How to Use the Word ‘Mean’ When Speaking English

Here at Real Life English, our mission is to teach you how to speak English like a native speaker. Continuing with last Friday’s article, today’s post will also be about discourse markers and how to use them in speech.

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I mean…

A Brazilian friend was eating dinner at a restaurant in New York, and he overheard the following conversation between two American women sitting at a nearby table. The women kept saying “I mean” and our friend wondered why these women were calling themselves mean.

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“How was your trip to South America?”

“It was awesome! I mean, it was like the best experience ever. The people down there are so nice and friendly and the weather was so warm. I wish I could move down there.”
“So where exactly did you go?”
“Ok, so I started out in Brazil, then I traveled by bus to Argentina, Chile and then flew back from Peru.”
“That must have been scary especially since they all speak a foreign language.”
“Yeah I mean, it was really strange at times since everybody in South America speaks Spanish. I mean, almost everywhere except Brazil, which speaks Portuguese.”
“What were the parties like in Rio?”
“Wow, they were the best I’ve been to. Those Cariocas sure know how to make a mean caipirinha. But some Brazilian guys are pretty weird.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I mean, Brazilian guys are really aggressive. I saw this guy start talking to a girl and not even a minute later he tried to kiss her. He grabbed her head and forced his tongue down his throat. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
“Oh my…”

What does it all mean?

If you’re feeling a little confused right now, that’s ok. By the end of this article you will understand the many uses of the word mean and will be ready to use it in your conversations. “I mean” is an extremely common phrase used in spoken English. It is used to correct, clarify and explain things you say; it can be used as an adjective with two distinct meanings, and it can be used as a filler when you have nothing else to say.

You already know the verb ‘to mean’ as significar, and the noun ‘meaning’ as significado. But some of the other meanings are less clear. Let’s take a look at each one:

I mean for correcting yourself

If you say something incorrectly and you want to correct yourself, you preface your correction with ‘I mean.’ In this way it is similar to digo in Portuguese. This is an especially useful phrase because it is much easier than saying “What I meant to say instead was,” every time you misspeak. Example:

“In Brazil everybody speaks Spanish… I mean Portuguese.”
“Everybody in England eats Vegemite and has a pet kangaroo… I mean Australia.”

We saw it used in the conversation at the beginning like this:
“Yeah I mean, it was really strange at times since everybody in South America speaks Spanish. I mean, almost everywhere except Brazil, which speaks Portuguese.”

I mean for explaining what you said

If you say something vague or unclear and you need to expand upon what you said, you use ‘I mean’ before your explanation. This is similar to quero dizer in Portuguese.

“How do you like living in São Paulo?”

“It’s alright. I mean, the nightlife is pretty good and there is a lot of opportunity, but it’s a little too big for my taste.”
“Would you move to Taiwan?”
“Probably not. I mean, the food is delicious, and the people are nice, but I would have a hard time adapting because the culture is so different.”

In the conversation at the beginning it was used like this:
“Well, I mean, Brazilian guys are really aggressive. I saw this guy start talking to a girl and not even a minute later he tried to kiss her. He grabbed her head and forced his tongue down his throat. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

I mean for intensifying what you said

‘I mean’ can also be used to add intensity to what you are saying. If you are explaining to a child that “Pluto is far away,” they might not understand how far away it is. This is where you use ‘I mean’ to show them how far it really is. For example:

“Pluto is far away. I mean, it’s light years away.”

“I’m really full right now. I mean, if I ate one more bite I would burst.”
“I’m super excited for the Aviões do Forró concert tomorrow night. I mean, if I had to wait another day I think I would die of anticipation.”

In the beginning conversation it was used like this:
“It was awesome! I mean, it was like the best experience ever.”

An adjective with two meanings

You may already be familiar with ‘mean’ as malvado in Portuguese. For example:
The mean teacher forced us to stay 10 minutes after class ended.

The second adjective meaning of ‘mean’ means something done really well. In this case it is most often used to talk about food and drinks, but it can be used for other things well.
“I make a mean caipirinha. Some people say I make the best caipirinha in the world”
“I play a mean game of chess.”
“I baked a mean batch of cookies last week.”

”Do you know what I mean?”

The first few times Brazilians asked me, “Do you understand?” I felt a little offended that they thought I wouldn’t understand. It was only later that I realized they weren’t checking for my comprehension of a difficult subject, they just meant to say “Do you know what I mean?” In English we use “Do you know what I mean” the same way that entende and entendeu are used in Portuguese.

To clarify, we use “Do you understand?” if we are talking about a complicated subject and want to make sure the other person understands the difficult concepts being expressed. If I say “Do you understand?” I expect that the other person will respond by showing how much they understand. To contrast, if I say “Do you know what I mean?” I am not expecting a response from the other person. Most of the time we say this as a filler or to add emphasis to what we just said. For example:

“That girl is kind of weird, you know what I mean?”
“I don’t want to go to that bar, it’s kind of expensive, you know what I mean?”

When you don’t know what else to say

When you don’t know what to say, but you want to say something to fill the silence ‘I mean’ is what you use. Often times you say this when you are expecting a response from the other person. When you say this, you draw out the last part of ‘mean.’

“Did you take out the trash like you said you would?”
“No.”
“I mean…”

“The restaurant was awful! The food came cold, they overcharged us, the waiter was rude, I mean…”

What is the meaning of this?

If someone says to you “What is the meaning of this?” they are expressing shock our outrage at something that you did, and are demanding further explanation of your actions. Watch this clip from Frasier to see an example.

So there you have it Real Life English. Now that you know what ‘I meanmeans, it’s time for you to start using it. I mean… while you’re at it you should subscribe to our newsletter to stay connected with updates. We would love to hear from you on this topic. Have you ever heard ‘mean’ used as described above? Do you have any questions? Leave a comment below and let us know!

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