You’ve likely heard the popular idiomatic expression sky’s the limit before. But do you know what it means? Keep reading to discover the definition of this common phrase.
What Does Sky’s the Limit Mean?
The expression sky’s the limit—which is usually preceded by the article the in both speech and writing—is used to say that there are no limits; that anything is possible. As you know, a limit is something that bounds or restrains, say a maximum amount or an age requirement. The sky is a vast, boundless expanse that never actually ends (though at some point it technically becomes space). So saying the sky, which goes on and on infinitely is the limit, is saying that there’s in fact no limit at all—or, at least, there’s practically or metaphorically speaking no limit. It can be used in a wide variety of contexts, to talk about everything from someone’s aspirations and success to pricing.
Here are some example sentences using the idiomatic phrase sky’s the limit:
- My drama teacher is always telling me the sky’s the limit when it comes to my dreams of being a Broadway star; she truly believes in me and my talent, and that there’s nothing I can’t accomplish if I put my mind to it.
- At my birthday dinner at my favorite fancy restaurant, my dad turned to me and said, “The sky’s the limit. Order anything you want tonight, no matter the cost!”
- On graduation day, the commencement speaker told my class that because we are all college graduates, the sky’s the limit for us. We can be anyone we want to be and do anything we set out to do.
- I’m so lucky to be getting my dream wedding. My husband-to-be said the sky’s the limit when it comes to our budget; I feel like I’m living in a fairytale.
- Our new product is such a hit! These days, it feels like the sky’s the limit for our business.
As alluded to above, the saying is considered a metaphoric idiom, thus the caveat that the phrase means there are practically no limits. For instance, the dad in the example here might actually have a financial limit in mind, just one his daughter isn’t likely to exceed. And even someone with great talent who has achieved much success may come up against a limit of some kind at one point or another in their life. Whether used entirely literally or more metaphorically, it is said to encourage and give hope, to make someone feel joyful and that there are endless possibilities.
The Origin of the Expression
As is the case with many of the common phrases explored here at The Word Counter, no one is certain exactly when and with whom this saying originated. Some sources believe the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes coined it in his novel Don Quixote (published in the early 1600s), while others believe Cervantes himself never said it in Spanish but that English translators of the work later interpreted his words in this way.
We do know for sure that the exact phrase was in use by the early 20th century, with language historians citing a line in a 1911 newspaper article, published in The Syracuse Herald, that read: “Then good luck, and remember the sky’s the limit.” And evidence points to the fact that people referred to the sky to represent the idea of limitlessness at least a bit before then; experts uncovered an 1899 newspaper article with the line “the sky was to be the limit.”
Sky’s the limit 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.
When you first see or hear the phrase sky’s the limit, because it says that the sky is the limit, you might be inclined to take the words literally and believe it’s expressing some kind of limitation. But you now know the opposite is true. Because the sky is boundless, the idiom is used to say there are no limits or restrictions, and therefore anything is possible.
Is There Another Way to Say the Sky’s the Limit?
As you’ve discovered, the idiomatic expression sky’s the limit is used to say that there are (practically) no limits. It’s often used to tell someone that, say, because of their intelligence or talent they can do anything they want in life; that there’s no limit to their progress and success. It’s also often used to tell someone they have full freedom, or carte blanche, to make a choice or to spend money, as examples; that they can have as much as they wish. In these instances, the idiom the world is (one’s) oyster can be used as a synonym for sky’s the limit. If someone tells you “the world is your oyster,” they’re telling you that you have the ability to do anything you want in your life. They’re saying that anything you wish is yours for the taking, and that you have the freedom to make the rules.
The phrase sky’s the limit means that there is no limit (at least, there’s practically no limit), and that anything is possible. It can be used in a variety of contexts: It is often used aspirationally, to say that a person can achieve anything if they really want to, as well as to indicate one can have as much as they want of something or spend an unlimited amount of money.