October 26, 2011

Why can’t people just say what they mean?

Stephen Fry

Why can’t the English just say what they mean, dammit?

Stephen Fry’s Planet Word is an entertaining romp through the English language. It provides a timely reminder as to why people don’t always say what they mean, see the episode on uses and abuses of language for some entertaining examples. Talking of the divergence between what people say and what they actually mean, reminded me of this handy British / American English translation key (which comes via the good people at OpenHelix).

What the British say What the British mean What others understand
I hear what you say I disagree and do not want to discuss it further They accept my point of view
With the greatest respect I think you are an idiot They are listening to me
That’s not bad That’s good That’s poor
That is a very brave proposal You are insane They think I have courage
Quite good A bit disappointing Quite good
I would suggest… Do it or be prepared to justify yourself Think about the idea, but do what you like
Oh incidentally/ by the way The primary purpose of our discussion is… That is not very important
I was a bit disappointed that I am annoyed that It doesn’t really matter
Very interesting That is clearly nonsense They are impressed
I’ll bear it in mind I’ve forgotten it already They will probably do it
I’m sure its my fault It’s your fault Why do they think it was their fault?
You must come for dinner It’s not an invitation, I’m just being polite I will get an invitation soon
I almost agree I don’t agree at all They are not far from agreement
I only have a few minor comments Please re-write completely They have found a few typos
Could we consider some other options I don’t like your idea They have not yet decided

All human languages have the facility for the kinds of little white lies shown above, not just English. Life would be quite different if people always said precisely what they meant, and the English would have less fun confusing Americans with their ludicrous limey language.


  1. I hear what you say (I’m Dutch, so I actually mean it). I’m sure it is just me, but this is an bit of a disappointing aspect of the UK, with all due respect, of course. That said, some areas of the UK are very international and dampen this feature. But this is just a blunt Dutch guy speaking, but please bear it in mind.

    Comment by Egon Willighagen (@egonwillighagen) — October 27, 2011 @ 4:29 pm | Reply

    • Hi Egon, thanks for your comments. I wonder if English speaking people (British and/or American) are any worse at telling white lies than anybody else. I like to think that we’re all as bad as each other, regardless of nationality, but maybe other languages are used in a more honest way than English. What we need is a clever experiment to test this hypothesis… any suggestions?

      Comment by Duncan — October 27, 2011 @ 6:52 pm | Reply

  2. […] I will be surrounded by English people, this post by Duncan Hull on what English really mean, will come in […]

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  3. I love Stephen Fry he seems to always have the right take on things – and he hasn’t disappointed here he has simply pointed out how others interpret what we are saying – how wrong they are.

    Comment by ava — November 16, 2011 @ 6:37 am | Reply

  4. […] uncomfortably accurate sideways take on what the British mean by various […]

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  5. I read all of those, and they are exactly how I interperate the meanings and how I use them.
    “With the greatest respect” is spot on, the only time I use that term is if I think someone is an idiot.

    Comment by Gothic Biker — November 26, 2011 @ 6:30 pm | Reply

  6. the english never say it as it is, even when they say ‘Sorry’

    Comment by dion — March 10, 2012 @ 10:54 pm | Reply

    • dion, the english always apologise. sorry about that 🙂

      Comment by Duncan — March 11, 2012 @ 7:59 pm | Reply

  7. Well, isn’t that nice…guess what that means.

    Comment by Rachel Triggs — March 23, 2012 @ 12:06 am | Reply

  8. […] Why can’t people just say what they mean? (duncan.hull.name) […]

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