Lecture Service for Secondary Schools - We help to motivate your students. Click for details

web counter
web counter


Return to Index page

Dr Klaus Bung
68 Brantfell Road
Blackburn BB1-8DL

© 2010 Klaus Bung

Teachers tell you what to learn, IDYLL shows you how to learn it

previous/next bar go previous


Klaus Bung:
Your guess is as good as mine

There are many things you can say when you do not know the answer, depending on whether you ought to know the answer or you cannot possibly know it. For example: I don't know. How am *** I *** supposed to know. Haven't got a clue. No idea. That's anybody's guess. Your guess is as good as mine. You tell ME. Only God knows. Well? I wouldn't bet on it. Future will tell.

2010-09-28 Your guess is as good as mine

Why am I writing this blog

Some weeks ago I received a message from a friend in Karachi. She said: "I am very happy. I have started reading the Karachi Evening News. I understand it well. I am enjoying it. Their English is GOOD THEN BBC. I also understand YOU. Your English is GOOD THEN BBC". (Warning: "good then BBC" is not correct English. It is incomprehensible.)

I replied: "Great. But what do you mean by GOOD THEN BBC"? Do you mean: (1) as good as BBC, or (2) better than BBC."

She replied: "(2)".

I: "So you say my English is better than BBC. That is not possible. My English is the same as BBC. Nobody's English can be better than the BBC. Why do you say that my English and Karachi Evening News are better than BBC?"

My lovely friend replied: "Because I understand you, and I understand Karachi Evening Standard. I do NOT understand the BBC."

I: "So you can decide whether BBC English is good or not? You can teach the BBC how to write and speak English? The reason why you can understand me is that, when speaking to you, I do not use the same expressions which I use when speaking to educated English people. I use only children's English when speaking to you. I make sure I use only the very simple expressions which I know you will understand. The Karachi Evening News does the same for its readers. They don't use real English. They use simplified English."

I have written this charming story down here in order to explain WHY I felt that something like this blog was needed for people learning English at intermediate and advanced level.

I get my inspiration largely from BBC Radio news. Every hour I hear a dozen or more idiomatic expressions which people like my Karachi friend would find difficult to understand. I listen to them with the ears of my non-English students and imagine how they could misunderstand what I hear. Then, every few days, I pick one of these expressions and explain and explore it in this blog.

Tests with some of my Internet students have shown that they often think they understand a sentence (because they understand every word and every grammatical structure), but in fact do not understand its real meaning at all.

In this blog I often try to explore the hidden meanings of sentences. In one of my next articles I will look at the subtle art of insulting people.

Predicting the future (fortune telling)

Earlier this year, we had an election. Three main parties competed, Labour (which formed the last government), Conservatives (which formed the opposition in the last parliament) and the Liberals, much smaller than the other two, and never likely to get into government. The main battle is always between Labour and Conservatives.

Before the election, British voters were almost evenly divided into Labour supporters and Conservative supporters. It was impossible to predict which of these two parties would win the election.

In the end, the conservatives won by a narrow margin, but they did not have enough members of parliament (their majority was not big enough for them) to form an effective government ("hung parliament"). They made a pact with the Liberals to form a coalition, i.e. to form a joint government. The leader of the Conservatives would become Prime Minister, the leader of the Liberals would become Deputy Prime Minister, and members of both parties would become Ministers in the new government.

The previous Prime Minister (Gordon Brown) of course was now no longer Prime Minister, but he also resigned as leader of the Labour Party.

Therefore the Labour Party had to elect a new leader (leader of the party). Last week a panel of journalists were speculating on the merits of the candidates and their chances. The Chairman of the panel asked one journalist: "Who do you think will be the next Labour leader?"

horse race"If I were a betting man, I would put my money on Mr X." That is one way of saying that you think something is likely to happen. If you bet on the outcome of horse races, then "you put your money on" a certain horse. If you bet on the outcome of a cricket series (e.g. the current one of England against Pakistan), then "you put your money on" of those countries.


Fortune teller with black headscarf and holding crystal ballThe chairman asked another journalist: "Who do YOU think will be the next Labour leader". That journalist was not sure (of course, he could not be sure, nobody can be sure), he would not comit himself. "Your guess is as good as mine", he replied, i.e. all we can do is to guess, we can not be sure, we cannot even say that A is more likely than B, so don't ask me, because I guess, and my guess is no better than yours. Don't ask me, because I don't know more about it that you do: Your guess is as good as mine - we are both only guessing, not predicting. None of us is a prophet (a prophet can tell the future) - and I don't want to be a gypsy and a fortune teller.

Another word for "fortune teller" is "a soothsayer", an old word consisting of "sooth" (= truth; "sooth". This word is no longer used on its own) and "sayer". So a soothsayer literally is a "truth-sayer". The word "sooth" is still heard occasionally when somebody wants to sound deliberately learned or old-fashioned, in the expression, "forsooth" (= for sooth, = indeed, in truth, believe me), and it is common in Shakespeare.

Other expressions of uncertainty or ignorance

Here are a few other replies that you could give in such a situation.

"That's is ANYBODY'S guess," i.e. it does not matter whom you ask, everybody will only be guessing, nobody will speak on the basis of knowledge or valid information, it is impossible to know..

"I don't know" would be the simplest answer, the simplest way of expressing ignorance. "I haven't got a clue" is even less knowledge than "I don't know". A clue is just a bit of knowledge, it is a tiny part of the answer.

Some other replies:

  • YOU tell ME.
  • What do YOU think?
  • No idea.
  • Haven't got a clue.
  • Future will tell.

If you are in an oral exam and the examiner asks you a question which you cannot answer, you have to say simply: "Sorry, I don't know", because whatever he asks you is something that you ought to know.

In such a situation you cannot say: "That is anybody's guess" or "Your guess is as good as mine". If you said it, it would be very funny, but the examiner might not think it is funny and see it as a sign of arrogance or frivolity. If he has a sense of humour, he might laugh. But what he would really do is anybody's guess. You cannot be sure. So you had better not try it.

The reason why you cannot say "anybody's guess" in an exam is that, in an exam, knowledge of facts is being tested. People who have studied the subject know these facts.

You say "That's anybody's guess" when it is impossible to know something, e.g. because it will only happen in the future and it is not predictable.

Some very inappropriate, and therefore funny, things you could say to an examiner if you do not know the answer:

  • YOU tell ME.
  • What do YOU think?
  • Your guess is as good as mine.
  • That's anybody's guess.
  • How am *** I *** to know!
  • Funny you should ask that.
  • I have been wondering about this myself for a while.
  • Are you serious?
  • Are you joking?

But I beg you, do not say any of these things in a real exam, or if you are being interviewed at a British Embassy because you have applied for a British visa. Embassy officials do NOT have a sense of humour, at least not as long as they are inside the embassy. Your job is to answer their questions, not to tickle them and make them laugh.

Some reasonable things you could say to an examiner if you do not know the answer:

  • I don't know. Sorry, I don't know.
  • No idea.
  • Haven't got a clue.
  • Sorry, I have forgotten.
  • That's a good question. Could I just think about that for a minute, please? I'm sure I know that, hmmmm, what was it again? Why can't I remember it now. I knew it yesterday when I revised that topic. Hmmmm ... could you just give me a tiny clue, please?

Give me a clue

Four girls in school oniform, laughing, on their way to schoolLet's assume the following situation. Mary and Joan are two 16-year-old school girls. Mary has heard some exciting gossip about two of their teachers, and she is bursting to tell her friend Joan. But she doesn't simply want to tell, she wants to make it more thrilling, wants to show off that she knows and her friend does not know. So she plays a guessing game.

Mary: "Hello, Joan. Come here, I have some exciting news for you. You won't believe it."

Joan: "Well, what is it? You got yourself a boyfriend?"

Mary: "Naaa, I wish I did. No, it's about Mr Jackson."

Joan: "Oh, about him. What's he been up to? Is he having an affair?"

Mary: "It's better than that, he is getting married."

Joan: "What! I don't believe it. I thought he was gay."

Mary: "Well, now you know. He isn't."

Joan: "Who is he getting married to? I feel sorry for the poor cow."

Mary: "Guess!"

Joan: "How am I to know? Give me a clue."

Mary: "It's a woman."

Joan: "Ha ha ha!"

Mary: "And she is very tall."

Joan: "Miss Cucumber?"

Mary: "No."

Joan: "Well, give me a better clue."

