Idiom:  On Paper

A cartoon businesswoman sits at a desk holding up a chain of connecting paper cutout people. She laments to her colleague: On paper, we have the perfect team. The definition of the idiom "on paper".


What does it mean to have the perfect team 'on paper.'   

  • on paper:   in theory it looks good or possible—but it may or may not be that way in reality.


This idiom stresses that in theory—as a concept or an idea—the thing being talked about looks good or seems like something that can be done or achieved. Sometimes, however, in reality (in real life) things are different than how we imagine them.

In the comic above, the woman is holding up a string of cut-out paper people.

She says the team in her office looks good on paper. That means, they probably have the right skills, experience, education, training, etc.  

However, they will have to see whether or not the team is good in reality. Maybe even if everyone has great skills they may hate each other and not work well together. Maybe they will be a perfect team.


— Everyone stay positive! Although their team is better on paper, remember we have beaten highly-ranked teams before.

— On paper, the design was incredibly innovative but the prototype was a disaster.     

— The travel itinerary through South America looks great on paper but I still want to go camping instead.

— The house looks awesome on paper but we'll see if it's still amazing after the home inspection.

— All of the candidates looked experienced on paper but they gave terrible interviews. 

— On paper, the job offer was incredible but I didn't like all of the other staff members.

— The layout of the apartment looked so much better on paper.

— On paper, this looks like the shortest route to the cabin but I guess it will depend on traffic and the condition of the roads.

— Be sure to call her employment references! Anyone can make themselves look good on paper.

— On paper, he looked like the perfect date.  In reality, he hadn't updated his profile or picture in twenty years and was really old.

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