'Burn the Midnight Oil': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 11, 2023

If you've been wondering what the phrase 'burn the midnight oil' means, you've come to the right place. This article will explain everything you need to know about this idiom and when to use it appropriately.

Here's the short version:

  • To burn the midnight oil means to stay up especially late to work on a project, usually related to professional or academic pursuits. 

What Does 'Burn the Midnight Oil' Mean?

If you are burning the midnight oil, it means you are staying up late into the night to do work study, or focus on some other critical project or task. If you stay up way past your bedtime to work, you burn the midnight oil.

When you use this phrase, you're referring to someone working, not doing something playful or sociable. For instance, you wouldn't use it to say that someone stayed up late partying. An example of when you could use it is if a friend of yours appeared very tired, and you know it's because they stayed up late.

You might say:

I know you want to get good grades, but I think you're burning the midnight oil.

This phrase is an idiom, which means that you can't interpret its meaning literally based on the individual words. You just have to know what it means.

Where Does 'Burn the Midnight Oil' Come From?

'Midnight oil' as a compound noun has been used since the mid-17th century. It wasn't long after that Francis Quarles, an English poet, used the phrase 'burning the midnight oil' in the sense of working late into the night.

In his 1635 book, Emblems, he said:

Wee spend our mid-day sweat, or mid-night oyle; Wee tyre the night in thought; the day in toyle.

The idiom originated from the fact that, at the time, it was customary to use oil lamps for light when working after sundown. You would burn oil at the bottom of the lamps to keep the light going. Hence, the saying 'burning the midnight oil' to refer to someone needing light to work at night.

Quarles used this expression interchangeably with the verb 'to elucubrate,' which means to work by candlelight, a meaning that has now become obsolete.

Examples in Sentences

Now we've covered the meaning of this idiom and its origins, let's take a look at some example sentences that use it. Note that it contains a verb—'burn'—meaning that you might come across the expression in various conjugated forms.

For instance, you could use it in the present participle form—'burning'—or the past indefinite tense—' burned.'

You can tell John's been burning the midnight oil lately; he looks super tired. 

She's always been one to burn the midnight oil; no rest for the wicked.

I've got so much to do; I guess I'll be burning the midnight oil tonight. 

The biannual report's due tomorrow so we gotta burn the midnight oil tonight, guys. 

It's okay to burn the midnight oil every now and then as long as it's not a recurring event. 

He wasn't allowed to play video games until he finished his homework so he burned the midnight oil to get it done. 

Everyone in the office has been burning the midnight oil every day this week. 

Most students are out partying and here I am burning the midnight oil. 

Do you think burning the midnight oil makes you smarter

Poor Kevin, having to burn the midnight oil instead of eating out with us. 

Other Ways to Say 'Burn the Midnight Oil'

There are plenty of other ways to express this idea of working too hard or too late. Although many of them don't have the exact same meaning, they're still great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases. Here are some of them:

  • going overboard
  • work too hard
  • all work and no play
  • work long hours
  • work/study into the night
  • Burn the candle at both ends
  • all work and no play

Concluding Thoughts

So there you have it; to 'burn the midnight oil' means to work late into the night to toil over a project, whether it be professional or academic. Don't forget that working past your bedtime is okay sometimes, but unhealthy in the end!

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more! 

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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