Jane McGuire

It’s not what you said, it's the way you said it

Its not what you said its the way you said it

First published date June 25 2014 Amended date February 23 2016

It's only when you really listen to how we interact that you realise how often us overly polite, tea obsessed, English speaking Brits say one thing whilst meaning something completely different. The implication of a phrase can change in the tone of voice it is delivered, making these expressions a mind field for someone learning the language. Listening to the conversations of the busy Hotcourses sales team, we have noted down some of our favourite easily misinterpreted phrases. 


'It’s fine' 

Say 'it’s fine' slightly too fast and this can easily be misinterpreted as annoyance and the more times you assure someone 'it’s fine' the less convincing you actually are. It’s fine followed by a full stop in a text – the sender is mad and this is definitely not fine. 



In some circumstances, this may literally mean 'are you alright?' But more often than not this is just another way we say hello to each other and the speaker is not expecting an answer. 


'I'm sorry' 

This can either mean 'I'm sorry I just knocked over your tea' or another version of 'pardon’ – another one that seems to depend on the tone of voice. 



This is a posh way of saying goodbye and not to be mistaken for a random cereal reference.


'See you later' 

Often used as a form of goodbye, even if you are very unlikely to actually see that person later. 


'Excuse me' 

Either used as a way of getting someone's attention to ask a question, or a polite way of telling someone to 'get out of my way now, I'm in a rush' (if you are on the underground immediately assume it is the latter meaning). 



Another word that depends entirely on the context, 'cheers' can be used as a form of thank you or goodbye, but also to signify the moment when we touch glasses in the pub. Be sure of the meaning before you raise you tea cup in the boardroom. 


'Not my cup of tea' 

Talking of tea, this one does not mean that someone has just realised they are drinking from someone else's mug, but that something is not to their taste. 


'Piece of cake' 

What goes perfectly with our afternoon cuppa? Don't look round for the cake when you hear this term, commonly used as a more grown up way of saying 'easy peasy.'


'Your round' 

Remember what we said about the English being polite? 'Your round' should not be misunderstood as a way of someone telling you that your carrying a bit of holiday weight (of course that would be ‘You’re round’), but a polite way of saying 'buy me a drink.'


'You must pop round for dinner sometime'

This is not a direct invitation to go to so someone's house and most of us do not want you to pop round unannounced, ever. 


'Throw a spanner in the works' 

Unless you are a mechanic, assume there is never actually a spanner. A polite way of saying 'you have really messed this up for us.'


'Oh by the way' 

More often than not this will lead to the main point of the conversation and everything said before this was merely small talk (we rarely care about the weather).


'I'll bear that in mind'

'I won't, in fact I've forgotten what you said already' - do not expect a response. 


We’re sure there are lots more we have missed, so please drop us a line on our Facebook page if you can think of any more! If you find yourself struggling with these expressions then an English course could be a great way to brush up your skills and have you saying one thing whilst meaning another in no time. However be warned, once you have mastered our conversation get ready for our text etiquette which is a different article altogether...

Jane McGuire

Jane McGuire received her BA (English) from the University of Loughborough. A yoga enthusiast with a sweet tooth, in her spare time you will probably find Jane in the gym or online shopping.