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What the British mean vs what the British say

There’s a table that you might have seen in your lessons which tries to “translate” what British people mean when they say certain phrases. Here’s a small sample:

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

He accepts my point of view

With the greatest respect...

I think you are a idiot

He is listening to me

That´s not bad

That is good

That´s poor

That is very brave proposal

You are insane

He think I have courage

Quite good

A bit dissapointing

Quite good

Now, before you start to panic, and ask yourself “can I ever trust anything anyone says to me?” it’s important to remember that the above table is intended to be a joke. However, there is an element of truth to this: British speakers do often say one thing and mean something else. The most common reasons we do this are:

  1. Not to be rude or hurt someone’s feelings.

  2. Not to make a situation uncomfortable.

  3. Not to exaggerate.

  4. When we are being sarcastic or ironic

The most important things to bear in mind are context and tone of voice and/or the expression of the speaker.

I’ll try to explain this using common phrases as examples, some from the table above and some that you might hear being spoken by British people.

“Not bad”

This one is extremely common and can be used in two ways:

A) How are you?

B) Not bad, thanks, and you?

B is probably feeling OK but doesn’t want to exaggerate. A British person has to be feeling great to say “good” and will almost never say “amazing!”




Let’s look at the next example:

A)How’s the food?

B)It’s not bad.

B probably means the food is not very good but doesn’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings. “Quite good”

QUITE GOOD

This one is also very common and be used in two ways. Context is very important, of course, as well as the intonation of the speaker.


A)How’s the food?

B)It’s quite good.

B stresses ‘quite’ because they actually think the food is just OK. And now the second way:

A)How’s the food?

B)It’s quite good!

B stresses ‘good’ because they are surprised at how good the food is.

“I might join you/come along later” If you’ve ever invited a British person to a dinner, party etc. you might hear them respond with this phrase.

A) We are going out for dinner tonight. Would you like to join us?

B) I might come along later.

B is unlikely to attend the dinner, but they don’t want to be rude by saying ‘no’, or lie by saying they have other plans when they don’t. I used to use this phrase a lot!

“Excuse me. Is anybody sitting there?” You might have heard this phrase on the train or bus. In one situation, it’s perfectly honest; in the other it’s quite the opposite! See below: A person is sitting on a bus and the chair next to them is empty. Another passenger approaches.

A) Excuse me. Is anybody sitting there?

B) No.

A sits down and there’s no issue. The next example is very different: A person is sitting on a bus, and they have put their bag on the chair next to them, either without thinking or to discourage someone else from sitting next to them.

A) Excuse me. Is anybody sitting there?

B) Oh, erm…. (they move their bag with some embarrassment).

A knows there is no one sitting in the seat and wants B to move their bag but doesn’t want to make the situation uncomfortable by being honest.

“Sorry”


You may not be surprised to hear that Brits are likely to say the word ‘sorry’ over 200,000 times in their life. To be honest, I’m amazed it’s not more that that. You will be aware that this word is used to apologize: “I’m sorry for losing your dog”, and when we are giving bad news: “I’m sorry to tell you that your dog has run away”. However, if you listen carefully to Brits, you will hear the word ‘sorry’ in many other ways.

To disagree with someone: “I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with you”. The speaker uses the word sorry to soften the disagreement and make it less confrontational.

To interrupt someone: “Sorry to interrupt but”. The speaker uses sorry to show that they wish to make a point while someone else is talking.

To show confusion: “sorry?”. The speaker wishes to show that they didn’t understand, and that repetition or clarification is required.

To get someone’s attention: “sorry?”. Very similar to the example above as it sounds like a question, but the context is different. Imagine you need to get a busy waiter’s attention.

To get someone to move out of your way: “sorry!” If you listen carefully in a public place, you will hear Londoners doing this all the time. It’s used as a polite way of saying “move!”

You can also use “excuse me (?)” in many of the above examples.

I hope this has helped, and not made you more confused! If it hasn’t made things clearer, be honest!

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