how to use this idiom?
February 9, 2012 7:30 PM   Subscribe

I'm learning English. I wonder what's the difference between.."keep in good shape "and "stay in good shape". And when someone said,"I'd have given anything to keep in good shape.", do you get which he meant, "to keep his good physical condition" or " to keep his good figure"? My question is odd?
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think this depends where exactly you are in the english speaking world.

In North America, I would say that generally there is no difference between the two expressions. How educated the person is may also be a factor here. But likely it is a local thing if there really IS a difference. I cannot see how though from where I live.
posted by some loser at 7:34 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

People use "in shape" to refer both to looks/figure and to physical condition/capability.
posted by moxiedoll at 7:36 PM on February 9, 2012

"Keep in good shape" sounds a bit odd to me (I'm a native American English speaker).

Just plain "keep in shape" is less odd. But I can't say why, exactly.

I would say "stay in shape" -- it means generally good physical condition.

If you're talking about external appearances, "figure" is used more than "shape."

But talking about "keeping up your figure" makes you sound like a 1950s girdle advertisement.
posted by pantarei70 at 7:36 PM on February 9, 2012

Both, kinda of? It often means being somewhat aerobically fit--that is having some endurance during exercise. Sometimes it can mean being stronger and having more muscle tone, sometimes it can mean losing or keeping off a few pounds. So I guess it's kind of a combination of health and aesthetics. Agreed with pantarei70 that talking about "keeping his good figure" sounds kind of old fashioned.

For what it's worth, I'm a English speaker in the U.S., and "Keep in good shape" sounds a bit odd to me. "Get in shape," "Get into shape," "Stay in shape," and "Stay in good shape" all sound normal to me.
posted by aka burlap at 7:39 PM on February 9, 2012

There is no difference between "keep in good shape" and "stay in good shape."

"Stay in good shape" (or "stay in shape") means stay in good physical condition and have a good figure.

"In good shape" can mean other things in different contexts.
posted by John Cohen at 7:44 PM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Staying in shape has stronger cogitations with physical condition rather than appearance. For instance it would not be unusual for someone to say "I am over weight but I stay in shape by going to the gym".

The converse: "I am very unfit but I am in good shape" sounds weird.

For future reference, a native speaker would not ask "My question is odd?" (although it is perfectly understandable what you mean by the question mark.) "Is my question odd?" sounds more natural.
posted by AndrewStephens at 7:45 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most people saying that will have their own idea of what either of those phrases mean.
posted by zephyr_words at 7:45 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with above opinions re: slight oddness of phrase (only slight) and the malleability of the phrase. However, if I had to take a punt I'd vote for general health/fitness rather than beauty- only because I think generally it is marginally less culturally acceptable to express disappointment that directly with one's ability to maintain attractiveness, per se. We're all mostly pretending we don't mind as long as we're healthy, see. :) But really- it could fit both.
posted by jojobobo at 7:47 PM on February 9, 2012

Best answer: I wonder what's the difference between.."keep in good shape "and "stay in good shape".

None, this is probably a regional difference.

And when someone said,"I'd have given anything to keep in good shape.", do you get which he meant, "to keep his good physical condition" or " to keep his good figure"?

It's impossible to tell without context. It could really be either. What was the context?
posted by cairdeas at 7:51 PM on February 9, 2012

Nthng many of the folks above

“In good shape” to me (native English speaker) means, basically physically fit -- in the respect that, maybe you don’t have the ideal body image, but you can also walk up a flight or two of stairs without coughing and wheezing.

On a different note, just as an idiom, what I remember most about the word “shape” has to do with shooting pool, or playing billiards.

It refers to having the skill to position the cue ball for your next shot to make it easy.

As in “Wow! Great shape!” when you line up your next shot.


“Man! No shape!” when you leave the cue ball buried behind something so your opponent doesn’t have a decent shot at anything.

This is as far as I know, Midwest US usage. Not sure if anyone else has ever heard/used it before.
posted by timsteil at 7:59 PM on February 9, 2012

Well, there's "in shape" and "out of shape," which can describe a person's fitness level or their figure, usually a combination of both. You'd say "I'm getting in shape" or "she stayed in shape." You usually wouldn't use the word "keep," unless you said "keep myself in shape." Sometimes you'd say "good shape," but often it's just "shape."

There's also the phrase "in good shape," which can describe nearly any object, and means "in good condition" or "in order." You might hear someone say "this car is old, but it's in good shape" or "the manager keeps his store in good shape." Or someone might tell you, "if you do well in this job interview, you'll be in good shape." In that sentence, it doesn't mean you're physically fit; it means you're in a good position to get the job.

