What’s the Catch?

Understanding how the word catch is used in this expression makes it easy to comprehend. It has nothing to do with the catch of the day!

While normally catch is a verb meaning to capture or take hold of someone or something, as well as some other related meanings, here it is a noun. It refers to a hidden problem or disadvantage in what seems like an ideal situation. There’s always a catch, we say!

Meaning of Idiom ‘What’s the Catch?’

What’s the catch means what is the problem, disadvantage, drawback, etc. in an otherwise good situation.


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Usage Notes

We use this idiom most often when we are made an offer that seems too good to be true and when we are convinced that the person presenting the offer must be hiding some disadvantage or problem that would make the offer more realistic.

For example, if a very expensive luxury car were being sold for half its value, we would certainly ask, ‘What’s the catch?’

The idiom can also refer to a plan or suggested action that seems too easy or simple with no apparent problems.

Examples Of Use

“Why is this house selling for so little? The other houses in this neighborhood are worth twice as much. What’s the catch?”

“We’ll pay you much more than you are making now and you will get a hefty sign-on bonus plus full paid vacation and a great medical plan including dental and vision.”

“Really? What’s the catch?”

“You have to move to Korea.”

“If you will sit with grandma while I’m away I’ll let you play my PS4.”

“Oh yeah, what’s the catch?”

“You have to take her to the grocery store.”

“But that takes hours! She goes down every aisle three times!”

Origin

It is not clear how the word catch came to be used in this way. Although it may appear to be related to the famous novel Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, which is the origin of the idiom ‘catch 22’ in English, the word catch has been used in this way since at least the early 1900s, some 60 years before Heller’s novel was published.

“The full phrase ‘What’s the catch’ has been used since at least the 1940s but I’ve seen evidence of the related expression ‘there’s a catch’ being used in the early 1900s. It is likely that both these expressions are contemporary.

The way the word catch is used in this expression could be considered a standard alternative use of the word as a noun.

Therefore, this expression may not be considered an idiom by some experts. However, as this may not always be well-known by English learners, it is an expression that causes confusion.

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