An American Phrase Book

Introduction

Many people moving to the U.S assume that they pretty much know English. After all, they have studied the language and watched many hours of American TV.

Upon arrival it is therefore often to their surprise how many seemingly simple phrases actually turn out to mean something completely different in the US American variant of the English language. Interpreting these phrases literally, results in misunderstandings that can at times lead to severe complications.

This phrase book is aimed to help newcomers to the U.S understand what some popular local idioms really mean.

More generally, the immigrant should keep in mind a golden rule: US natives will usually phrase everything in a manner that creates the least social friction in any given interaction. In most cases this results in shying away from a negative description or opinion. Almost as often, it even means not saying anything definite, and instead just stating possibilities and options.

Last updated: 26 Aug 13

Phrase

Meaning

Example

Let's have lunch sometime!

I don't want to see you again.

-"There's still so much more I want to talk to you about!"
-"Yeah, let's definitely have lunch sometime!"

Thanks for reminding me!

Stop bugging me!

-"Did you ever get a chance to look over that memo I sent you?"
-"Oh, right! Thanks so much for reminding me! I'll get back to you on that soon."

Some are better than others

Some are crap

-"I do like my classes, but really I have to say that some are better than others."

He/She is quite the character

He/She is scary and/or repulsive

-"You know Jenny? She is quite the character. I don't know what to make of her."

Thank you *so* much!

Thanks

-"Can you pass me the milk?"
-"There you go."
-"Thank you *so* much!

Thanks

[This phrase doesn't have a meaning per se]

-"Please send me the material by monday. Dave."
-"Here it is. Thanks, George."

You would want to do X

Do X now! [Strong Imperative]

-"Sir, you would want to take your feet off this bench."
-"Of course, officer."

You might want to consider to do X

I absolutely expect you to do X [Weak Imperative]

-"You might want to consider to postpone your trip until after the deadline."

That's a great idea, but...

That's a bad idea

-"So I really think that's a great idea, but you might want to consider the opposite approach"

Would you like some gum/mint?

You have bad breath

[Self-explanatory]

Friend

Someone you've met at least once and didn't cause you any harm

-"Harvey, I'd like you to meet my friend, Je... Ji.... hmmm.. er... what was your name again?"

The most

A [Indefinite Article]

-"I just watched the most depressing movie"

Good job!

You didn't fail

-"Please write down 5 names of people you know...Good job!"

You did really great

[similar to 'Good Job!'] You didn't screw it up

-"So we're done with your X-ray, you can get up now. You did really great."

Fooling around

Having non-coital sex

For example, ex-US president clinton was merely "fooling around" with his intern.

Sounds great

Is fine

-"Can we meet on Monday at 3?"
-"Yeah, Monday at 3 sounds great!"

How are you?

Hello [not a question]

-"How are you?"
-"Hi! So good to see you!"

I'll have to think about it

I have thought about it, and the answer is no

-"Would you be able to come pick me up before the game?
-"Hmm, I'll have to think about that one."

A little

Way too

-"We probably want to take a cab there. It's a little far"
-"I don't want to go at all, it seems a little dangerous."

Awesome

Very good

-"Awesome. I think we have everything we need for the dinner"
-"Yeah, it'll be an awesome event."

Exciting / Excited

Good / Happy

-"I'm really excited about being done with my tax forms!"
-"Really? That's so exciting to hear!"

Let's just say

[Serious understatement following]

-"Let's just say, I'm a little unhappy with her work."

Not great / not the best

Very bad

-"We had to fire him because he wasn't the best programmer."

Not a good / a great / the best fit

[Stand in for any serious character flaw]

-"Unfortunately, a convicted arsonist is not the best fit for our warehouse."

I wish I could

I have very little interest

-"So are you coming over tonight?"
-"Awwwww... I wish I could!"

I love him/her, but

I have a serious problem with him/her

-"I mean, don't get me wrong: I love my boss, he's awesome. But he keeps screwing me over behind my back, and he hasn't paid me in six months!"

I'm not sure if/that X

I'm sure that [not X]

-"I'm not sure if I would agree with him on that matter."
-"You know what? I'm not sure that he really cares about your opinion."

That's [really] interesting

I couldn't care less

-"You work for 'Engage Music'? Oh my god! So my boyfriend, he has a band, and they're looking for an agent now. I mean, like, you know?"
-"Really? That's really interesting."

He/she is nice

I have nothing good to say about him/her

-"So what did you think of Tony? We just started dating, and I think I really like him."
-"Yeah. He's nice. Totally. Totally nice."

Keep/Stay in touch

Don't expect to ever hear from me again

-"So yeah. Keep in touch, alright?"

How are you today Sir/Madam?

I am paid to make conversation with you

-"Welcome to Carpet Heaven, where the carpets are as good as their price. How are you today, Sir?"

Not bad

Bad

-"So tell me honestly: what do you think of my new painting?"
-"It's not bad."

Still working on X [Restaurant]

Eating [too slowly]

-"Are you still working on that salad, Sir?"
-"Yes, thanks."
-"I'll just leave this here then. Whenever you get a chance."

Whenever you get a chance

As soon as possible

See above

I'm all over it

Leave me alone. I'll get to it when I get to it, ok?

-"Did you start getting those reports ready, Nathan?"
-"I'm all over it, boss!"

Party [v.]

Drinking alcohol

-"I partied so hard last night that I could hardly get up to work today."

Party [n.]

An event in which people stand around in a well-lit room drinking and eating finger food. [Note: does not usually involve dancing.]

-"You should come to my party on Saturday. There'll be olives!"

Probably not

Definitely not

-"I will probably not make it to the party tonight."

A huge favor

A small favor

-"Can you do me a huge favor and pass me the salt?"
[usually followed by 'thank you so much, see above]

It's not that x, it's just that...

If it were acceptable, I would say x

-"It's not that he's an idiot, it's just that I don't feel comfortable when he opens his mouth."

Totally

Possibly

-"I'm totally going to write her a letter."

For you

[This phrase has no meaning per se]

-"Let me just have a look at this chart for you, sir."

No offense, but

Prepare to get offended [Note: combines well with "let's just say", see above]

-"No offense, but let's just say that your new book is not as great as your previous ones."

Not necessarily

Definitely

-"So do you think the board took my idea badly?"
-"Not necessarily."

Mixed success

Utter failure

-"You know, bringing you to meet my parents was met with mixed success."

Highly recommended

Mandatory

-"It is highly recommended that you turn in your application in time to increase your odds at being considered."

For your own safety

For the public order

-"For your own safety, please do not congregate around this car crash victim."

Cozy [about an apartment or room]

Tiny

-"I love my new East Village studio. I just don't know if two people can stand in it together. It's a bit cozy."

That could be good

That's a terrible idea! Please, someone come up with a better one.

-"How about we all go to Lasertag Karaoke?"
-"Hmm. That could be good."

Are you sure you want to do that?

Are you really stupid enough to consider that?

-"I think I'll just call her and tell her how I really feel."
-"Are you sure you want to do that?"

That's a good question

I don't have an answer

-"When can you promise me the delivery of those components?"
-"That's a good question."

Do you mind [Xing]?

Do X!
[Implies a certain contempt for the listener not having thought about this themselves]

-"Do you mind using headphones?"

If you came across an additional American English phrase, or if you just like this page, please mail me at .