What do these TV and movie phrases mean?

Everyday English Speaking Level 2

If you watch TV and movies in English, you’ll probably see a lot of new words and expressions that might not come up in your regular English study.

Sometimes it’s hard to understand what certain phrases mean, so students write to me and ask for clarification. If you ever come across a phrase that you can’t figure out, feel free to e-mail me and ask me what it means, and I’ll do my best to explain it.

In today’s lesson, I’ll explain ten expressions that students have asked me about recently.

#1 – “Your analysis is spot on.”

The student was watching a detective show, where the detectives were trying to come up with theories to solve the mystery of a crime. One of the detectives presented her analysis, and another detective commented, “Your analysis is spot on.” What does that mean?

“Spot on” is an informal way to say that something is very accurate; it is precise, it is a correct description of reality. So the character in the show was saying that the detective’s analysis of the situation was correct. Another way to say this is that the analysis is on target.

#2 – “He’s hell-bent on winning.”

This phrase came from a sports movie, where the commentators said about one of the athletes, “He’s hell-bent on winning.” If you are hell-bent on doing something, it means you are extremely determined.

But not only determined – it means you are determined in a reckless way; you will do ANYTHING to accomplish your goal, even if it’s harmful or immoral… or even if accomplishing that goal might not be a good thing. If you are hell-bent on doing it, you don’t care. You are determined to do it no matter what.

If you want to express the idea of strong determination without this idea of recklessness, you could say “He’s determined to win” or “He’s dead set on winning.”

#3 – “Make it snappy!”

In a TV show, the characters were in a restaurant, and one of them ordered some food and told the waitress “Make it snappy!” This is a bit of a rude way to say “Hurry up!” or “Do it fast!” Again, it’s rather rude to say this to a waitress or to someone who is providing a service to you.

What’s a better way to express the idea that you need the food fast? You could say something like, “I’m a bit pressed for time (or: I’m in a bit of a rush), so would it be possible to get my order quickly?”

If you’re talking to a colleague, you could say:

  • “This is urgent.”
  • “This needs to be done as soon as possible.”

Those would be more diplomatic ways to emphasize the need for speed, instead of saying “make it snappy.”

#4 – “Don’t get your hopes up”

This phrase was from a movie where a mother and father were divorced, and their son (who lives with his mother) was waiting for his dad to come to his baseball game. The mother told him, “Don’t get your hopes up.”

This means “don’t have a strong expectation that what you want will happen, because it’s not likely.” In other words, the boy’s father probably won’t come, so the boy shouldn’t invest a lot of emotional energy in hoping or wishing he’ll come. This way he won’t be disappointed when his dad doesn’t appear.

#5 – “He’s just trying to pick a fight.”

In a scene where one high school guy was making fun of another guy, and the second guy started to get angry and made a movement to confront him. But a girl stepped in and stopped him, saying, “He’s just trying to pick a fight.”

To pick a fight means to start an argument or fight with someone intentionally. Someone who picks a fight is not trying to avoid conflict, they’re trying to create conflict on purpose.

#6 – “I don’t mean to pry.”

There were two women at work, and one of them asked the other a personal question, saying “I don’t mean to pry, but… (followed by the question)”

“I don’t mean to pry” means “I don’t intend to be rude by inquiring about your private life.” You are expressing the fact that you don’t want to offend the person, and you’re not asking a personal question just to get some information to gossip about.

#7 – “Are you prepared to see this through?”

This was from a spy movie, where one character wanted to get involved in a mission and another character asked him, “Are you prepared to see this through?” That means “Are you prepared to continue working on this until it is completely finished?” If you see a project through, it means you don’t give up and abandon it in the middle. You persist and keep giving your effort until it is done.

#8 – “He doesn’t take kindly to people meddling in his life.”

One character in a TV show said about her father, “He doesn’t take kindly to people meddling in his life.” We have two things to learn here. He doesn’t take kindly to means he isn’t pleased about something, he is not agreeable to it, he doesn’t like when it happens.

The verb meddle means to interfere with something, or with someone’s life, when you are not welcome to do so or when it’s none of your business. So this phrase could be “translated” as “He doesn’t like it when people interfere in his life without permission.”

#9 – “The desserts are to die for.”

One woman was telling another one about a café, and she said “The desserts are to die for.” This expression, saying something is “to die for,” is a slang way to say it’s really, really excellent, so great that it’s worth sacrificing your life for. (Not literally – it’s just an exaggeration to emphasize how great the thing is).

#10 – “I knew those boys were up to no good.”

A man who had witnessed a crime said, “I knew those boys were up to no good.” This expression, “up to no good,” means they were planning or doing something bad, wrong, or illegal.

A similar expression is “They’re up to something” – meaning they are cleverly planning or doing something secret (which may be bad or mischievous).

We also see a variation of this expression in the question, “What are you up to?” – meaning “What are you doing?” and “What have you been up to?” – meaning “What have you been doing in the recent past?” These questions are neutral – they don’t imply that you’ve been planning or doing anything bad or suspicious, they just want to know about your current or recent activities.

Learn the informal phrases native English speakers use in conversation

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