When chatting with a neighbor or greeting someone in the grocery line, grammar isn’t necessarily a top concern. But sometimes colloquial sayings just don’t add up. In many cases, the words seem to be the direct opposite of the intended meaning. Whether someone is answering “yeah, no,” or asking to “learn me,” the intent isn’t always clear. Read on for a few examples of common phrases that shouldn’t make any sense, but are generally understood anyway.
If you need to use a cup of sugar or a friend’s baking pan, how do you ask for it? According to one traveler, some folks in the Midwest use the phrase “borrow me.” But when the phrase is used in a sentence, the grammatical structure doesn’t quite make sense.
Example: Can you borrow me your baking pan?
This phrase conflates “borrow” with “lend.” The verb “borrow” means to take and use something, with the intention of giving it back. “Lend” is the direct opposite, meaning to give something to someone with the understanding that it will be returned. While swapping these verbs is technically incorrect, it’s still likely that the intent is understood.
The standard grammatical way to ask for a loan makes “I” the subject of the sentence.
Example: Can I borrow your baking pan?
If keeping “you” as the subject is crucial, “lend” is the appropriate choice, and “me” turns into the direct object of the verb.
Example: Can you lend me a baking pan?
While this contradictory expression may not make sense initially, it serves multiple functions depending on the context. To linguists, “yeah, no” is a discourse marker. The definitions of the individual words aren’t at stake, but they can imply tone, agreement (or dissent), sarcasm, self-effacement, confusion, or just stalling for time.
The words might be uttered in a teasing tone to draw attention to the obviousness or irony of the answer.
Q: Do you want to come to this boring event with me?
A: Yeah, no.
The phrase can also clarify a speaker’s disagreement around a misunderstanding.
Q: I have a silly question. How does this work?
A: Yeah, no, that question is really important…
The “yeah, no” acknowledges the speaker’s question and also shows the disagreement around the idea that the question they’re asking is a silly one.
“I could care less”
Grammar sticklers are likely to jump in here, pointing out that the correct phrasing is “I could NOT care less,” implying that the interest is so small that it can’t possibly be reduced. But “I could care less” seems to be here to stay.
Example: I could care less about football.
While the individual words mean there is a possible way that this person could care less about football, the commonly understood meaning is that this person has no interest in football whatsoever. Descriptivist linguists claim that language evolves based on how people use it, so the “could care less” construction is perfectly fine — if the message is understood, it’s OK.
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