Off the table?

中国日报网 2012-09-11 13:13



Off the table?Reader question:

What does “off the table” mean in the following passage?

Alex makes an offer to Bob, but he rejects it. Later, Bob changes his mind and decides to take the offer after all, but Alex refuses to extend the offer a second time. It is off the table.

My comments:

It means it’s no longer there. Having been taken off the table, the job or salary offer, whatever it is that Alex offered Bob, was removed and is no longer available.

That means Bob will have to look elsewhere. He has now to talk to someone else for a new job or salary package, because Alex will not extend his offer a second time. He will not give Bob a second chance.

Here, table refers to the negotiating table – not the dinner table, but you can almost be certain that originally the table in the phrase “off the table” is the common dining table at home.

You can imagine the following scenario happening all the time, between mother and child, at the dinner table in the morning. The child has perhaps eaten enough or he’s just being distracted and he begins to play with his food rather than eat it. The mother warns him: “Stop playing with your food. Eat it or I’ll take it away. And once it’s off the table, you will never get anything to eat until lunch time.”

OK, before food is taken off the table of course, it must have previously been brought to the table in the first place. And that is where another useful phrase comes from – to bring something to the table. That something represents your contribution in one form or another to a group effort, or a joint venture.

At the negotiating table, for example, people each announce their own proposals and ideas and then discuss, bargain over them. The proposals and ideas are what they bring to the table, i.e. their contributions to the discussion.

In the top example with Alex and Bob, Alex’s offer was the thing he brought to the table. Bob refused the offer, and so Alex took the offer off the table – removing it from further discussion.

Now, Bob later changed his mind. He wanted the offer back, but it was no longer available. Alex refused to bring it back. Alex was not willing to give Bob a second chance because perhaps he wants to give Bob a lesson, that one should take one’s words seriously and action carefully. As gentlemen, one does not take one’s words back once they’re uttered. Otherwise, all people will begin to take their words back and there’ll never be such thing as agreement, principle or a done deal.

We as Chinese are particularly prone to going back on one’s words – for one good reason or another. Good reason or bad excuse doesn’t matter, really – I’m not going into details as to why this is the case. I’m just saying it is important to recognize that one sometimes has to seize the moment. Once the train leaves the station, as they say, it’s gone.

Well, you can always catch the next train, of course, but it’s not the same. Broadly speaking, one cannot step into the same river twice, as Heraclitus so succinctly put it.

Let Bob’s lesson be a lesson to us all, then. Perhaps there is a time and place for everything. Once an opportunity passes, it’s over.

The thing for Bob to do now is not to look back, but forward. Talk to other people. Look for new, perhaps even better opportunities elsewhere.

Alright, here are recent media examples of the phrase “off the table”:

1. The prospect of a dangerous confrontation between American and Iran was raised on Wednesday night after vice-president Joe Biden said no retaliatory options had been “taken off the table” over Tehran’s alleged involvement in an “outrageous” terror plot on US soil.

Mr Biden set out Washington’s determination to punish Tehran for its alleged ties to a plot to kill Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Ambassador in Washington.

“We’re in the process of uniting world public opinion continuing to isolate and condemn their behaviour,” the vice president said. “Nothing has been taken off the table.”

- America warns nothing has been ‘taken off the table’ over alleged Iranian terror plot,, October 12, 2011.

2. Foreign Minister Bob Carr says international sanctions against Iran are working and threats of military strikes should be taken off the table.

Senator Carr said Australia totally opposed Iran’s nuclear program but military action was unlikely to be successful.

“It should be off the table as we persist with sanctions, and persist with seeking a negotiated settlement,” Senator Carr told Sky News on Thursday.

Senator Carr said there was evidence the tough UN-led sanctions regime against Iran was working.

“They’ve had an effect on Iran’s currency, they’ve hurt the living standards, they’ve hurt the economy,” he said.

“And it’s not an unreasonable assumption that they would push the leadership towards a negotiated outcome here.”

- Take Iranian strikes off the table: Carr,, March 22, 2012.

3. Dover High School junior Christy Naaman is a serious student with a 4.0 average. The 15-year-old looks forward to getting her first job to help her struggling parents and she dreams of going to college to study psychology.

Naaman considers herself Asian-American. But the U.S. government considers her an illegal immigrant and, as such, her dreams were off the table.

Until now.

Like dozens of other youthful immigrants in New Hampshire, Naaman plans to apply to a new federal program that, if approved, would enable her to avoid deportation for up to two years and make her eligible for a work permit and allowed to attend college.

“It would allow me to finish high school here and to start college,” Naaman said.

She was four years old when she arrived in the U.S. with her parents, who came here seeking asylum from their native Indonesia.

“I spent my entire life here and, basically, America is my home. If I suddenly had to leave all of this ... everything would change for me,” she said during a recent telephone interview.

- Federal program could help Dover immigrant student stay in U.S., New Hampshire Union Leader, September 9, 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.


Always on the outside looking in?

Rubbing it in

Proven track record?

Go to the 'piggy bank'?

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:Julie)

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