English phrases explained: Good grief & For goodness’ sake

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When you learn English, I recommend learning phrases and not just individual words. When you just study individual words, it’s hard to put them together into a phrase – but when you study phrases, then you can use the complete phrase in your speaking and it’s much easier.

However, the problem with phrases is that sometimes you might hear or see a phrase that doesn’t seem to make sense. This happens with a lot of idioms and informal expressions, and you might just be completely confused by a phrase –  especially if you see it in a movie or you hear a native speaker say it.

My students ask me about phrases all the time, and today I’ll explain two expressions – “good grief” and “for goodness’ sake.”

If you’re interested in learning more phrases – and especially learning them inside the context of conversations – come check out my Everyday English Speaking Courses.

Good grief

Good grief – that expression seems really strange!

“Grief” normally refers to the feeling of being sad like when someone dies, so why would you ever say good grief?

Well, this is a perfect example of why you can’t translate a lot of these expressions directly; you can’t interpret them word by word. You need to learn these phrases as whole expressions in context. We use “good grief” as an exclamation for surprise or shock and often frustration – or to say something like “that’s ridiculous!”

Here’s an example – let’s say you are having a really bad morning. You wake up late and then you try to make breakfast, but you accidentally burn your breakfast… and you know things are going wrong and your kids are fussy and then when you go out to your car to go to work you turn the key and your car won’t start.

You might say, “Good grief, my car won’t start!” So good grief is an expression of your surprise, you’re also frustrated and annoyed by this ridiculous situation.

“Good grief, my car won’t start!”

Another good example would be, let’s say you work in an office and your manager comes up with some crazy rule like he says in order to save paper you can’t print more than 10 pages per week, and let’s say your job needs a lot of things printed out – so when talking with your co-workers you might say “Good grief, that’s such a ridiculous rule” – again it’s an expression of frustration annoyance or saying something is ridiculous.

A student of mine asked, “Is good grief equal to the expression, my goodness?” It’s similar… I think “good grief” is a little bit stronger; my goodness might be a little bit milder.

For goodness’ sake

Another similar expression is “for goodness’ sake,” this is another one that you can’t translate literally – and again we use it for shock or ridiculousness.

For example, if your son has been playing video games for the last six hours and you really want him to stop playing video games, you might say, “Turn off the video game; you’ve been playing for six hours, for goodness’ sake!” This expression shows your annoyance or frustration with the situation.

“Turn off the video game; you’ve been playing for six hours, for goodness’ sake!”

Or if you’re talking with a friend, and that friend keeps interrupting you, then you might say, “For goodness’ sake, stop interrupting me!” So you can see how these are used just to add a little bit more emotion to the to the to the statement you’re making.

There are variations of this expression – some people say for Christ’s sake, but some people prefer not to use that because it’s a little bit religious and might offend people who are Christians. But the expressions “good grief” and “for goodness’ sake,” these are okay to use, they’re not offensive, they’re very innocent ways to express annoyance.

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