tread water

Expend effort that maintains one's status but does not make much progress toward a goal, as in He was just treading water from paycheck to paycheck. This idiom alludes to the term's literal meaning, that is, “keep one's head above water by remaining upright and pumping the legs.”

Words Nearby tread water

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

How to use tread water in a sentence

  • Margery, seized by a panic, forgot to tread water and went clear to the bottom.

  • He was full of life, he understood how to swim, to tread water, to turn over and tumble in the flood.

    What the Moon Saw: and Other Tales | Hans Christian Andersen
  • When you tread water you force the water down with your hands and feet and so send your body, or keep it, up.

    On the Trail | Lina Beard and Adelia Belle Beard