A few years ago, I looked at the rather subtle differences between British and American use of the expression “meant to,” and a few examples of the British version being used in the U.S.
Briefly, Americans use it to mean “designed to” (“the speech was meant to convey a sense of solidarity”) or “destined to” (“our marriage was meant to be”). While in Britain there are additional meanings, all where Americans would probably say “supposed to”: “said to” (“this movie is meant to be good”); “tasked with” (“the builder was meant to expand the kitchen”); and a third, seen in this headline that appeared on the New York Times website the other day.
Dr. Bernard is an Indiana ob-gyn who, the essay explains, “became a target of a national smear campaign for speaking out about her 10-year-old patient, a rape victim from Ohio who needed an abortion and had to travel to Indiana to receive one, given the restrictions in her home state.” The “meant to” in the headline is yet another “supposed to,” this time indicating a plan or intention.
Its appearance in the Times is enough to remove the “on the radar” designation from the phrase. Clearly, it was meant to be.
6 thoughts on “More “Meant to” Stalking”
I wrote this some years ago, only half joking:
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.
If you remove the “was” from the headline, that is standard AmE.
Kind of. The “before” doesn’t really scan.
Yes, I think “intended” or “planned” would work better as an emendation. “She meant to” sounds almost as if she planned to but forgot. (Really the opposite tone of “she was meant to,” which to American ears sounds as if it was the intended decree of Fate but was somehow thwarted. Which is not too different from the intended meaning of the headline, but the difference is that the usual American phrasing would not indicate that Bernard herself actually intended to collaborate on the essay, which I think we are supposed to infer in this case.)
Headlines are always a bit tricky as data anyway, since they’re cramped for space. An editor writing a headline will happily use any shorter word that fits the space and meaning, even if it’s not typical of the readership’s vocabulary.
I wonder how long ‘meant to’ has been a proxy for ‘supposed to’. in BrE. Ever since reading this blog, I have started saying ‘supposed to’ more frequently, where I would previously have said ‘meant to’, thinking the AmE version is probably more historically correct.