English is such a strange language. I hope this makes some sense!
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:03 PM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

Further to Metroid's point, "I am in good shape for this meeting" means I am prepared.

I would comment "he's in bad shape this morning" about someone sick or hungover.

I, a Canadian native Englsh speaker, would generally not include the "good" in thise idiom as it would mostly be implied.

Hope that helps.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 8:37 PM on February 9, 2012

Everyone above has mentioned the fact that "in good shape" doesn't change its meaning depending on which verb is used, and that a person's figure and physical condition are pretty much the same thing.

So here's a possible over-answer about English grammar.

I am going to keep [myself] in good shape.
I am going to keep [my car] in good shape.

I am going to stay in good shape.
My car is going to stay in good shape.

In the first version, the thing staying in shape is the object of the sentence. (the thing being acted upon, not doing the acting)

In the second version, the thing staying in shape is the subject of the sentence (directly interacting with the verb)

In English (I don't know about other languages), we sometimes leave out words because they are believed to be understood by the context. Most often you see it when discussing command verbs. "Go over there" is understood to mean "You go over there". The subject (ie:"you") is understood, taken to be the default.

In the sentence "I am going to keep in good shape", there is no specified object, so it defaults to reflecting upon the subject. You're not saying what you will keep in shape, so it must be yourself. "I am going to keep in good shape" is really "I am going to keep myself in good shape"

See what happens when you mess with the structure of the earlier sentences:

I am going to stay myself in good shape
Totally doesn't work.

My car is going to keep in good shape
technically a fine sentence, but it seems to leave out a lot of information. How is it going to keep in shape? By taking itself to the car wash? by the magical spell cast upon it?

In conclusion:

Stay and keep are slightly different verbs.

"The ball will stay in the circle" (of its own accord)
"Keep the ball in the circle" (it needs your help)

And I hope I haven't confused you more.
posted by itesser at 8:46 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think there's a slight difference between "keep in shape" and "stay in shape".

To me, "keep" implies a little more active work. "He kept himself in shape," implies that he worked at it and it might not have been easy. "He stayed in shape," leaves things more vague. Maybe it was easy for him, or the act of staying in shape isn't what's important here.

For example, if you're talking to an old friend and you say, "I've kept myself in shape," you make it sound like yes this is an active thing you do in your life. If you say, "I've stayed in shape," it sounds a little non-committal or non-personal. Maybe you work out 2 hours a day and your dumb friend should know of course you're still in shape. Maybe you're still in shape but you're embarrassed that you haven't been exercising lately, so "kept myself in shape" sounds a little too strong.
posted by fleacircus at 2:47 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

In Australia, these would mean the same thing - to be reasonably physically fit/slim. I think stay in shape would be the more usual phrase.
posted by bystander at 3:18 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seems like you have two questions here:
  1. "Good shape", when applied to a person, can refer to either their health or their appearance. Usually it means a mixture of both. As a reader, I assume a person who wrote "I'd have given anything to keep in good shape" meant a mixture of both health and appearance. If you are writing, and you want to be unambiguous, and you mean "good health but not good appearance" or "good appearance but not necessarily good health", then avoid "shape".
  2. There are no differences (at least in British English) between "staying in shape", "keeping in shape", "staying in good shape" and "keeping in good shape". Unless you are an extremely advanced user of English (as in, better than many native speakers), then you can assume they mean the same thing. If there are any differences then they are far, far too subtle to be relied upon if you are writing or speaking and want to differentiate between two concepts. I would argue that anyone who does use them to mean different things is a bad writer, at least in the sense that they are failing to communicate clearly.

posted by caek at 5:17 AM on February 10, 2012

As an American ESL teacher, it is kind of tricky.

"Man, I've gained weight. I need to get back into shape."

"Wow, you look great.
Thanks. I'm trying to stay in shape (these days)."

British English would be a little different, using the adjective "fit."

"Wow! She's fit!" (She has a good body.)
"I need to get fit." (American English: I need to get into shape/back into shape.)

But everything people have said here is good advice.

Also, a bit archaic, but "ship-shape" would be an adjectival construction for a physical object, not really a person, that's in perfect condition.

"How's your car these days?
Perfect. Ship-shape. I just got a tune-up."
posted by bardic at 5:20 AM on February 10, 2012

For practical purposes, "keep in" and "stay in" have the same meaning in North American English.

"Keep in touch" = "Stay in touch"
posted by vincele at 7:20 AM on February 10, 2012

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