Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

Have you ever said a word in another language that did not mean what you intended?

  • l’amour/la mort “I can feel the death in your home”
  • Contronym in French: hôte – guest/host

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Misunderstandings happen all the time, even among natives. One of the main culprits is contronyms! We’re starting a new series, where we’ll cover contronyms and help you avoid the miscommunication they might cause.

What is a contronym?

These are homonyms (another word with the same spelling but different meaning) that are also antonyms (a word with the opposite meaning)

Both meanings are generally accepted, but they contradict each other and you have to know the context to avoid confusion or misunderstandings.

Today we’ll cover one in English that is extremely common: off. We’ll also share some great idioms that use “off.”

Off: 1) Deactivated “turn off” 

Most of you know that in English we say turn off the lights, though in your first language the expression may be different. In French, they say ‘open/close the lights’

Anything electric can be turned on or off in English.

Turn off the TV; turn off the car.

We also say shut off. Shut off the TV, shut off the car.

Lindsay – do you say shut off the lights or turn off the lights? 

Some people also say put out the lights.

Do you say put out the light? (lanterns, candles; put out the fire)

2) activated, as an alarm “go off” – always collocated with go/went

This has the same meaning as “turn on” which could be very confusing if you’re not aware of both meanings!

My alarm goes off every morning at 6 a.m.

The smoke alarm went off when she burned her toast.

During a meeting – Whose phone is going off?

If time: Other common idioms with “off”:

Go off on: to become angry and hostile

If you make him angry, he’ll go off on you!

She went off on the driver who hit her car.

Be off, take off: to leave

If you don’t need anything else, I’ll be off.

He took off a minute ago.


Lindsay and I work at a retail clothing shop and we’re closing at the end of the day.

Lindsay: Did you turn the cash register off?

Aubrey: Yep, we just have to shut off all the lights and then we can take off.

Lindsay: Can you believe that customer that went off about us not having a public restroom?

Aubrey: I didn’t hear that! I think that’s right when my phone went off and I had to take a call.

Lindsay: He didn’t stick around too long – just yelled at me and then he was off!

Aubrey: Yikes! That has never happened to me. Sometimes people are annoyed, but no one has ever gone off on me.

Lindsay: Alright, I got the lights in the back so I think everything is off.

Aubrey: Okay, let’s go. I have an early class tomorrow, so my alarm is going to go off bright and early!

Takeaway: Even native speakers experience misunderstandings. It’s inevitable, so don’t let the possibility hold you back! You can minimize the chance of this happening by being aware of common sources of miscommunication, like contronyms! Once you know that “off” is used for two opposite meanings, you are much less likely to be thrown off by it. 

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