Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

Have you ever heard somebody use the phrase “what gives” in an English conversation?

Do you want to understand what this means and how to use it in English?

We’re going to show you how to use this, what it conveys, and what it can mean in conversation.

This listener has a question about this phrase as it can be confusing to a lot of people.

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Hi Lindsay!

I’ve been a listener of yours since last fall when I stumbled upon your podcast as I was preparing for my Ielts exam. This exam ended up being amazing thanks to you and Jessica and your wonderful material and methods! I got an overall 8!

I’m still tuning into your podcast, so as not to lose my grip. I have a question I could use some help with if you would be so kind.

The question I have is from an article I was reading called “Barking Up The Wrong Tree”. It went like this: “you want to be happy. Unfortunately, your brain is not always in a cooperating kind of mood. What gives?”

I searched for the meaning and the explanations were different from one another. So my question is, when and how is the phrase “What gives” used in conversations or in writing?

Apologies for the length of my email. Thanks for taking the time to read it and many more if you choose to talk about it in an episode.


Mahshid from Iran

Using A Common Phrase

This is such a natural and common English phrase.

It’s one of those phrases that expresses frustration but also asks a question why whatever happened happened.

For example, I spoke about my computer and we discussed technology.

I asked “What gives?” at the end.

You’re not really asking for an actual answer, but rather using it in a rhetorical way.

It’s really like saying “I don’t understand.”

You’re expressing feeling frustration and also saying that you don’t understand at the same time.

How You Might Use This In Conversation

You can see how this may be used to express that you don’t understand something.

There are other uses for this phrase too, such as using it to talk to a person.

An example might be something like this.

M: Lindsay, this is the second time you’ve forgotten your key. What gives?

L: I don’t know MIchelle I need to put it in my bag as soon as I get home every day so I know it’s always there.

This phrase can also be semi confrontational.

If it’s used in a certain way, it may offend the person you are talking to because it sounds like you are frustrated with them.

An example of this may be something like this.

M: Oh no I got a D on this exam. What gives? I studied so hard!

L: Ugh this dress is too big. I thought I ordered the right size. What gives?

So in the end you can talk to a person using this phrase and you can also talk about something that is bothering you.

It’s All About The Tone of Voice

As with so many other phrases used in conversation, it all comes down to the tone of voice that you use.

If you are just having a conversation, then you might keep a steady and calm tone of voice.

If you are trying to convey your point of view or really tell somebody what you think of something controversial that they did, then you may use a different tone of voice altogether.

There are a couple of other ways to say this sort of thing with a different phrase.

Here are a couple of examples.

  • What’s that about? You might say this if you are questioning somebody about something that they did or did not do. It may come across as a bit controversial depending upon your tone of voice. An example might be: Michelle you didn’t RSVP for my party. What’s that about?
  • I don’t get it: You are telling the person that you don’t understand the situation or decision. It may be based upon general confusion or it may be trying to demand an answer to something that doesn’t make sense. An example might be: Oh my gosh this is the worst day. My shoe just got wet in a puddle and now my bag is soaking. I don’t get it.

So here you have three total phrases to express some kind of frustration and lack of understanding. 

Roleplay To Help

Seeing a phrase like this used in conversation can really help you to see how it works firsthand.

This roleplay will demonstrate how you might use it and how it can come across.

Lindsay and I just checked into our hotel room and are getting to our room.

L: Ugh this key isn’t working!

M: Mine either! Ugh. What gives?

L: Here let me try one more time. Ok got it. This is…nice?

M: Ugh I hate it.

L: It’s really not that bad.

M: Yes it is.

L: Michelle, you’ve been in a bad mood all day. What’s that about?

M: Sorry Lindsay. I’m just still upset that I spent so much money on the plane ticket when there was a fare that was 400 dollars less.  I thought I looked everywhere for the best price. I don’t get it.

L: Well don’t be too upset. It happens.


These phrases express multiple emotions, which is so necessary at times!

However, be careful you use them in the right way as it can sound confrontational and definitely shows you are frustrated. 

It’s all about the tone of voice and approach that you use, so keep that in mind always.

You can send the right message with a good phrase, but be sure that you focus on the delivery as well.

If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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