I'm trying to ask the other person to clarify what he just said as he asked me about the size of a material.

His question:"What materials require the tools needed to move the 3 pallet sizes?"

He wanted to know which materials are 3-pallet large and thus would require the special equipment.

Please critique these sentences.

  1. Do you know what they mean by 3 pallet sizes?

  2. Do you know what they meant by 3 pallet sizes?

Any other suggestions?

  • 2
    Please give us more information. What is the material concerned? What sizes does it come in? Is a pallet a measure of the size/weight/volume of the material? Feb 3, 2021 at 11:47
  • 1
    Either sentence could be correct, depending on the situation.
    – Peter
    Feb 3, 2021 at 12:09
  • It's not quite the same as He said his name was Smith, where most people do in fact "backshift" from the (more logical?) alternative his name is Smith (it's ridiculously unlikely that he changed his name since saying what it was). That's because the "name" example focuses on what he actually said, in the past, whereas in OP's example here, what matters is what it still means right now. So in practice, I think many if not most native speakers would "forward shift" as per #1 above (it's as much a matter of preference as it is context / intended meaning). Feb 3, 2021 at 12:30
  • I think you can use either. The first one focusses on the meaning at this second in time. The second is saying "do you know what they meant when they wrote/said xyz?" Feb 3, 2021 at 12:53
  • @RonaldSole I've edited my question to include his question. Please let me know if more information is needed. Thanks!
    – Student
    Feb 4, 2021 at 11:54

1 Answer 1


Both are correct.

  1. Do you know what they meant by 3 pallet sizes? = Do you know to what exactly they referred when they said "3 pallet sizes"? (emphasis on the particular use of the expression in that particular situation).
  1. Do you know what they mean by 3 pallet sizes? = Do you know what is the definition of "3 pallet sizes" in their understanding? What do they generally understand by that? (emphasis on the understanding of a term used generally in such situations).

However, 2 is much more common. Emphasis on a singular use in a particular past situation is not frequent. It would be more plausible in such a situation:

They said she was hard to please. I wonder what they meant by that.

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