English Language Blog

I do not think it means what you think it means Posted by on May 17, 2012 in Culture, English Language

“I do not think it means what you think it means.”  This is a line from a famous American film from the 1980’s called Princess Bride.  This line is spoken in the following conversation between two characters, Vizzini and Inigo Montoya.

Vizzini: He didn’t fall? INCONCEIVABLE*.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I love this movie, like many people I know, and I was thinking about this line the other day.  It started me thinking about different phrases people say in English that don’t mean what people think they mean.  So, I started looking for examples of these common phrases in everyday English and here is a list of some of what I found.  I’ve include the phrase, what people often think the phrase means, the actual meaning, and then an example of how to use the phrase correctly in a sentence or two.

“I could care less”
What people think this means: “I couldn’t care less.”
What this actually means: You actually do care.
Example: I told Marisa that her ex-boyfriend Tommy has a new girlfriend and she told me “I could care less”, but she used this phrase wrong because I know she does care.

“that begs the question”
Would people think this means: To ask or raise a question.
What this actually means: To use an argument that assumes as proof the very thing one is trying to prove.
Example: Paul said that exercise is healthful because it makes you healthy. That begs the question. That is saying the same thing. He needs to make a better argument.

“let’s table this”
What people think this means: To discuss something later.
What this actually means: In the United States, this means what American’s think it means. But it means the opposite, “let’s discuss this right now”, in most of the rest of the English-speaking world.
Example (America): I think we have talked about this enough let’s table this until tomorrow.
Example (elsewhere): This is a very important decision let’s tablet it.  We’ll meet in the conference room to discuss this in 5 minutes.

“to do a 360”
What people think this means: One completely changing one’s opinion.
What this actually means: One’s opinion changed, but then changed back to the original opinion.
Example: After talking to my dad about the presidential candidates I changed my mind for who I would vote for, but then I talked to my mom and I did a 360.

“PIN number”
What people think this means: This is a way to refer to ones personal identification number.
What this actually means: This is redundant phrase because PIN stands for personal identification number.  When a person says PIN number that are really saying “personal identification number number.”
Example: Don’t ever tell anyone your PIN.  It should be kept a secret.

“the lion’s share”
What people think this means: The greatest of all the possible shares.
What this actually means: This phrase originally comes from an Aesop’s Fable in which the lion took all, not the largest, of the shares.  Over time this phrase has come to mean both ‘the greatest of all possible shares’ and ‘all the shares’ or all there is to take.
Example: I left cookies on the table in the morning and by the end of the day my teenage son had taken the lion’s share of what was there and left none for the rest of us.

* inconceivable  = unbelievable

If you want to learn what more phrases and words in English actually mean you should check out the resources to learn English at Transparent Language.

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About the Author: Gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.