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I often touch upon the subject of English idiomatic expressions on this blog for the simple reason that more often than not our every-day speech consists of such and similar word combinations and it’s making our speech so much more easier!
Just look at the above paragraph – it’s stuffed with various idiomatic expressions and collocations, and the one common trait they all share is that you have to learn the EXACT way they’re used so that you can learn them off by heart and then use them in your own conversations.
Then there are proper English idioms you can’t even understand unless you actually know what they mean – such as “It’s no skin off my nose” or “Until the cows come home”.
There are, however, certain English phrases that may at first sound as if they don’t have any double-meanings AT ALL, yet they mean something completely different!
If you’re an advanced English speaker and you’ve been communicating with real people in real life for years, this list will probably reveal nothing new to you.
If you’re someone who’s just starting off in an English speaking country, for example, the following phrases might turn out to be an eye-opener for you! 😉
You don’t want to do that!
If you take this phrase literally, it sounds as if someone is making a statement that you don’t want to do something (in which case it doesn’t really make an awful lot of sense – I mean, how can someone else possibly know what I do or what I don’t want to do?!)
In reality though, this phrase is used when advising someone not to do something, so the real message behind this expression is “You shouldn’t do it!”
Why do English speaking people say “You don’t want to do that!” instead of simply saying that one SHOULDN’T do it?
Well – it’s just the way conversational English goes! Don’t ask WHY – just accept that it’s the way native English speakers speak, and life is going to be a whole lot easier for you.
Another version of the same phrase – “You don’t want to be doing that!” – is used just like the original one, and once again – don’t ask WHY there are two different versions of this phrase in use.
Just accept it and use whichever one you want to use! 😀
He can’t help himself
When I heard the English verb “to help” used in this context for the first time, I thought the person in question must be physically handicapped once they can’t help themselves.
I mean – the word “to help” is quite simple and straightforward, so when someone can’t help themselves, they quite literally can’t assist themselves with performing certain tasks, isn’t that right?
Turns out it’s not the case!
When someone says about another person that they can’t help themselves, it means the person in question can’t RESIST doing something, they’re too weak to say NO to themselves ❗
Let’s say, you’re eating too much chocolate on a daily basis, and your work colleague asks you one day why you’re eating so much chocolate every day. You can simply respond by saying “I just can’t help myself!” which means that it’s a habit so strong you can’t resist it.
When someone tells you to shut up, it’s quite clear what they want to tell you, isn’t that right?
They’re telling you to shut your mouth, and needless to say, it’s quite rude to be talking to someone like that.
Sometimes, however, the phrase “Shut up!” can be used to express something completely different – namely, your amazement at something the other person is telling you about.
So if you’re speaking with an English speaking person and they respond to you by saying “Shut up! I can’t believe it!”, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want you to shut your mouth and stop talking to them. It merely means they’re so surprised at what you just said that they’re using the phrase “Shut up!” as means of expressing they disbelief or excitement.
Sure enough, you’ll be able to read the true meaning of those words off the other person’s face and tone of voice – the role of body language can’t be underestimated, after all.
There might be some occasions, however, when you’d think the other person is being rude to you while in reality there’s no harm intended, so please bear in mind that the expression “Shut up!” can also have a pretty harmless meaning!
I don’t know about you, but where I live (Ireland) this phrase is used the same way as the one above (“Shut up!”) when expressing your surprise at something the other person has just said.
Basically it’s just another way of saying “Really?!”, and when they say “Go away!”, nobody means it literally. It’ just a way of letting the other person know that you’re shocked to hear it, and you may as well start using this phrase in your own daily English conversations.
This is a very, very simple English phrase, but when an average beginner English student sees it, on 9 times out of 10 they’ll think it means that someone is saying that they SEE something.
In fact, the phrase “I see!” is used conversationally all the time when people want to say that they get it, that they UNDERSTAND it, and this is actually something that a lot of foreign English speakers should learn pretty early in their lives.
On way too many occasions my fellow foreigners say “I understand” while the phrase they should be using is “I see”!
You see, “I understand” sounds way too formal when used during your daily conversations, so I warmly suggest you start using the much more friendlier version of it “I see!” instead.
See where I’m coming from?
If someone asks you if you see where they’re coming from, you may assume they mean it quite literally, in which case you may be thinking “How on Earth am I supposed to know where they’re coming from?!”
When people ask you this question, what they actually mean to say is “Do you understand the reasons why I’m saying this?”
Basically the conversation would go something like this:
“I think we should swap this machine for the other one because the production output is much lower now that the busy season is over.”
“You see where I’m coming from?” (Do you understand why I’m suggesting we should swap the machines on the production line?)
You: “I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about! Can you explain everything to me step-by-step please?”
You may want to…
This phrase may seem a bit confusing at first. You may… You want… Why “You MAY WANT” then? Why are the two words grouped together? Does it mean you’re giving the other person a permission to do something as in “You may do it”?
What this phrase actually means is quite the opposite to giving someone a permission to do something – it’s all about giving the other person a suggestion that they should probably choose to do whatever it is you’re telling them to do!
Why not simply say “You should…” instead?
Well, you see – “You may want to…” is a very polite way of letting someone know as to what would be the right course of action while “You should…” might actually sound like a command rather than a suggestion!
I don’t buy it!
This English phrase has nothing to do with buying stuff, it’s all about BELIEVING what you’re told! 😉
If someone makes an empty promise to you or you’re told some news you don’t believe, you can respond with saying “I don’t buy it!” in which case you’re simply making it clear you don’t believe what you’re told.
I’m looking forward to…
As a beginner English student you may think this phrase means to be looking straight ahead of you (as opposed to be looking backwards or sideways, for example).
In conversational English and also in English in general, however, this phrase has a completely different meaning – it simply means to be expecting something, to be really waiting on something to happen!
I remember when I’d just started living in Ireland 11 years ago, my supervisor asked me at work if I was looking forward to my holidays, to which I didn’t really know what to say because the sentence didn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Now I know only too well that it means to be expecting something, and in case you didn’t know it – it’s about time to add this English phrase onto your vocabulary!
Tell me about it!
“Tell me about it!” doesn’t mean “TELL me ABOUT it”.
It means “Yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about – I have the same experience!”
Here’s a situation to describe exactly what I’m talking about here:
You: “My little sister is real nightmare – she constantly makes demands to our mom and cries if she doesn’t get what she wants!”
Your friend: “Tell me about it!”
What your friends is telling you is – “Yeah, I can completely relate to that because I also have a little sister who’s behaving that way!”
So now that you know what this phrase means, you wouldn’t start telling your friend MORE ABOUT it. You’d simply understand your friend is going through a similar experience!
It doesn’t hurt to…
When someone tells you that it doesn’t hurt to do something, they don’t literally mean that it’s not going to be painful.
What they mean to tell you is that the activity in question is going to result is something really beneficial to you, so it’s definitely worth doing it!
How do you find this…?
I remember someone asked me how I found my job to which I started telling them about the recruitment agency who helped me to land my job with the company…
What that person actually meant was – “What do you THINK ABOUT your job?” – so in this case the English verb “to find” has another meaning on top of the most common one which is to actually find something after you’ve been looking for it!
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Now, did you find this article interesting?
Did you learn a few new English phrases you didn’t know existed?
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Thanks for reading,
P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!
P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!
P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!