August 31, 2007

#01-015: No Joking: Surprise vs Doubt

Princess Diana greeting fans

Note: Some idioms can lead to great confusion, since the words have more than one meaning. Let's see how that could happen.

Get Ready: What words or phrases do you use to express surprise? Name several, if you can.

Mike, an American, and his Chinese friend Lin are having coffee. Lin is reading the newspaper.

Lin: Wow, Mike. Can you believe it? Princess Diana died in that car crash in Paris way back in 1997!

Mike: Are you kidding?

Lin [angrily putting down the paper]: Mike! The death of a princess is nothing to joke about!

Mike: I... I... I didn't say you were making a joke. I said...

Lin: But "Are you kidding?" means "Are you joking?," right?

Mike: Well... sort of... but these expressions don't literally mean that I think you made a joke.

Lin [calmer]: So, what do they mean?

Mike: These are things we say to express surprise. I agree with you: I can't believe it was that long ago. You know, I was in Paris when it happened.

Lin: Really?

Mike: Hah! See there? Are you calling me a liar?

Lin: No, Mike! No! "Really" is just something we say when... we're... surprised...

Mike: Bingo! 

Once again, an idiom has caused confusion.

We sometimes use expressions like "Are you kidding?" or "Are you joking?" to express surprise in an informal way. Other ways to use these words include: "You're kidding!"/"You're joking!" and "No kidding!"/"No joking!"

The words themselves literally mean that you doubt the person, but they often just express surprise. There are many such expressions, including:

  • Oh, really?
  • Is that right? 
  • Are you serious?
  • I can't believe it!
  • Do you mean it? (This one sounds a little more formal and sincere.)
  • You don't say! (This one's a bit old-fashioned and, therefore, kind of humorous.)

These also can, of course, be misinterpreted. We should be sure that the listener has good enough English skills to understand that we don't really doubt them; we're just surprised.

Safer ways to express surprise informally would include the usual exclamations: "Wow!" "Whoa!" "Oh my God!" "My goodness!" "Holy cow!" etc.

If you want to be really casual, try "No way!" or the ultra-cool "Get out!" or "Get out of here!"

And if you want to get a good laugh from a native speaker, when she or he says something surprising, be silent for a moment, look him or her in the eye, and say: "I'm speechless!"


Read more: (click the + after "More Synonyms" to see many more.)

Practice: We sometimes divide English sentences into four types:

  • Declarative sentences give information.
  • Interrogative sentences ask questions.
  • Imperative sentences give commands or make requests.
  • Exclamatory sentences express strong feelings.

The problem in this story is confusing an exclamation ("Are you kidding?) for an actual question.

In the following five short dialogues, try to decide if the words in bold are really asking a question ("interrogative"), or just expressing emotion ("exclamatory").

Guess what, Mom? Our team won the game!
Who won? That's great!

I can't find my keys.
Oh, dear. You lost your keys, you say? Let me help you find them.

Dad! You bought me a car? Wow!
So, who's the best dad in the world?

Hello, Mrs. Adams. I'm Doctor Browne.
You're a doctor? But you look so young!

I'll try to come to your house this afternoon.
What time are you coming? I'll be sure to prepare us tea and a snack.

Answers are in the first comment below.

Now, try to imagine dialogues where the same questions are used in the opposite way, that is, interrogative for exclamatory and exclamatory for interrogative. Here are some suggested answers.

The game is over.
Who won? I didn't see the final score. (interrogative)

I can't find my keys.
You lost your keys? Again? I'm not helping you this time. (exclamatory)

They just announced the results of the "World's Best Dad" Competition.
So, who's the best dad in the world? (interrogative)

Hello, Mrs. Adams. I'm Doctor Browne.
You're a doctor? What's your specialty? (interrogative)

I'll come to your house at 5 a.m. tomorrow.
What time are you coming? There's no way I'm getting up that early! (exclamatory)

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for August 31, 2007

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. exclamatory; 2. interrogative; 3. exclamatory; 4. exclamatory; 5. interrogative