The entry for "wish" in OAAD gives an example:

Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it (= and find that you really don't want it).

I find it difficult to pin down the bold sentence, but of course it's simple both grammatically and semantically. I guess it's because of different cultures. There is no equivalent of that in Chinese. What's its pragmatic-context usage?

And I don't quite understand how You just might get it is equal to the bracketed sentence. Why just might, not might just? Any difference?

  • 1
    The equals sign is wrong there, those sentences aren't equal. What's in the brackets is actually a continuation/explanation of the second, normally unsaid, part of the phrase.
    – user8674
    Jun 24, 2014 at 18:18
  • Yes the equal sign is part of the confusion. That second part is understood, but is sometimes said: "Be careful what you wish for... you just might get it!" I cover this more in my answer, below. Jun 24, 2014 at 19:06

3 Answers 3


It's a very popular (Western Culture?) theme for people to get what they wish for and regret it.

That entry OAALD entry for "wish" didn't mention that this is something akin to an aphorism. It's something that someone says in response to someone else wishing something out loud, and it's always said in just about the same way, and the other person understands what you mean.

John: "I wish I was famous."
Jane: "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!" (Fame comes with negatives.)

Mary: "I wish I could live to be 200."
Bob: "Be careful what you wish for! (It might be very unpleasant.)

One of the best resources on popular American culture is http://tvtropes.org. In particular, you will find volumes of information on this that will help with context at http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BeCarefulWhatYouWishFor.

This might make sense related to a Chinese proverb 點石成金 (possibly translated "turning stones to gold" aka "Midas Touch". See http://mandarin.about.com/od/chineseproverbs/a/Chinese-Proverb-Dian-Shi-Cheng-Jin.htm and http://www.windsorchineseacademy.com/chinese-proverb-dian-shi-cheng-jin.

Another reference is to a (possibly pseudo) Chinese "three-fold curse": May you live in interesting times, may you find what you are looking for (may your wishes be granted), and may you come to attention to those in authority. (References: http://www.answers.com/topic/may-you-live-in-interesting-times#ixzz35a95aVmy and http://asiancha.blogspot.com/2011/07/chinese-curse.html)

And finally someone from a wikipedia talk page refers to 求仁得仁 as possibly a reference to "the third curse" (see page if it makes any sense).

  • 1
    I really ought to downvote this just for that tvtropes link (bang goes another five minutes of my life! :) On the other hand, I should be grateful that I'm gradually learning how to clamber out of that website a lot faster than when I first found it - when I could get lost for hours. Jun 24, 2014 at 21:40
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    We almost never use that proverb. I guess not all Chinese can understand that instantly unless you tell the related folktale to em. :-)
    – Kinzle B
    Jun 25, 2014 at 7:12

It is all about unintended consequences. There is a story in English that is often used to illustrate this idea. It is called The Monkey's Paw. In the story, a man finds a magical monkey's paw that can grant him a certain number of wishes. He makes the wishes and they are granted, but each one goes horribly wrong. For example, he wishes for money to pay off his mortgage. The next day, his son is killed at work and he receives the exact amount he needed to pay off the mortgage from the death benefit. He got his wish, but at a price he most certainly would not have chosen.

To answer your second question, you could say 'might just' or 'just might'. Either is fine.

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    Genie in the lamp/bottle stories usually end up this way too.
    – user3169
    Jun 24, 2014 at 16:50
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    I think in AmEng "you just might get it" is much more common. It's certainly more natural sounding to my ears. Jun 24, 2014 at 16:55
  • @CoolHandLouis: It's not a huge difference, but the US corpus NGram shows you're right (but not in BrE). Jun 24, 2014 at 21:29
  • @FumbleFingers, You left off the last word "it". The difference is about an order of magnitude in both the AmE NGram and the BrE NGram. (And the difference is greater in BrE). Jun 24, 2014 at 22:10
  • @CoolHandLouis: I guess I didn't have enough space to explain myself fully with two NGram links in one comment. I mean the actual AmE preference itself isn't exactly "huge" (and just a few decades ago it was actually the other way around). But it does look significant when compared against the fact that BrE preference appears to be precisely opposite. Having said that, both versions seem perfectly natural to me - and I'm sure I use both, usually with little consideration as to whether I might have reasonably chosen the other word order. Jun 24, 2014 at 22:21

To paraphrase this for you:

"When you wish for something, be very careful, because there's a good chance that you will actually get your wish and it may not be everything you hoped it would be."

We use this expression when we wish for things without really taking into account everything that comes with them. For example, someone wishes to be a world-famous celebrity, and then can't deal with the lack of privacy, paparazzi, etc.

  • Yes, this is a good example, too!
    – michelle
    Jun 24, 2014 at 19:17

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