What Does Leaps and Bounds Mean?

You likely know the definitions of the words leaps and bounds, but do you know what they mean when they’re paired together, as in the popular phrase leaps and bounds? Read on to find out.

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What Does Leaps and Bounds Mean?

The phrase leaps and bounds is used to describe growth, expansion, and progress. If something grows by leaps and bounds, it does so quickly and to a large degree or great extent. Leaps and bounds implies big, fast movement forward. In other words, it’s not used to describe slow and steady growth in small increments over time, rather rapid and broad expansion.

If you think about the individual definitions of leap and bound, the phrase makes good sense. The two terms are synonyms of each other, both meaning “to spring forth.” When you leap or bound, you don’t take just a tiny step forward; you jump and propel yourself ahead a great distance and often a great height as well, and with a significant amount of force. Thus, when something expands by leaps and bounds, it does so in large strides (pun intended!). It may seem redundant, since the two words both mean springing forward. But when grouped together, the two words give added emphasis to the strides being made. 

It’s not known exactly how long the words have been paired together and the phrase has been in use. Some language experts suggest the pairing dates to Shakespearean times, while others suggest slightly later, in the 1700s.

The expression can be used as either a noun or an adverb—naming the dramatic improvements that have been made or are being made, or describing to what extent growth has taken place. When used as an adverb, the phrase is usually, although not always, preceded with the prepositions by or in. By leaps and bounds is much more common in the US, while in leaps and bounds is widely used in Britain. (Find many more examples of prepositions and learn about prepositional phrases here.)

Here are some example sentences using the phrase leaps and bounds, noting whether it’s being used as a noun or adverb:

  • My student’s grades have improved by leaps and bounds since I began tutoring him just a few weeks ago. (adverb)
  • Although scientists have made leaps and bounds in understanding autoimmune diseases, there’s still much to learn about these disorders and how to successfully prevent and treat them. (noun)
  • The grocery store chain expanded in leaps and bounds last year, opening, on average, five new stores every quarter. (adverb)
  • After her car accident, she made leaps and bounds in her recovery thanks to a great care team. She was walking in no time. (noun)
  • The wheat has been growing by leaps and bounds this season. We should have a great harvest. (adverb)
  • My small town has grown leaps and bounds over the last few years. The population used to be just 550, but now more than 5,000 people call the town home. (adverb)
  • After joining the gym, I’ve made leaps and bounds in my fitness. I’ve lost weight, and I can do so much more physically than I used to be able to do. (noun)

Understanding Idioms

Leaps and bounds is an idiom. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t typically be understood, or at least not fully understood, just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Unlike some idioms, if you were to see or hear this phrase used in context, knowing the definitions of leaps and bounds, you may be able to understand, without much effort, its intended meaning of quick forward progress or large movements forward. But that said, those gains and strides are figurative rather than literal: A business can’t physically leap or bound anywhere! Even when used in regards to a person, as an idiom it is not used literally to say they physically leapt or bounded anywhere, just that they made fast progress.

Discover more common idioms and phrases.

Synonyms for Leaps and Bounds

There are many different ways to express the idea of rapid progress. A few synonyms and close synonyms for leaps and bounds include:

  • great/giant strides
  • quantum leap
  • breakthrough
  • advance/advancement
  • (like) gangbusters
  • (like) wildfire
  • (at) full throttle
  • (at) full tilt

Antonyms, or at least near antonyms, of leaps and bounds include:

  • incrementally
  • one step at a time
  • ploddingly
  • sluggishly
  • slowly
  • bit by bit
  • dribs and drabs
  • gradually

A thesaurus will turn up additional synonyms and antonyms.

Summary

The expression leaps and bounds is used to describe significant and rapid growth, expansion, and progress. It can be used as either a noun or an adverb; as an adverb, it is often written or said as either by leaps and bounds or in leaps and bounds, the former of which is most commonly used in the United States and the latter in the United Kingdom. Although its origin isn’t known, it appears English speakers have been joining these words together with the conjunction and for quite some time—likely several hundred years.