Asking questions with the verb “mean”

Asking questions with “mean” can be confusing. Let’s dive into the explanations.

Question form with ‘mean’

This is how you construct a question with the verb mean:

What does ‘auxiliary’ mean?

Don’t use: What means ‘auxiliary’?

Preposition ‘by’ in questions with ‘mean’

If you form a sentence like “What do you mean by ‘auxiliary’?” you are asking about the sense of the word (“Could you please explain the meaning of ‘auxiliary’ in this particular context? Does it refer to ‘grammar’ or ‘production’?”).

“What do you mean…?”

One more thing. If you form your question with “What do you mean (by)…” you might be expressing protest or annoyance. For example:

  • What do you mean you aren’t using private cloud computing? (Forbes)
  • What do you mean by waking me up at this time of night? (Swan)

Here’s a text about the noun mean/means (this above is the verb).

Reference: Swan pp. 329-330


Grammar: will have + past participle

Construction of will have and past participle is rather interesting. It is used to “express certainty or confidence about the past” (Swan 622).

Examples of will have and past participle

A student is given this sentence to rephrase by using WILL  (taken from Spotlight on CAE):

Paul said he would call April to tell her he’s not going to the party, and I’m sure he has.

Rephrased using WILL:

Paul will have phoned April to tell her he’s not going to the party, because he said he would.

The meaning: the speaker is fairly confident that April was told he would not come to the party.

Let’s see some other examples and rephrase them quickly:

  • Dear Sir, You will recently have received a form… (We are sure you got that form.)
  • I wonder why we haven’t heard from him – do you think he won’t have got our letter yet? (I am fairly confident he did not get the letter.)
  • We can’t go and see them now – they’ll have gone to bed. (I’m sure they fell asleep.) [All three examples are taken from Swan.]
  • That means workers will have received a total 9pc pay rise in the past three years. (We are quite certain that the rise was 9pc per worker.) [Irish Independent.]
  • If, like me, you are a BHP Billiton shareholder, you will have received a handsome 192-page shareholder circular last month …. (If you are also a shareholder, you got the same circular last month.) [Forbes]

That’s an interesting use of a modal!

Noun “means” (use and grammar)

Noun means is both in plural and singular, don’t let the ending -s fool you. Here are some examples.

  • It the 19th century a new means of communication was developed – the railway. (Swan)
  • There are several means of transport on the island. (Swan)
  • For some artists, the internet is a means of exploring and highlighting how digital technologies shape our lives. (BBC News)
  • Sustainable development won’t happen without the means to implement it (The Guardian)

As you can see, means functions as a singular and plural noun while always keeping the -s. It’s always means.

Grammatical use of the word 'means'
Grammatical use of the word ‘means’

Some other nouns with plural same as singular

Means is not the only that has the same singular and plural form. The same common ones are: barracks, crossroads, headquarters, series, species, works (when it means factory), Swiss.

The use of by all / any / no means

The phrase by all means is used to say that it’s OK to do something, to permit an action. The expression by no means has the opposite meaning.

  • Study: Why Tobacco Smoking Is by no Means a Healthier Option (Empire State Tribune) – there is no way that smoking is a healthier option, it is absolutely ridiculous to even consider that.
  • By all means, we need to have this discussion. (Washington Times) – of course we need to have this discussion, I root for this discussion to happen.
  • By all means grab a weekend away (or several) and take advantage of a fantastic deal (…). (Telegraph) – you really should  have a weekend away by taking the deal if you can.

Bibliography: Swan; referenced sources.

We wrote about collective nouns as well.