fall between two stools

C - F

to fall between two stools
also, caught between two stools


  • to come between two alternatives, and so fail to fulfill either of them.
  • fail due to difficulty choosing between two alternatives.
  • fail to achieve either of two contrasting aims.
  • to be in an ambiguous or indecisive situation where one fails to satisfy either option.

Example Sentences

  1. This book cannot be an academic one, nor can it be a popular commercial one; it falls between two stools.
  2. It is difficult to organize an event that appeals to both young and old; you could end up being caught between two stools.
  3. This car neither has good power nor gives good mileage; it falls between two stools.
  4. Do not try to be both a teacher and a friend to your students; you would be caught between two stools.
  5. This tutorialĀ is too complicated for a beginner and too simple for an advanced student. It falls between two stools.
  6. Don’t try to combine a relaxing vacation with an adventurous one; it would fall between two stools.

Origin and History

The idiom “caught between two stools” or “fall between two stools” finds its roots in an ancient proverb dating back to 1390: “Between two stools, one falls to the ground.” This saying is believed to be a translation of the medieval Latin proverb “labitur enitens sellis herere duabus” (“he falls trying to sit on two seats”).

The phrase is deeply ingrained in history, as evidenced by its appearance in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis in 1390:

“Thou farst as he betwen tuo stoles That wolde sitte and goth to grounde.”

In modern English, the earliest known instance appears in Matthew Prior’s comedic poem “Alma,” or “The Progress of the Mind,” dating back to 1717.

“Now which were wise, and which were fools?
Poor Alma sits between two stools.”

In Great Britain, “stools” generally refer to seats or chairs, typically lacking backs, particularly in Scotland. The idiom reflects a time when stools were commonplace substitutes for chairs, often positioned closely together. It illustrates the predicament of someone attempting to occupy two stools simultaneously, only to fall due to an inability to commit fully to either. This imagery symbolizes indecision and the resulting uncertainty or failure.

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