Native speakers don’t always say what they mean. Sometimes this is because they want to be polite, and sometimes it’s because they don’t want to admit that they’re wrong, or that they don’t know something.
Instead of using a direct phrase, they say something that seems politer. Unfortunately, these phrases can be the opposite of what they mean!
Here are some common phrases with their real meanings.
To avoid saying “no”
We don’t want to say “no”, because it can sound rude. Instead, we might say these things:
“I’ll think about it.”
This is useful if someone has asked you for a favour or wants you to say “yes” to an idea or suggestion.
“I’ll bear it in mind.”
This is similar to “I’ll think about it”.
This is often what parents say to children. It generally means “no”.
This is useful for replying to invitations or suggestions. For example: “We could go out this evening.” Reply, “Yes, could do.”
To avoid discussing something / taking action
These are all phrases which end the conversation on a subject. You can use them when you don’t want to talk about something, or if you don’t intend to take any action.
“Leave it with me.”
A manager or colleague could say this to you, but it doesn’t mean that they will deal with it.
“I’ll look into it.”
“Look into” is a phrasal verb meaning “investigate”, but it doesn’t promise action.
“I’ll get back to you on that.”
Maybe the other person will follow up and get back to you – or maybe they won’t!
“It’s certainly one way of looking at it.”
The “certainly” gives the impression that it’s a good idea / suggestion, but the phrase could also mean that the idea / suggestion isn’t very good.
To avoid obvious disagreement
We don’t want to disagree too obviously or strongly because it might lead to an argument and bad feelings.
When people use this at the beginning of their sentence, they’re saying that you’re wrong.
“With all due respect…”
This is a stronger version than the previous phrase.
“You’re entitled to your opinion / You’re entitled to think that.”
This phrase suggests that the other person is wrong.
“Lets agree to disagree.”
This is a very useful phrase for when you’ve argued with someone for a long time and neither of you will change your mind. It means that the only thing you can agree on is the fact that you disagree.
To avoid criticising
To avoid sounding critical, we use vague words which can mean the opposite. We also use words like “quite” or “a little” to soften the criticism.
“I probably wouldn’t do it that way. / I’d probably do it a little differently.”
This means that the way someone is doing something isn’t very good.
“Quite / Fairly good.”
This means that something isn’t (or wasn’t) very good at all.
“I have a couple of comments.”
This phrase means that you have a lot of criticism about something. “A couple of” can refer to more than two.
“It’s not quite what I wanted.”
The “quite” makes you think that it’s almost OK, but the phrase means that it isn’t what the other person wanted. You might also hear “It’s not quite what I meant” to mean that you’ve misunderstood the other person.
These other phrases are important, as they mean something quite different from the words used!
“Don’t get me wrong…”
This should mean “don’t misunderstand me”, but it’s also a signal that the person is going to say something that most people would find insulting, rude or unacceptable.
“Don’t take this the wrong way…”
Again, this means that the person is going to say something that’s critical or likely to offend and upset the other person.
“I’m fairly sure…”
“Fairly” here can mean “completely” or “not at all”.
“By the way…”
We often use this phrase to introduce extra information. But it can also be used to introduce the most important thing in the conversation – not additional information. You might hear it at the end of a conversation.
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