Stalking the Elusive “Meant to”

Some of the differences between British and American English are quite subtle. I give you the expression “meant to.” It’s certainly used here, with the meaning “designed to” or “intended to.” We would say, “I meant to get here early but I was delayed,” or, “In ‘Mona Lisa,’ the clouds are meant to represent God.”

But in recent decades, the British have used it in a distinctive way, as did the model Naomi Campbell in this quote from The Guardian:

I remember the day I was spotted in the street. It was a warm April afternoon, and I was hanging out with my friends after school. The three of us were dressed in our Italia Conti uniforms: a pale blue dogtooth kilt, a dark blue V-neck sweater, shirt, blazer, tie. We were meant to wear straw boaters, too, but never did.

An American would say “supposed to,” and that’s basically what this British “meant to” means. Another example comes from an NPR interview with the British novelist Sadie Jones: “The hotel — he’s meant to be renovating it — and he’s sort of meant to be renovating himself.” Her meaning is along the lines of “tasked with.”

Interestingly, the OED stresses a slightly different sense in its relevant entry.

d. In passive, with infinitive clause: to be reputed, considered, said to be something.

1878   R. Simpson School of Shakspere I. 34  It is confessed that Hawkins and Cobham were meant to be buccaneers, and it is absurd to deny the like of Stucley.
1945   Queen 18 Apr. 17/1   ‘Such and such a play,’ they [my children] will say, ‘is meant to be jolly good.’
1972   Listener 9 Mar. 310/1 meant to be a great melting-pot.
1989   Times 30 Mar. 15/1   It [sc. evening primrose oil] is also meant to be good for arthritis.


The 1945 quote from Queen indicates that it was at that time a fairly new (and youth-based) usage. But it still apparently provokes some ire, as in this sniffy comment on an English-language website: “The now-common use of ‘meant’ instead of ‘supposed’ in that context is a relatively recent phenomenon in the UK, and appears to have come in from the bottom, like so many other instances of poor usage and mispronunciation. The usage is rare in other speakers of Commonwealth English.”

Here are a couple of examples from British Twitter:

Screen Shot 2019-11-30 at 10.28.54 AM

Now, as far as this blog goes, the question is whether British “meant to” has crossed to the U.S. I recently spotted it for the first time, in an article by the Maryland-born, Berlin-based writer Ben Mauk, reprinted in the anthology The Best American Travel Writing 2019. He’s talking about a pagoda in Cambodia and he says, “Only monks and laypeople are meant to live at the pagoda.”

That’s not much to go on, so I asked my sharp-eared daughter Maria Yagoda, who had alerted me years back to “fully“–come to think of it, a similar case, since there’s overlap in usage and the differences are subtle. She said she had definitely heard it aand would send on some examples–but she hasn’t come across any yet.

So I went on American Twitter and found this:

Screen Shot 2019-11-30 at 10.39.38 AMScreen Shot 2019-11-30 at 10.38.47 AM

At this point, “meant to” is On the Radar. Stay tuned.

19 thoughts on “Stalking the Elusive “Meant to”

  1. Yes, absolutely. “Meant to” meaning “supposed to” has infected U.S. speech and writing. I hear it all the time.

    Here’s what I wrote– two and a half years ago– about it in my British Invasion series:

    Meant to: Some Americans have recklessly begun to use “meant to” in place of “supposed to” or “have to.” These careless Americans may, in fact, mean to use this British affectation, but they do not have to, nor are they supposed to. For an American, “meant to” merely denotes an intention. It does not describe an instruction, requirement, or advisable action. An American may not discover that he is lost and lament that he was “meant to” turn left two streets back. An American may not see a calendar reminder pop up on her phone, excuse herself, and declare that she is “meant to…” be meeting with her boss in five minutes. Should this infelicitous usage ever escape their lips, Americans may, however, repent the meant. They should immediately say, for example, “Excuse me, but I was not supposed to say ‘meant to’ just then. As an American, I meant to say, and have to say, ‘supposed to,’ not ‘meant to,’ when I warned you not to mix those chemicals that just exploded. I apologize.” And they should mean it.

  2. Very interesting. It’s astonishing that I use it in both its senses, and it has never occurred to me they are different. I expect the number of people in the UK who have thought about it could probably be counted on one hand. I will not be able to say it again without analysing it!

    1. I agree entirely. Indeed, I was unaware that we were not meant to use it in the sense “supposed to” but only as “intended to”. Indeed, as with so many other words, one can determine its precise meaning from the context.

  3. As a Canadian, I use “meant to” in both senses all the time. I had no idea that using it instead of “supposed to” was somehow less elegant or proper.

  4. Yes, it’s fine in all the Commonwealth countries. My point is just a more aggressive and, it is hoped, humorous approach to the purpose of this website: remonstration to Americans to avoid British usage.

    Here is the description of the British Invasion series I used to write:

    The British Invasion is when– unbidden and unneeded– explicitly British words and expressions infiltrate American public commentary and journalism. This is alarming because the resultant multiplier effect could cause an epidemic that infects ordinary Americans’ healthy vocabulary.

    Although I strive for tolerance, for the purpose of this series of posts, my fundamental assumption is that American is better than, not just different from, British. This is– mainly, if not exclusively– because American is newer and made improvements to its dialect of origin. I do, however, confess to frequent unfair extrapolation from this arguably reasonable approach to almost wholesale– and borderline unfair– derision of British compared to American. I beg the reader’s forbearance for having fun with such a solemn topic. I’m just taking the mickey– or whatever it is Americans say.

      1. In exactly the same way Brazilian is newer than Portuguese and Mexican newer than Castillano. In fact, these three examples show similar evolutions.

      2. Of course, modern British English is different to British English in the nineteenth century (I’m reading Dickens at the moment) and modern American English is different to the English of Poe, Whitman, Melville and Fenimore Cooper. Both have mutated in the last couple of centuries and there has been cross-feritilisation. It’s like saying a human being is more evolved than a chimpanzee. They’ve both evolved from their common ancestor.

    1. But on that argumentt Australian English and New Zealand English are better than American Engllish because both are newer. 🙂

      1. Yes, maybe. My guess, though, is that both of those Englishes did not enjoy the advantage American did of having a lot of other linguistic influences on its development– Spanish, German, etc– and a large mobile population.

  5. Funny, but I’d have guessed “meant to….” was falling out of use more than picking up on it. When I first started reading, I thought of a bunch of ways we used it when I was growing up in Texas in the ’50s and ’60s, and I know I remember hearing things like “you weren’t meant to be in that class” much more than I think I hear them now. But I can read that as either “intended to be” or “supposed to be” and not see much difference. Guess that’s what I get since I wasn’t meant to be a linguist.

  6. I believe there’s another usage: I was MEANT to be a STAR! – in the sense of, God/Fate/The Universe meant me to be a star, or I was made to be a star.

    May I also say to those who are so militant about using ‘supposed to’ – you see this phrase in many older novels meaning ‘is thought to be’, as in “he is supposed to be a great philanthropist, my dear, but I’ve never seen any evidence of it”. The nuance here is ‘people suppose him to be a philanthropist’, rather than ‘he ought to be’ one.

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