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Wilbers: Expressions with double meanings might offend

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • July 8, 2012 - 6:56 PM

For the benefit of people working in English as a second language, I asked you for examples of English phrases that might take on unintended, inappropriate or even offensive meanings if slightly altered or used out of context, and you really came through for me.

Howard identifies two expressions: "Are you kidding?" whose double meaning is "You must be kidding," and "With all due respect," which may be intended as "a polite acknowledgment of what the other person said" but normally means "You don't know what you're talking about."

A.P. describes watching a musical performance in China when "a group of German tourists entered and one man inquired about the vacant seat" next to him. "Is this seat possessed?" the man asked.

Michelle, who "has taught many English language learners," counsels her students to be careful with tone, which can give unintended meanings to expressions such as "Excuse me" and "I hope you're happy."

Jeff puts "What were you thinking?" and "Don't mind me" in the same category.

Miscommunication, of course, can also occur between native speakers of different regions or cultures, as Nancy points out: "When I was shopping in Dublin, the people who worked in the stores kept asking, 'Are you OK?' Began to wonder how bad I must look until I realized they meant, 'Can I help you?'"

Likewise, native speakers can offend non-native speakers. Pat describes how the phrase "I don't care" intended to mean "It makes no difference to me" can send the wrong message:

"I first got a sense of [an] offensive meaning when I worked for the Pakistani-American owner of a small business, whose English fluency was better than many U.S.-born Americans. Occasionally my boss would ask a question involving a choice, and my reply would include 'I don't care.' I didn't understand why this seemed to infuriate him until I took a technical writing course taught by an English professor whose wife (also an English professor) was from Malaysia.

"He told us that when he and his wife were dating, he learned the hard way that 'I don't care' offends English-speakers from some Southeast Asian countries."

It was my Chinese tour guide friend Tony "the gentle tiger" (Shan Hu) who asked me for examples of expressions that can have unintended meanings. I'll have to tell him about my friend in our roller-ski group who offered to break wind for me. Or maybe I should pass on that one.

How about next we discuss the prepositionalization of English, a trend that according to Bill Bryson in Made in America took off in the 19th century?

Why extend a helping hand to non-native speakers? What's in it for you? Well, you might enjoy thinking of preposition-heavy expressions that perplex our English-learning friends and associates, expressions such as to come through for me, to come up with, to take off, what's in it for you? and are you with me?

So are you with me? Are you in or out? I hope you haven't had it with me.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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