VOA Special English
It's Time to 'Separate the Wheat from the Chaff'

    2024-5-11

    And now, Words and Their Stories, from VOA Learning English.

    On today's show we talk about an expression that likely came from wheat growers a long time ago. Preparing harvested wheat involves an important step – separating the wheat from the chaff.

    Chaff is the outer covering of grain, the husk and other matter around the grain. Grain must be separated from chaff before it can be used for food. In farming, separating the wheat from the chaff is called winnowing or threshing.

    FILE - A woman farmer carries sheaves of harvested wheat crops to thresh, at a village on the outskirts of Ajmer, India, March 31, 2024. (Photo by Himanshu SHARMA / AFP)
    FILE - A woman farmer carries sheaves of harvested wheat crops to thresh, at a village on the outskirts of Ajmer, India, March 31, 2024. (Photo by Himanshu SHARMA / AFP)

    In English, the expression "separating the wheat from the chaff" means to decide which people or things in a group are good or important and which ones are not. Who or which things can you live without?

    This idiom describes a kind of sorting process.

    For example, if you are planning to go on a long hiking trip, you have to decide which things are necessary to carry with you and which things are not. Food and water need to make the cut — they need to be included. A long, heavy novel to read might not be such a good idea. If you do not separate the wheat from the chaff, your backpack will be too heavy.

    This idiom can also mean that you decide which things are valuable and which things have little worth.

    For example, let's say you are organizing a large neighborhood yard sale to raise money for a local charity. Many neighbors donate things they no longer need. Some are valuable and should get a high price. But other things are not worth much and should be low in cost. In this case, taking your time to separate the wheat from the chaff is time well spent. You do not want to see something valuable sold for too little money. It is for charity, after all.

    This idiom can also mean to separate people or things that are of high quality from those that are of low quality.

    Let's say you are hiring someone for a top position in your company. When you send the announcement out, you receive hundreds of applications. This is the first round of the process when you must separate the wheat from the chaff. You must determine the most qualified applicants for the second round of the process that would include phone discussions and interviews.

    For a last example, let's talk about learning English. Online, you can find many resources that teach English. But they are not all good. It is up to you to separate the wheat from the chaff. Hopefully VOA Learning English makes the cut.

    And that's all the time we have for this Words and Their Stories.

    Until next time, I'm Anna Matteo.

    Anna Matteo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.

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    Words in This Story

    winnow –v. to sort grain by throwing it in the air or using air to separate the grain from unwanted plant material

    thresh –v. to beat the grain-bearing part of a cereal (such as wheat) to separate it from the chaff (unwanted plant material)

    charity –n. an organization that supports a cause with money and assistance

    application –n. a written request to be part of a company or organization that includes background and personal information

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