I thought only "what does _____ mean?" was grammatically correct but I heard a lot of Americans saying "what do you mean by _____?"

(For example, 'what does that mean?/what do you mean by that?')

Are both of them correct?

Are there any differences between those two? If so, how can the latter one be grammatically correct?

  • 1
    Are you sure it's not "What do you mean by such-and-such?" that you've heard? It's rather common to use personal pronouns in that question (e.g., "I wonder what she means by that?").
    – J.R.
    Feb 21, 2016 at 4:22
  • @J.R Maybe I misunderstood! Come to think of it, 'what do you mean by that' seems like what I heard. Thanks for letting me know!
    – JoAnn
    Feb 21, 2016 at 4:27
  • "What do you mean by _____?" can have a negative connotation. Ex: "I don't like how your hair looks. (She replies): "What do you mean by that?"
    – user3169
    Feb 21, 2016 at 4:53

3 Answers 3


From original question

I thought only " what does@@mean?"was grammatically correct but I heard a lot of Americans saying "what does it mean by @@?"

If you saw something confusing on a street sign, you might point and say "what does it mean by that".

Here, "it" would refer to the sign. You are treating the sign as if it were a person who had said something. So it's very similar to sentences like "What did he mean when he said that?"

This isn't particularly common. If you are reading and trying to understand a book that has a lot of confusing sentences and it's like the book itself starts to take on an evil identity...it might be more common. :-)

As for "What does it mean that (...)", there are rare cases you might hear it as a kind of question to provoke thought, where you're not expecting an answer (e.g. a "rhetorical question".)

  • "What does it mean that one fourth of humanity lives without electricity?"

But if you're really asking about what something means, "What does (...) mean?" or "What's the meaning of (...)?" would be what you'd want to use.

From updated question

I thought only "what does _____ mean?" was grammatically correct but I heard a lot of Americans saying "what do you mean by _____?"

Are both of them correct? Are there any differences between those two?

If you ask "what do you mean by ____" then you are suggesting the person has said something you want them to explain. But "what does ____ mean" could be asked of someone whether they've said anything or not. You're just asking a question about the general meaning of something.

In usage, "What do you mean by that?!!?" can be a strong negative reaction...usually when someone has said something that the person feels was meant to be insulting even if it wasn't "obviously" so. So it's not really asking for clarification, because the speaker has already assumed it was meant in a bad way.

But it can also just be a polite phrase asking what someone meant.

  • So, do both 'what does it mean by that' and 'what do you mean by that' make sense and have different meaning?
    – JoAnn
    Feb 21, 2016 at 4:58
  • 1
    @JoAnn Yes, "What does it mean by that?" can be legal in the same way that "What do you mean by that?" is legal. Though in the case of "What does it mean by that?" you are asking about an inanimate object that can't tell you itself what it is signifying, so someone else would have to. (Though in a robot movie, a robot might say "I'm not allowed to because of the 3 laws" and another character could ask "What does it (the robot) mean by that?", and perhaps the robot would answer for itself...) Feb 21, 2016 at 5:07
  • Thanks! Then is it not proper to ask my teacher " what does it mean by ___?" to clarify a sentence or what the teacher said? Is it better to just say " whay does__mean?"in that case?
    – JoAnn
    Feb 21, 2016 at 5:18
  • @JoAnn Yes, don't use "what does it mean by ___" in those cases. To show you are reacting to something the teacher said themselves, you can say "what did you mean when you said _____". If you don't need to remind them of that, or if it is a new question entirely, say something like "what does ____ mean?" or "what would it mean if someone said ____?" Feb 21, 2016 at 5:29
  • 1
    @JoAnn - RE: Is it not proper to ask my teacher "what does it mean by ___?" By itself, that sounds a little odd, because we don't know what "it" is. (Is "it" a book? A sentence in the book? A thought in a paragraph?) But I suppose you could say something like, "I'm reading this paragraph here [pointing to a page of text], and I wonder what it means by ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’" That might work.
    – J.R.
    Feb 21, 2016 at 10:57

Another variant might be that the subject is a quotation. For example, I might respond to part of your question by saying

What do you mean by "correct"?

The implication is that in order to answer your question, I need to understand what the quoted portion means to you in this context.

The use of that instead of a specific quoted part simply means the whole statement. As others have mentioned, the emphasis is on what the original speaker or writer meant.

(Note: I don't actually require you to tell me what you meant by "correct" in this case; I was just using that as an example)


An example: What does "left" mean? Look it up, most likely you know it.

We are driving in a car. I'm driving, my friend gives directions. He or she says "at the next street, turn left". There is no left turn, only a right turn. So I ask "what do you mean by "left""?

You see, my friend didn't use "left" with the standard meaning. Some people say "left" when they actually mean "right". It's not that uncommon. So I don't need to ask about the meaning of the word "left"; I know the meaning. I am asking what my friend meant when he or she said "left".

"What do you mean by... " is asking the person what they mean. Which may be different from the standard meaning, or might need more explanation. For example: "Joe lied to you". "What do you mean by "lied""? I want more details. I want to know whether the speakers meaning of "lied" is the same as my meaning. And of course even if we agreed about the meaning, Joe said many things so I want to know what exactly he said that was a lie.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .