Understanding the Idiom: "give someone to understand" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English

In communication, idioms are commonly used expressions that have a figurative meaning different from the literal interpretation. One such idiom is “give someone to understand”. This phrase is often used in informal conversations and signifies conveying a message or hinting at something without explicitly stating it.

The idiom “give someone to understand” can be interpreted as implying an indirect way of communicating with others. It suggests that instead of being straightforward, one can choose to convey their message through subtle hints or implications. The use of this idiom also implies that the speaker expects the listener to comprehend what they mean without having to spell it out for them.


The origin of this particular idiom is unclear, but it has been in use for centuries. Some scholars suggest that it may have originated from Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet,” where he writes: “I’ll give you leave to speak ’tis proper I obey you not.” However, there is no concrete evidence supporting this theory.


“Give someone to understand” can be used in various contexts depending on the situation. For instance, if a boss tells an employee that they will need them in the office early tomorrow morning without explicitly saying why, they are giving them something to understand. Similarly, if a friend says they cannot make plans because they have other commitments without elaborating further, they are also giving something for their friend to understand.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “give someone to understand”

The idiom “give someone to understand” has been used for centuries in the English language. Its origins can be traced back to early literature where it was used as a way to convey a message or idea without explicitly stating it. The phrase is often associated with subtle hints or suggestions that are meant to be understood by the listener or reader.

Throughout history, this idiom has been used in various contexts such as politics, diplomacy, and personal relationships. In political circles, it was often used as a way for leaders to communicate their intentions without causing alarm or panic among their constituents. Diplomats also utilized this phrase when negotiating treaties and agreements with other nations.

In personal relationships, “giving someone to understand” was often seen as a way of expressing one’s feelings without directly saying them. This allowed individuals to express themselves while still maintaining some level of privacy and discretion.

Over time, the meaning of this idiom has evolved but its underlying purpose remains the same – conveying information through subtle means rather than direct communication. Today, it continues to be widely used in both formal and informal settings.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “give someone to understand”

  • To imply: When you give someone to understand something, you are implying or suggesting it without explicitly stating it. For example, if your friend asks you if you like their new haircut, and you say “it’s certainly unique,” they might give themself to understand that you don’t really like it.
  • To communicate indirectly: You can also use this idiom when trying to communicate something indirectly. For instance, if your boss gives you feedback on your work by saying “we could have done better,” they might be giving you to understand that they expect more from you next time.
  • To deceive: In some cases, giving someone to understand can be a way of deceiving them. For example, if a politician promises lower taxes during their campaign but later raises them instead, they gave voters to understand one thing while doing another.
  • Variations: There are several variations of this idiom that essentially mean the same thing. Some examples include “lead someone to believe” or “let someone think.”

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “give someone to understand”

Synonyms for “give someone to understand” include phrases like “imply”, “suggest”, and “hint at”. These words all convey a similar meaning – that someone is trying to communicate something indirectly or subtly. On the other hand, antonyms for this phrase might include more direct language like “state outright” or “make clear”. While these words may not be exact opposites of the idiom itself, they do provide an interesting contrast in terms of communication styles.

Cultural insights are also important when exploring idioms. Depending on where you’re from or what your background is, you may interpret certain phrases differently than others. For example, in some cultures it may be considered rude or impolite to speak directly about certain topics. In these cases, using an idiom like “give someone to understand” might be seen as more appropriate than stating something outright.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “give someone to understand”

In order to master the use of the idiom “give someone to understand”, it is important to practice using it in various contexts. The following exercises will help you become more comfortable with this expression and its nuances.

Exercise 1: Conversation Practice

Find a partner and engage in a conversation where you use the idiom “give someone to understand” at least three times. Try using it in different tenses and with different subjects and objects.

For example:

– I gave him to understand that I wouldn’t be able to attend the meeting.

– She gave me to understand that she was interested in pursuing a relationship.

– They gave us to understand that they would be arriving late.

Exercise 2: Writing Practice

Write a short paragraph (5-7 sentences) using the idiom “give someone to understand”. Choose a topic that allows you to use this expression naturally, such as explaining why you cannot attend an event or expressing your feelings about something.

For example:

I had planned on attending my friend’s birthday party, but circumstances beyond my control prevented me from doing so. When I called her later that evening, I gave her to understand that I was disappointed not being able make it. She seemed understanding, but I could tell she was disappointed too.

Verb Preposition/Adverb Meaning
Gave To Understand To convey information indirectly or subtly.
Told Straightforwardly/Bluntly/Honestly/Frankly/Openly/Candidly/Directly/Point-blank/etc. To convey information in a straightforward or direct manner.
Hinted At/About/Towards/Suggestively/etc. To suggest something indirectly or subtly, often with the intention of leading someone to a particular conclusion.
Implied That/Inferred/Indicated/etc. To convey information without stating it directly, often by using context clues or insinuations.
Suggested To/That/For/etc. To offer an idea or proposal for consideration, often without explicitly stating it as fact.
Made Clear/Evident/Apparent/Observed/etc. To convey information in a way that is unmistakable and easy to understand.
Communicated With/Effectively/Clearly/Concisely/etc. To convey information in a way that is easily understood and effective at achieving the intended goal.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “give someone to understand”

When using idioms in conversation or writing, it’s important to use them correctly. Otherwise, you risk miscommunicating your intended message and confusing your audience. The idiom “give someone to understand” is no exception. Here are some common mistakes to avoid when using this idiom:

Avoid Literal Interpretations

The first mistake people make when using this idiom is taking it too literally. This phrase doesn’t mean physically giving something to someone; rather, it means communicating a message indirectly or subtly.

Don’t Use It Inappropriately

The second mistake people make is using this idiom in inappropriate situations. For example, if you’re trying to convey an urgent message that needs immediate attention, don’t use this phrase as it may be misunderstood as being vague or unclear.

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