'Hit the Nail on the Head': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on September 6, 2023

Did someone say you 'hit the nail on the head,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

In short:

  • To ‘hit the nail on the head’ means to do or say something exactly right.

What Does 'Hit the Nail on the Head' Mean?

‘Hit the nail on the head’ is an idiom that means to arrive at precisely the right answer.

For example, let’s say you’re a student in school. The teacher might ask the class to offer some of the primary causes of a historical event. After you give your answer, if the teacher believes that you have given the exact right answer, he might say that you’ve ‘hit the nail on the head.’

When you picture what it means to hit a nail on the head, this meaning starts to make a lot of sense. Using a hammer to drive a nail into a piece of wood is a skill that can take time to learn, and not quite making contact with the head of a nail can mean the nail isn’t driven as far as it could be or could even be driven in at an angle. Beyond that, missing the head of the nail completely means that no progress has been made.

If you hit a nail right on the head, though, you will be driving it right into the heart of the wood. You have done exactly what you set out to do with precision and exactness.

Where Does This Idiom Come From?

Like many English idioms, this phrase is incredibly old, but its precise origin isn’t known. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this phrase was in use by the 1520s with the meaning of “to do or say just the right thing.”

In the next few sections, we’ll explore some of the earliest known uses of the phrase and how it seems to have evolved over time.

The First Known Use of the Phrase in English

We find the phrase in a text from more than 500 years ago, known as The Book of Margery Kempe from 1438. This text was written by Margery Kempe, a religious visionary, giving an account of her own life. It is thought to be the earliest surviving English autobiography.

In this book, we find the following passage:

"Yyf I here any mor thes materys rehersyd, I xal so smytyn ye nayl on ye hed that it schal schamyn alle hyr mayntenowrys."

However, to modern eyes, this hardly looks like more than the accidental typing of a cat walking across your computer keyboard. Translated into our modern version of English, it reads as follows:

"If I hear any more these matters repeated, I shall so smite the nail on the head that it shall shame all her supporters."

It isn’t quite clear what Kempe meant when she used the phrase. Some believe that the meaning in this context is to ‘speak severely.’

Other Early Uses of the Idiom

A bit more than a century after Mary Kempe used the phrase with unclear meaning, we find the same phrase used in The Cosmographical Glass by William Cuningham in 1559. In this instance, it’s clear that the meaning is in line with the modern definition that implies ‘getting right to the heart of the matter’:

“You hit the naile on the head (as the saying is)”

A poem by Sidney Dyer from the nineteenth century sharing the same name as our idiom appearing in The Western Literary Messenger from 1855 uses the phrase over and over again.

Here’s an example in the form of the first verse:

“The world has a treasure for every true heart,

That struggles undaunted through trail and need;

The secret to find it is, act well your part,

Whatever your station, and you will succeed.

Be truthful and earnest wherever you go;

Hold toll as a blessing that you earn your bread;

Give your heart to each duty, your strength to each blow,

And with every stroke, hit the nail on the head!”

Examples of 'Hit the Nail on the Head' In Sentences

How would 'hit the nail on the head' be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “John hit the nail on the head when he said that Sally isn’t a bad person; she’s just lonely. She’s coming from a good place, but being alone for so many years has made her a bit cold.”
  • “When I was at the office today, my boss told me I hit the nail on the head with my last presentation. It felt great to get some positive feedback.”
  • “I went to a comedy show last night, and the performer really hit the nail on the head. Maybe it’s just my sense of humor, but I thought he made some really insightful points all while being hilarious.”
  • Which one of you said that it’s time for us to go in a new direction? Whoever it was, you really hit the nail on the head.”
  • “He needs to listen to what you’re saying about how to take his business to the next level because, in my opinion, you’re really hitting the nail on the head.”
  • “We’re going to proceed despite the obstacles we’re facing, but I want to drive home that we really need to hit the nail on the head with this one.”

Other Ways to Say This Phrase

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to this idiom? Here are some options:

  • Hit the mark
  • Hit the target
  • Spot on
  • Right on the money
  • You’re exactly right

Final Thoughts About This Idiom

‘Hit the nail on the head’ is a very old English idiom that means to say or do something precisely right. When you ‘hit the nail on the head,’ you’ve gotten to the heart of the matter when speaking about something or you’ve done exactly what needed to be done.

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:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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