'To Be on the Safe Side': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on January 2, 2024

Have you ever heard the expression 'to be on the safe side' and wondered what it meant? If so, you're in the right place. In this article, you'll learn the meaning of the popular idiom and how to use it in a sentence.

If you just want the short version, here it is:

  • 'To be on the safe side' means to be cautious about a situation, to make sure you're not taking unnecessary risks.

What Does 'To Be on the Safe Side' Mean?

'To be on the safe side' is an idiom, which usually means they can't be interpreted literally. A lot of idioms are metaphorical, which means they use an image to conjure up an idea in your mind. If you tried to take a metaphor literally, it wouldn't make any sense. This particular idiom is a little more literal than usual, though, so you could probably understand it if you broke it down. So let's try that together.

Imagine there are two sides and a middle. Of the two sides, one is dangerous, and one is safe. Someone tells you to stay on the safe side. It isn't difficult to imagine what they mean. So, let's look at an example.

Say, for instance, that you have a plane to catch in the morning. Your friend might say to you:

You should leave early to avoid the rush hour traffic, just to be on the safe side.

To do something 'to be on the safe side' means you do it to be careful in order to avoid something unpleasant from happening,

Okay, so it's not exactly life and death; missing the plane won't exactly be dangerous, per se. But 'staying safe' is just a figure of speech; we use it to mean that we avoid bad situations.

  • Doing something to be on the safe side is often unnecessary because it's unlikely something bad will happen if we don't do it that way, but it's a way to err on the side of caution. 

The idiom is often preceded by the word 'just,' as in 'just to be on the safe side.'

Singer Kelly Clarkson famously used this idiom in her lyrics to the song Because of You:

Because of you
I learned to play on the safe side so I don't get hurt

'To be' is an infinitive verb form.

Where Does 'To Be on the Safe Side' Come From?

While the exact origin of this idiom is not well-documented, it likely developed from the general human inclination to prioritize safety and security.

Idioms often evolve organically in language, and their specific origins can be challenging to trace. In the case of "to be on the safe side," it likely emerged over time as a way for people to express the idea of being cautious and avoiding unnecessary risks in various situations. This idiom is a common way to convey the importance of prudence and minimizing potential harm or negative outcomes.

One source says this idiom has been around since the early 1800s, but I was unable to find any evidence of this.

Examples in Sentences

Now that we've covered the meaning of this idiom and its origins, here are some example sentences that use it.

I didn't know if the traffic would be heavy, so I left for the airport early just to be on the safe side.

Sarah took an extra copy of her presentation to the meeting, just to be on the safe side in case the projector failed.

Before the camping trip, we packed extra food and water, just to be on the safe side in case we got lost.

The weather forecast was uncertain, so we decided to bring our rain jackets to the outdoor event, just to be on the safe side.

When installing the software, the technician recommended creating a backup of all the data, to be on the safe side.

Helen double-checked her passport's expiration date before her international flight, just to be on the safe side.

John always carries a spare phone charger in his car, just to be on the safe side in case his phone runs out of battery.

The hiker packed a first-aid kit with various supplies before heading into the wilderness, just to be on the safe side.

The event organizers ordered more chairs than they expected attendees, just to be on the safe side and ensure everyone had a seat.

Despite the low probability of a power outage, the homeowner invested in a generator, just to be on the safe side during storms.

Other Ways to Say 'To Be on the Safe Side'

There are plenty of other ways to say you're being cautious. They're great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases.

  • Better safe than sorry.
  • Err on the side of caution.
  • Play it safe.
  • Take precautions.
  • Exercise prudence.
  • Proceed with care.

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this popular idiom. To summarize, when someone says they are doing something to be on the safe side, they mean they are taking precautions or making conservative choices to avoid potential risks or problems.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? 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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