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  1. 1 The Experiment

Session 32

The Experiment is a collection of short series that are a little different to our usual programmes - but still help you improve your English.

Our seventh series, What they really mean shows how misunderstandings can be caused by common ways we use language. Each episode shows you how to avoid these misunderstandings.

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    Activity 1

Activity 1

What they really mean: Suggestions as instructions

You could take some out...

Mark can't understand why Emily is annoyed. She had been giving him instructions - but he just didn't realise. Watch the video and learn how to tell when someone's suggestions are really instructions.

Watch the video and complete the activity

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It looks a bit complex - you could take some out...

“You could…” that sounds like a suggestion. Well – let’s see if that’s what Emily meant…

Have you finished that app design?

I’ve just been putting some more features in it – it’s got 200 now.

Hmmm…. It looks a bit complex - you could take some out…

I suppose, but I quite like it like this….

If you’d like to ask the team, they might be able to help..

I’m not really sure I would like to ask them, to be honest.

You might want to look at it again before we show it to the director. Ok, are you ready to show it to the director? Did you take out some of the features like I asked?

No actually – I’ve put a few more in there – it’s got 250 now…

Weren’t you listening? Didn’t I tell you to make it simpler?

You said I could... But I didn’t want to, so I didn’t.

The director’s just going to laugh at this. I know this business – you really need to listen to me.


Ouch! You don’t look happy…

I don’t get it… Emily made some suggestions, and fine, I didn’t really agree with them, but now she’s acting like they were orders.

Ah, well you see, sometimes we word things as suggestions, when we mean them as instructions. It’s a way of being polite. It can be tricky to spot these instructions – the expressions that Emily used all had modal verbs that we usually use for suggestions, we had could, if you’d like to and you might want to.

What you have to do is think about the context – if it’s someone who often gives you instructions, like your manager, then you might want to double check whether they are just making suggestions or actually telling you what they want you to do. They are quite common in a lot of work situations, and you’ll see some more at the end of the programme.

Thanks, I feel like I want to go back and try that again with Emily… I’ve just been putting some more features on that app – it’s got 200 now.

Hmmm… It looks a bit complex - you could take some out.

Now, you said "could"… Do I have a choice or do you need me to do that?

Good question. I need you to do that. If you’d like you could ask the team, they can help you.

If I’d like to?

I did it again, didn’t I? Yes, I need you to do this as well. I would love it if you could do a few more of those. You could try making that more detailed. Why don’t you finish that today?


Did you like that? Why not try these?

 What they really mean Episode 1 English at Work - 05 - Polite requests Grammar Gameshow: should


What are suggestions as instructions?
Sometimes instructions are worded as suggestions. This is often considered to be more polite; however, it can be confusing.

How are they formed?
They use modal verbs that are usually used to make suggestions, such as should,  could and would.

Is context important?
Yes. When you hear suggestions like these, it is important to think about who is making the suggestions and why they are doing it. If it is someone like your manager or teacher, it may be a good idea to check whether they are just making suggestions, or actually telling you what they expect you to do.


'I would love it if you could do a few more of those' could mean 'That's not enough. Do more of those.'
'You could try making that more detailed' could mean 'That's not detailed enough - make it more detailed.'
'Why don’t you finish that today?' could mean 'Don’t go home until you finish that.'

To do

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Suggestions as instructions

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You can download a transcript of this episode here.

End of Session 32

Join us in Session 33 of The Experiment for more of What They Really Mean - a video series on understanding more than just the words people use. We will be looking at euphemistic feedback. 

Here are all of our Experiment series videos