prevent against, say, a pickpocket. Thus figuratively speaking if a housewife is said to hold the string to the purse, it means she’s the one who makes monetary decisions.

In short, if a donation comes with strings attached, it means the donor wants to control how the donation is dispensed with. For example, a donation may be made to a county for a school to be built. That the money must be spent on a school is the “string attached”. In other words, the recipient of the donation is under obligation to the donor or donors not to spend the money any other way – not, for instance, on buying sedan cars for local cadres.

Or, as is more prevalently the case, on wine and dine.

Alright, here are media examples of generosities given with or without strings attached:

1. AFTER 40 years of agreeing that it should be done, will the rich countries finally untie their aid? On June 20th the rich-country Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development will meet for a last effort before the G8 summit in Japan to cut strings from aid for the poorest. They should wield their scissors freely.

Tied aid is help given on condition that the goods or services involved are provided by the giver. About half of the aid to the poorest countries remains tied in some way. To donors, it is a way of supporting their own firms or farmers as well as the poor. America’s government can buy its farmers' grain surpluses and send them to feed Africans. European countries can buy water pumps at home and send them to thirsty India. Japan can hire its nationals to advise poor countries’ governments, rather than paying others to do so.

But such help risks being driven by the givers’ interests, not those of the needy. Donors often pay for inappropriate schemes which require their exports and expertise (such as the Pergau dam in Malaysia, promoted by Britain), whereas smaller, locally-run projects would serve better. When donors favour their own contractors over those from other countries, rivals who might do the job more effectively are excluded. (The European Commission is investigating whether such preference breaks the laws of the EU's internal market.) The practice is also sometimes used as a way of subsidising donors’ own industries in order to protect jobs.

- Gifts with strings attached: Donors should help those in need, not themselves,, June 15, 2000.

2. Bank of America recently announced that it would offer credit cards to those consumers without social security numbers. The move stands to benefit the banking giant’s bottom line in a huge way - but it faces backlash from existing customers, who are irate that illegal immigrants are facing the same benefits as those citizens with good credit. The cards-for-aliens brouhaha is the newest battle in the ongoing American donnybrook over the topic of illegal immigrants’ rights, against which many citizens stand firmly.

It is estimated that the number of illegals living in America number from 12 million upwards. That figure represents a potential windfall for BoA. Moreover, it is a policy shift that stands to make a great impression on a segment of the population that has faced little more than persecution, racism, and hatred. Not all of these immigrants are penniless – many have assets that BoA would stand to add to its coffers, which are already the biggest of all financial institutions.

Existing BoA customers, and complete outsides are both furious at the idea that those here illegally would be offered credit, which “real” citizens must work hard to maintain. The notion has also provoked concern in Washington, where representatives fear that undesirable people – those with terrorist ties, namely – will gain access to credit used in the economy of underground threats.

The card is not without strings attached. The accounts being offered to these customers come with higher interest rates, a $99 upfront fee, and a max limit of $500, which hardly seems like enough of a line on which to do any real damage.

- BoA Offers Credit to Illegal Immigrants,, February 16, 2007.

3. Three years ago China surpassed the United States as Africa’s biggest trading partner. Bilateral trade grew from $10.6bn (£6.67bn) in 2000 to $160bn in 2011, according to Chinese state media and Chinese investment totals $13bn. China says it has also provided tens of millions of dollars in food aid. The new $200m headquarters of the Africa Union in Addis Ababa was a gift from China as a "symbol of deepening relations".

What does the Asian giant want in return? Minerals, gas and oil, say critics, who warn of a morally blind “resource colonialism”. But in a rare interview, Pan Hejun, the Chinese ambassador to Malawi, painted a different picture, making no secret of his country's geopolitical ambitions.

“Our policy is to make friends with African countries to help with the natural development of both them and China,” he told the Guardian. “Some western media say China is in Africa only for minerals and oil. It's not true. We want to have broader co-operation in other fields like health and education.

“Malawi has no minerals and no oil, but it is one of the African countries we want to establish a relationship with.

“What do we get from Malawi? Diplomatic relations – Malawi sticks to a one-China policy – and respecting each other’s sovereignty and national interests. We have Malawi's support on the international stage. We get friendship back from the Malawian people and that’s what we want.”

Speaking recently on state TV, President Mutharika, aptly wearing a Chinese collar suit, boasted: “The Chinese government has given us aid absolutely with no strings attached, just as one friend to another.”

Pan Hejun said: “That is true, that is China’s foreign policy. According to Chinese experience, the people of a country are clever enough to know their own needs. They can find their own path to development without input from outside. We are not here to impose our own ideas. We are here to offer our help.

“The people of Malawi have their traditions and culture and mindset. You cannot impose your own ideas on others. We think our policy is workable and sustainable.”

- China’s booming trade with Africa helps tone its diplomatic muscle,, March 22, 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.


Well-heeled area?

Piece of cake?

Have baggage?

Don't expect anyone to cut you any slack

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)



















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