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to touch a nerve: meaning and explanation

If you touch a nerve, then you say or do something which causes someone to react angrily.

This expression communicates the idea of a sudden and surprising angry reaction, which you weren’t expecting. We normally use the expression after the reaction, to describe what happened.

The origin of the expression is probably dentistry – if a dentist is working on your teeth and touches an exposed nerve, then this will cause a sharp, sudden and painful reaction, almost like an electric shock.

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: Australia

I during the asked he’d left .

About the sentence

…when I asked him why he’d left his last job…

Notice that the past perfect is used here (“why he had left”) because this is reported speech. “Why did you leave…?” becomes “I asked why he had left…”.

Micro-listening #2

Accent: North America

Micro-listening #3

Accent: Scotland


Extra practice

Here are some questions/links to help you learn the new vocabulary:

  • Can you remember a time why you said something to someone which touched a nerve?

Photo by Iftikhar Alam on Vecteezy

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