When I ask a question about something said from somebody, I tend to write the question as "What does it mean [quoted phrase]?" probably because that is closer to the Italian way of asking it (Cosa significa […]? where cosa means what, and significa means "it means").

Is that idiomatic, or should I always use "What does [quoted phrase] mean?"

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    In my experience the structure in your title is characteristic of non-native speakers in many contexts. Native speakers would almost never put it like that unless they were with somebody, and probably pointing at some text. You probably imagine the it there refers to [phrase], but to me it refers to the containing text as a whole. That's to say, I understand it in such constructions as being short for [What does] it mean here where it says [phrase]? – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jun 8 '13 at 20:52
  • This generally happens when non-native speakers literally translates an expression from their native language to Italian. The fun fact is that Italian, normally a SVO language, becomes VSO for those type of questions. (See also Dove è andato Paolo? for "Where did Paolo go?") – kiamlaluno Jun 10 '13 at 13:03
  • @kiamlaluno If it helps, cosa significa seems similar to the Spanish que significa, which I have always mentally translated as "What is the significance of [x]?" This literal translation has slightly different implications in English, so "What does [x] mean?" is more idiomatic. But it may or may not help you to think of it that way :) – WendiKidd Jun 10 '13 at 14:46

"What does [quoted phrase] mean?" is idiomatic.

People might also say, "[Quoted phrase]- what does that mean?"

The former is probably most often used when the speaker is truly just interested in learning.

The latter is used when the speaker is also expressing some hint of irritation at either their not knowing the expression or irritation at the original speaker for using the phrase without explanation, forcing them to have to ask.

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    you can also say, "what does this mean? [quoted phrase]". – ignorantFid Jan 31 '14 at 17:04

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