I've come across this conversation exchange in the transcript of a textbook:

(the speakers are discussing that a friend of theirs has been dismissed because he was sending personal emails from the company's computer)

Laura: That's a bit unfair, isn't it?

Dom: You say that, but actually what happened to him was he visited ...

I think I can guess what the meaning of "you say that" is: "you say that because you don't know the whole truth", but I'd never heard that phrase. I'm looking it up in different dictionaries but I can't find it.

Is it an usual phrase to indicate that somebody's guess is wrong?

  • What textbook is that? It doesn't sound idiomatic to me. – Alan Carmack Jul 4 '16 at 14:01
  • Outcomes - Intermediate – erdk Jul 6 '16 at 9:49

Yes - You say that, but [some refutation or caveat] is idiomatically commonplace for many native speakers, in response to an assertion they disagree with.

It's nearly always used in a context where although the speaker doesn't fully agree with the preceding assertion, he recognizes that there's some truth in it.

In fact, you'll often hear You could say that, but..., which more explicitly acknowledges that the assertion is at least "credible", even if it's not completely accurate. Note that in this usage, you = one, anybody, not necessarily the person being addressed (i.e. - what it amounts to is something like It wouldn't be ridiculous for you/someone to say that, but it's not entirely true).

Also note that if the personal pronoun is stressed (You say that, but...), the implied meaning shifts significantly. This form almost always occurs in contexts where the speaker completely disagrees; he intends to dismiss your opinion on the grounds that you're ignorant or biased, and/or to cite other sources more authoritative than you to refute what you said.

  • Can we think of "you say that" as a present subjunctive expression? Because a modal verb seems to be implied between "you and say", I think we can. – Floret Jun 11 at 3:56
  • @Floret: You could say that, buy I think you're mistaken. So far as I'm concerned, it's normally just plain old Present Simple / Present Indicative. Not that I care much about such terminological details, but I suppose We recommend that he say that is a true "subjunctive" form (most people today would inflect the verb to ...he says that anyway though). Have a look at this for more background on the subjunctive. – FumbleFingers Jun 11 at 11:45

I don't find the example to be idiomatic.

You need either a modal verb ('You can/could/will/would/might that...'), and this would express hedged or partial agreement with the other person; or you need to change what Dom says after 'You say that, but...'

You say that, but... is said to contradict what the other person has just said. So an idiomatic usage would be

-You say that, but actually it was fair. (And here's why. What actually happened...)

Examples from Google Books:

"Look, I've got to get going. I'm due in a meeting in about twenty minutes. We'll talk tonight."

-"You say that, but we won't. We won't talk. We don't know how to talk anymore."


...He had to smile. Even [though she was] on maternity leave she was first and foremost a nurse. "I'll be fine, honey."

-" You say that, but half the time you don't know how to put a Band-Aid on correctly."


"That's as may be. But I will never take a husband."

-"You say that but you will,you will marry some great king or prince and break my heart."


'But you're starting a new life, aren't you? A place where there's no place for me?'

-'You say that, but it isn't true.


This is the meaning of You say that, but...

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