A slap on the wrist (English Idiom)

English idiom – A Slap on the Wrist

In today’s English blog post I’ll explain the common English idiom A slap on the wrist. I’ll use some natural examples and we will discover the meaning together. This will make the expression easy to remember and simple to use in your own English conversations.

Idioms are a group of words that have a different meaning than the words by themselves.

Here is another common idiom example: You can say that again.

If we look at the meaning of the words by themselves, we are giving someone permission (you can) to repeat what they have just said (say that again).

A: It’s hot today.
B: You can say that again. I can’t stop sweating.


The meaning of this idiom is – I completely agree with you. / I totally agree with what you just said.

What about the idiom topic of this post?

Please read this example sentence:

“In America, people are concerned with gun violence. Many people feel the punishments for crimes using guns are not strong enough. They’re only a slap on the wrist.”

A slap on the wrist English idiom

Do you know what the noun punishment means?

punishment – noun – a penalty for a crime or doing a bad thing.
 Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary LINK

A: “What’s the punishment for stealing a car in your country?”
B: “In Canada it’s 6 months to 10 years in jail.”

Maybe you have heard the verb form of this word – punish

punish verb – to make somebody suffer because they have broken the law or done something wrong
 Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary LINK

“My parents used to punish me by not letting me watch TV.”

Can you guess the meaning of a slap on the wrist? Is it a strong punishment?

The sentence from our example says only a slap on the wrist, so this gives us a clue to the meaning. When we use “only” to describe something the feeling is a little of something or not much of something.

“I want to buy a new car, but I only have $200.00 in the bank.”
I don’t have much money, it is not enough to buy a new car.

We can get the feeling that it is a small amount, or not enough.

not much - not enough

If a child does a bad thing he/she might get a small slap as punishment on their wrist. This is very mild, not strong at all.

From our example sentence again we can see the meaning clearly now. The punishment is not strong enough.

a slap on the wrist = punishment that is weak, not strong enough

“My brother stole my parent’s car when he was 16 but all he got was a slap on the wrist.

Here’s our example again, let’s add more to the sentence and use some advanced vocabulary – 

“In America, people are concerned with gun violence. Many people feel the punishments for crimes using guns are only a slap on the wrist. These weak punishments won’t deter criminals from using guns in the future.”

Do you know the meaning of deter?

Deter is a verb that means – to make somebody decide not to do something or continue doing something
 Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary LINK

“The high price of airline travel could deter people from flying on their next vacation.”

“Stronger punishments may deter criminals from using guns.”


This idiom is often combined with words like only or just.

Many people feel the punishments for crimes using guns are only a slap on the wrist.

It’s just a slap on the wrist.

Only A slap on the wrist
Just A slap on the wrist

Here is a recap of the vocabulary we practiced in this video.

Have you ever done a bad thing but only got a slap on the wrist?

Joe broke into several houses and stole their TVs and computers. He was caught but only served 3 months in jail. It’s just a slap on the wrist!

It's just a slap on the wrist!

Thanks for reading. I hope you can easily understand and use this idiom in your own English conversations now.

Check out these other great blog posts!

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