play it by ear: meaning and explanation

Sometimes, it isn’t possible to make a clear plan of action in advance because we do not have all the information we need to do so.

In these situations, we have to wait until we get the necessary information, and then make a decision or take an action in that moment. We can call this spontaneous, instinctive or reactive form of decision making playing it by ear.

For example – imagine we are trying to arrange to meet tomorrow afternoon, but neither of us are sure if we will be available. We might agree to play it by ear. This means that we will not make a concrete plan now, but will decide whether or not to meet tomorrow afternoon, when we both know if we are available or not.

Here are some common ways of using this idiom when making plans (or attempting to make plans).

“Let’s play it by ear” = “Let’s wait and see what happens and then decide”.

“Can we play it by ear?” = “Can we make a decision later, when we have full information?”

“We’ll have to play it by ear” = “We can’t make a decision now – we’ll have to wait until we have full information and then decide”.

Have a go at these micro-dictation exercises to hear this expression being used in context – how much can you understand?

Listening exercises

Micro-listening #1

Accent: Ireland

, .
able to fit 3, but we’ll play it I’ve got overrun.
I be able to fit you around 3, but we’ll to play it by as I’ve got meeting which overrun.

About the sentence

…I should be able to fit you in…

To fit someone in is a phrasal verb which means to find time to see someone. e.g. I’m sorry, but I can’t fit you in until next Friday afternoon.

Micro-listening #2

Accent: Australia

, .
a little hectic , we’ll have to ear if .
My is a little hectic week, so we’ll have to it by ear if don’t mind.

About the sentence

…my schedule is a little hectic…

Hectic is an adjective which means busy or stressful. e.g. I apologise for not getting the report back to you on time – it’s been a very hectic week.

Micro-listening #3

Accent: Scotland

. .
We decision on their we’ve heard the . We’ll play it .
We can’t a decision on their until we’ve heard the details them. We’ll have to play it ear.

Photo by Jessica Flavia on Unsplash