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The English We Speak

Intermediate level

All at sea

Episode 220228 / 28 Feb 2022


Being lost at sea and not knowing what to do is a situation that’s inspired an English idiom. Neil’s about to find out what it is as he puts to sea in his new boat. Discover more about this nautical phrase in The English We Speak. 


This is The English We Speak with me, Jiaying…

…and me, Neil. Hey, Jiaying, have you seen what I’ve bought? 

Yes, you’ve bought a boat, and you’ve been bragging about it on social media.

It’s great, isn’t it? Now I can have fun on the water and sail the seven seas, although there is a problem… 

Oh yes, what’s that? 

It didn’t come with any instructions. I don’t know how the engine starts, how to drive it or even launch it into the water.

Oh, Neil, it seems like you’re ‘all at sea’ with your new boat. 

I’m nowhere near the sea, or even a river! I haven’t launched it yet.

I don’t mean you’re on the sea now. I mean you’re confused! When we say someone is ‘all at sea’, we mean they are completely confused or puzzled - not sure what to do. So, Neil, while the origin of this phrase is connected to a ship being lost at sea, it’s now used to mean you are just lost or confused. Here are some examples…

People are all at sea with this new one-way system in the city – they’re not sure how to get into the centre!

I’ve lost my smartphone and I’m all at sea about how to contact my friends.

I’m all at sea with this new rota – I’m not sure what I am doing today.

This is The English We Speak from BBC Learning English. We’re talking about the expression to be ‘all at sea’ which means to be confused and not sure what to do. And, Neil, you’re all at sea with your new boat. 

I am, but I think I can work it out.

Are you sure? You don’t want to get stranded out at sea.

Yes, it’s just like driving a car – isn’t it? I’ll take it down to the coast and give it a try.

Oh dear. I think instead of being all at sea, Neil’s going to just be at sea – forever! Good luck.



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