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English Idioms and Metaphors About Boundaries, Walls and Fences

Updated on March 4, 2017
Diana Grant profile image

I'm fascinated by words, nuances of meanings & ideas. I have always enjoyed reading, language, and writing, from poetry to very long letters

Boundaries, Walls and Fences in English Proverbs and Sayings

The British do love their boundaries, to delineate the precise extent of their land and ownership. Over the years this has given rise to many English expressions and metaphors relating to fences, ditches, boundaries and walls.

You will find this English language article interesting if English is your first language, and if you are learning to speak English as a second language (ESL), you'll find it helpful to learn something new about the English language.

A Boundary Wall Outside Welsh Cottages


A Word of Explanation First—You Can Skip This Bit if You Want to go Straight to the Idioms Below

The UK does not Legally Recognize the Concept of Ownerless Land (i.e. Land Without an Owner)

England is a small country with a relatively large population. The system of land ownership evolved from the feudal system. After England was conquered in 1066, William the Conqueror claimed all the land as his, and he would give grants of land, distributing it to his important noblemen, who were barons and bishops, in return for fealty - faithfulness and service - which included each of them producing a certain number of men to fight, in times of war. The people living on the land within a fealty were allowed to farm it but had to give a certain percentage of the produce or the income from the sale of produce (a tax) to the nobleman who owned the land.

That is why there is no ownerless land in England – all land belongs to someone, and there is an efficient system of land registration, recording the owners of land and the area owned. The demarcation of land according to ownership is considered very important to landowners, and an aerial view of the country will show most areas neatly divided with hedges, walls, fences or ditches.

Antique Manuscript Indentures Showing the Ownership of Land (Before Compulsory Registration at the Land Registry)

The indenture on the right shows a plan of the property
The indenture on the right shows a plan of the property | Source

Ownership of Land and Status of Non-Owners

If someone who is not the owner of land still uses the land, they might be able to claim legal ownership after twelve years, if they can prove that they have enclosed it with a fence and have been openly (as opposed to secretly) occupying and cultivating it without the true landowner objecting. This is called adverse possession or squatter’s rights, and anyone occupying the land without the owner’s consent is called a squatter.

Anyone who enters on to land without the owner’s permission is called a trespasser. A property owner by law may use reasonable force to eject a trespasser, and this does not include shooting or seriously harming him, unless the owner is in genuine fear for the immediate physical safety of himself or his family. Thus it’s not all right to shoot a trespasser who is running away.

To Make a Claim Under Adverse Possession, the Land Must be Enclosed and Cultivated


15 Expressions Which Relate to Land

1. To Sit on the Fence

To be neutral or undecided about an issue, e.g. When asked whether he believes the UK should leave the European Common Market, he sat on the fence, and would not say which way he intended to vote.

2. Beyond the Pale

The word Pale comes from the Latin word palus, meaning a stake or pole driven into the ground, and thus a fence.

Roman encampments were surrounded by a fence, and people living within the enclosure were protected by the law, whereas anyone living outside the fence (beyond the pale) was not protected, and was an outlaw.

In modern times, a Pale is a district or region lying within an imposed boundary.

So if someone's behaviour is described as Beyond the Pale, it means they are behaving in an outrageous or unacceptable way.

3. Beyond the Bounds

Means outside the limits (similar to Beyond the Pale, and the two idioms can be used iinterchangeably) - e.g. his behaviour is beyond the bounds, meaning it is beyond what is acceptable.

4. Setting Boundaries

Setting limits to someone's behaviour - e.g. it is necessary to set boundaries so that people know how far they can go - setting rules so that a person doesn't misbehave.

A Metal Fence in the Park to restrain children from wandering


5. To Score a Boundary

A cricketing term meaning hitting the ball so that it flies out of the field.

6. Party Wall

A Party Wall is a wall which is shared between two adjacent properties and two owners. Sometimes this leads to boundary disputes and sometimes gives rise to party wall agreements - agreements concerning the use of the party wall, such as who can build against it and how high it should be.

Party Wall Between Two Properties


7. To Ring Fence

To ring fence something is to isolate it e.g. "I've ring fenced that money for a nice holiday."

8. A Fence

Someone who receives stolen goods and sells them on to other people.

9. To Ditch Someone or Something

To ditch someone is to get rid of someone e.g. she ditched her boyfriend.

Setting Boundaries

Boundary Formed by a Row of Trees and a Wooden Fence


10. To Fence Someone In

To fence someone in means to restrain them.

11. Draw a Line

To draw a line means to make a demarcation. For instance, after an argument, you might "say let's draw a line on this and start anew."

12. Up the Wall

He's up the wall - means he's mad.

13. Go to the Wall

To be ruined - if a business goes to the wall, it goes into dissolution or bankruptcy.

14. A Wallflower

A flower that grows against walls. So a wallflower is a young lady who, in effect, sits against the wall during a dance - instead of dancing - normally this would be because she wasn't asked to dance.

15. To Feel Walled in

To feel constricted.

Berlin Wall - 1961 - 1989

There are a lot of English expressions connected to boundaries

How many of these expression did you know?

See results

Can you think of any more English expressions relating to boundaries? Or have you any other comments?

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    • Diana Grant profile image

      Diana Grant 12 months ago from London

      My favorite is rhyming slang, where you are given a shortened word, have to guess the full-length word, and then think what rhymes with it. An example is "where's my titfer?" Titfer is short for tit-for-tat, which rhymes with hat, so the meaning is "where's my hat?"

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 14 months ago from Brazil

      I lived in the UK for 20 years and some of these I hadn't heard before. I think much of it depends on the area you live in. When I first arrived from the US, I couldn't understand much of it as I lived in a small mining village in the midlands. Questions such as 'Ya alright me duck?' and 'Av you got a fag?' left me scratching my head in confusion.

      Not to mention 'Gordon Bennett' and 'Alright Chuck'.

      The English language can be confusing even if English is your mother tongue.

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      What fun! Thanks for sharing! You made me smile, for sure! ;-)