By the Numbers

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By Numbers (UK)
Paint by numbers

Meaning of Idiom 'By the Numbers'

When something is done by the numbers it is done in a precise and orderly sequence that is already determined. The idiom alludes to doing things by rote, or mechanically, according to a laid-out plan, without any thought or creativity; following exact rules. 1,2

To paint by numbers is to do something in an uninspired and unoriginal way.

Compare by the book.


The idiom may be negative or neutral, depending on the context.


"Tom doesn't like doing things by the numbers so he quickly grew bored in his assembly job."

"Sargeant Pressman was always by the numbers, which sometimes rankled his fellow officers."

"For an accountant, you really don't seem to like doing things by the numbers," said Sarah to Peter.

"If we're going to pass inspection, everything has to be by the numbers."

"The new CEO's paint by numbers approach rankled the young and creative staff."


In Britain, by numbers originated in military drills where each movement was called by a number, one after the other. 3 Similarly, the American version of the idiom by the numbers derives from World War I, when soldiers learned tasks in numbered sequences.

The similar idiom paint-by-numbers originated by the very popular paint-at-home system developed by Max S. Klein in 1950, in which the areas to pain were indicated by numbers corresponding to a certain color of paint. Since both idioms by the numbers and painting by numbers can have similar meanings, it is quite likely that the popularity of the painting product influenced and reinforced the older idiom.

1. Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
2. Spears, Richard A. McGraw-Hill's American Idioms Dictionary. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008.
3. "Definition of 'by-numbers'." By-numbers Definition and Meaning | Collins English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2017. <>

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