My father-in-law took me to another city to get finger printed for the DHS.

I asked him if he wanted to come into the building with me to get finger printed, and he said

"I can do that, but I don't have to"

What does it mean???

  • It could mean a lot of things. You could ask your father-in-law what he meant. – user6951 Jun 20 '15 at 14:19
  • What sorts of things could it mean? – Marina Medhat Jun 20 '15 at 14:26

"I can (come into the building), but I don't have to (get finger printed)."

The verb-pronoun combination, do that, is a substitution for come into the building. The second clause is an ellipse in which get finger printed is the understood completion of the infinitive, to.

  • 2
    I don't think that's what it means. I don't see any reason it would be "I can do x but I don't have to do y". I think can and don't have to are both referring to the same thing (coming in to the building) – James Jun 20 '15 at 15:03

It could mean a number of things, and you would probably have to ask him for clarification.

I can do that could mean:

  • I am able to do that

  • I am willing to do that

  • I will do that if you want me to

But I don't have to could mean:

  • Nothing is forcing me to do it

  • I am not required to do it

  • I don't feel any strong desire to do it

So a couple of reasons why he might say this:

  • He thought that you thought he was required to come in for some reason, and he was pointing out that he was not required to come in, but was still willing to come in if you wanted him to.

  • He thought you felt pressured to invite him in (from politeness), but maybe you didn't really want him to come in. He wanted to emphasize that he was willing to stay outside if you would prefer it.

  • He didn't really want to go in, and by saying "I don't have to", he hoped you would realize that it was not necessary for him to go in.

Like I said, it is hard to tell exactly what he meant by those words. An experienced speaker might get some additional clues from his inflection.



I think it likely that he was teasing you.

If you expressed yourself more or less as you have written it

Would you come in with me to get fingerprinted?

you were presumably asking him to accompany you while you were fingerprinted. But the request can also be understood in a different sense: that you wanted him to accompany you so that he might be fingerprinted. As a joke, he pretended to understand it in this sense, and responded that he did not need to be fingerprinted.

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