Mary: "She loves cats, and she plays the piano."

Joan: "I see, Mrs Foxglove. Well, good luck to them! When will they tie the knot?" (= get married, have the official wedding ceremony)

Mary: "I am not sure. During the summer holidays, I think."

Joan: "And how many months before they get divorced?"

Mary: "That's anybody's guess."

Joan's question and Mary's answer imply that the girls do not think this marriage is going to last very long.

The jury is still out

Ed Miliband is considered more to the left (more socialist, less conservative) than David Miliband. The colour associated with socialism and communism is red. Soon after Ed Miliband had been elected leader of the Labour Party, people were discussing how "socialist" or how far to the left he really was.

A newspaper headline asked: "How red is Ed?" The reply was: "The jury is still out." Another reply could have been: "Wait and see".

In certain court procedings, we have a judge and twelve ordinary people, called "jurors". The twelve together are called "the jury". The judge and the jury listen to the prosecutor, to the witnesses and to the defence. The jury has to decide whether the defendant (e.g. the criminal) is guilty or not guilty. When all the witnesses have been heard, the jury "retires", i.e. they go into a special room and discuss what they have heard.

Nobody must know what they are discussing. Then they try to agree a verdict, Guilty or Not Guilty. When they have agreed, the return to the court room and the judge asks them: "What is your verdict, Guilty or Not guilty?"

While the jury is in that private room, the jury "is out". When we say "The jury is out", we mean "We do not know the verdict, we have to wait a bit longer."

When only the future will decide, you can say: "The jury is still out".


  • Somebody starts a new business.
    Q: Will it be a success?
    A: The jury is still out.
  • An unlikely couple get married.
    Q: Will this marriage be successful?
    A: The jury is still out.

I you google "the jury is still out", you get 1.5 million hits. Try this for yourself and look for example because this article has now grown bit enough.

Which of the two brothers is David?

I started writing this article a couple of weeks ago. Meanwhile Labour have elected their new leader. Among the five leadership candidats were two brothers, David Miliband (the elder) and Ed Miliband (the younger). Much to everybody's surprise, the younger brother won the vote. Ed Miliband is now leader of the Labour Party, at present in opposition.

If, after some future national election, say in five years' time, Labour wins and comes back into power, and if, at that time, Ed Miliband is still leader of the Labour Party, then Ed Miliband will become British Prime Minister. But what will really happen then is still "in the lap of the Gods", i.e. only God knows, no human being knows that.

The expression "it is still in the lap of the Gods" comes from classical Greek literature, is repeatedly used in Homer's epics The Iliad and The Odyssey and has, from there, found its way into many European languages. This expression is only used when you talk about future events. Will this happen, or will it not happen? The answer is in the lap of the Gods.

This expression can not be used if you are uncertain about present facts.

Warning: This mushroom is poisonous.

Fly Agaric mushroomExample: It is September now, the weather is getting moist and cool, and many mushrooms and fungi can be found in the woods. Mr and Mrs Johnson are going for a walk in a wood and find some kind of mushroom. It looks appetising and smells good.

Mrs Johnson says to her husband: "Is this mushroom edible?" (i.e. is it poisonous or not).

Mr Johnson can give one of the following answers:

  • I don't know.
  • God knows.
  • Only God knows.
  • Your guess is as good as mine.
  • That's anybody's guess.
  • What do YOU think.
  • You tell ME.

He can NOT say: "That is still in the lap of the Gods", and he can NOT use another even more common expression: "Future will tell."

This mushroom either IS poisonous or it is NOT poisonous. Whether it is poisonous or not is NOT in the lap of the Gods (i.e. to be decided later), it is only unknown to Mr and Mrs Johnson since they are not mycologists (experts on fungi).

"Future will tell" is a very common expression if one does not know the results of some action.

  • Question: "Will the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis be successful?"
    Answer: "Future will tell."
  • Question: "Will this marriage last?"
    Answer: "Future will tell."

Miliband brothersHere is a picture of the two Miliband brothers. I do not watch television and I have never seen them before. I do not know which of them is David and which of them is Ed. They look alike and are dressed alike, are equally smart and equally young.

  • Question: "Which of them is David?"
    Answer: "Your guess is as good as mine."



Teachers tell you what to learn, IDYLL shows you how to learn it