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When trying to figure out the meaning of something, it’s important to pay attention to which words are being used.
Expressions like “What does that mean?” and “What does it mean?” may seem similar, but they can have very subtle differences in usage.
If you’re asking “What does it mean?,” and “what does that mean,” it is hard to categorize and define a rule to follow because they are usually used interchangeably.
Let’s look more in-depth at the differences between “what does it mean” and “what does that mean” with some example sentences. We are also going to mention other relevant expressions, such as “what does it means” and “what is that supposed to mean.”
What Does it Mean” Vs. “What Does That Mean”
“What does it mean” and “what does that mean” can often be used interchangeably. In fact, the difference is probably so subtle that the listener probably wouldn’t even notice. There are some instances when one expression may be preferred over the other, which we will give in our examples below.
What does it mean?
Here are some of the times we may choose to use “what does it mean.”
We usually use “what does it mean” to:
Talk More Generally
Maybe we want to talk about broad, abstract topics like the universe, life, God, marriage, society, feelings, and so forth. For these big ideas, it would be better to use “what does it mean” here.
- What does it mean to be happy?
- What does it mean to be successful?
- What does it mean to be in love?
- What does it mean to be a good person?
- What does it all mean?! (referring to life and the universe in general)
When We Want to Know The Definition of Something
If you want to know what a word or phrase means, the expression “what does it mean” is probably your best bet.
- What does “serendipity” mean? What does it mean?
- I don’t understand what “irony” means. What does it mean?
- What does the phrase “to pull someone’s leg” mean? What does it mean?
When you ask “what does it mean” here, you are looking for a definition of the word.
What does that mean?
Here are some of the times we may choose to use “what does that mean.”
We use “what does that mean” to:
Ask for clarification
If someone says something and you want them to be more clear, you can ask, “what does that mean?”
- “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you just said. What does that mean?”
- “I can’t follow what you said. I’m confused. What does that mean?”
- “I have no idea what you’re talking about. What does that mean?”
Asking for further explanation
This is similar to the point above, but we use “what does that mean” when we want somebody to explain something to us in more detail.
- “Can you explain what that word means? What does that mean?”
- “What do you mean by “success“? What does that mean to you?”
- “The tests show that some scar tissue has formed.” –“What does that mean?”
- “The building just burned down. What does that mean for the company?”
- “The kid just failed high school. What does that mean for his future?”
- “Covid has just started. What does that mean for our country?”
In these cases, we are not just looking for a word’s definition. We want somebody to explain the concept to us in more detail.
What does it means?
“What does it means” is incorrect grammar. When asking a question, we must write “mean,” as in, “what does it mean?” If you are answering the question, you could say, “it means…”
For example, “what does irony mean?” — “it means the opposite of what is expected.”
What is that supposed to mean?
The expression “what is that supposed to mean” (often spoken in a frustrated tone) is said if we think someone is not telling us the full story or they are telling us something indirectly.
- “Angela said she was ‘busy,’ but what is that supposed to mean?”
The person here believes that Angela is not telling the full story and wants to know what she really means. What is she busy doing? Is she really that busy? Maybe if Angela is a love interest, they are wondering if she is actually busy or if she is just avoiding the date.
- “The dress looks too tight on you.” — “What is that supposed to mean? Are you calling me fat?”
In the example above, the person is angry because they think their friend is calling them fat indirectly.
- “Why don’t they just come out and say it? What is that supposed to mean?”
Again, the person is frustrated because they think the speaker is not being direct. They want to know what the speaker really means.
Now that we’ve looked at some examples of “what does it mean” and “what does that mean,” let’s summarize the main differences between these two expressions.
“What does it mean” is used to talk about more general, abstract topics. It can also be used when you want to know the definition of something.
“What does that mean” is used when you want somebody to explain something to you in more detail or if you want clarification on something that was said.
If you are offended by a remark made by someone and want to know what they truly mean, you can say, “what is that supposed to mean?”
Finally, remember that “what does it means” is incorrect grammar. The correct form is “what does it mean?”
As a native English speaker, this is my opinion on the matter. I hope I have been able to answer your questions. Leave a comment below if you found it helpful and be sure to share this with your friends and family!
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I'm an Irish tutor and founder of TPR Teaching. I started teaching in 2016 and have since taught in the UK, Spain, and online.
I love learning new things about the English language and how to teach it better. I'm always trying to improve my knowledge, so I can better meet the needs of others!
I enjoy traveling, nature walks, and soaking up a new culture. Please share the posts if you find them helpful!