Do You Color Inside or Outside the Lines?

06 January 2024

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

Today, let's talk about a common art activity – coloring.

Coloring books are common objects of play and learning for children around the world. In recent years, coloring books for adults have grown popular too.

FILE - A dandelion crayon character poses for photos during a Crayola event in New York's Times Square, March 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
FILE - A dandelion crayon character poses for photos during a Crayola event in New York's Times Square, March 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Children usually color with wax sticks called crayons. But, you can also use color markers, pens, and pencils.

Adding color to black and white images is fun and often calming. You just choose a color and fill in the space created by the lines. In fact, children are often taught to stay inside the lines when they color.

Apparently, this idea does not come naturally. Child development experts say very young children begin by scribbling on a coloring page. They do not pay attention to the lines of the picture. The result is a colorful but often messy looking picture.

Then between the ages of two and five they start coloring inside the lines. This progression shows an improvement in many skills: fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, space and object awareness, and more.

Many children are taught to color inside the lines. As a result, many adults do the same. This makes this finished artwork look more organized and proper because you followed the images' guide lines.

That is why the expression coloring inside the lines means to think or act within generally accepted guidelines. If you color inside the lines, you follow the rules. You stay in the lines or you play by the book (not the coloring book ... but the rule book).

We can also say you stick to the script. A script contains the spoken words performers must say out-loud in a play, movie, or show. Sticking to the script means you do not change the lines you are given.

Such people can also be said to toe the line. That expression comes from foot racing.

On the other hand, people who color outside the lines do not follow rules. They are rebels. Rebels reject rules. They color outside the lines and think outside the box. Instead of sticking to the script they go off script. They improvise.

Just as with rule-followers, we have just as many word phrases and expressions for rule-breakers. They break new ground. They are ground-breakers. They buck traditions. Used as a verb this way, "buck" means to oppose or resist.

Next time you want describe these two kinds of people you will have plenty of expressions to choose from!

And that's the end of this Words and Their Stories. Until next time ... I'm Anna Matteo!

Anna Matteo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

scribbling – n. a piece of writing or a drawing that is done quickly or carelessly

messy – adj. lacking neatness or precision

coordination – n. the harmonious functioning of parts for effective results

awareness – n. knowledge and understanding that something is happening or exists

improvise – v.

buck – v. oppose, resist : bucking the system

mold – n. the frame on, around, or in which something is constructed or shaped