Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

What do you have left to do today?

Did you notice who was left after you walked out?

As you can see, the word “left” can have completely opposite meanings.

That means that we are looking at another contronym, and in this instance “left” is something that you may hear used often.

We’re going to look at this word, both of its meanings, and how you might expect to use it in conversation.

We are at part 4 and our final installment in our series on avoiding contronyms.

As a reminder, here are the episodes that we’ve covered in this series so far.

1440 – Off

1446 – Fine

1457 – Help

Today we are focusing on the word “left” which can mean departed or the opposite, which is to say remaining!

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Looking At This Common Word

You’re probably familiar with the direction left, which you would use to say something like “turn left or turn right.”

That’s one use for the word left, but today we’re looking at it in a different way.

Left is also a contronym, and that’s what we’re focusing on today.

Left can mean either departed or remaining—that’s what makes it sometimes confusing but also very fun to use.

You might see it used in examples such as “Some of the girls left the room.”

That means that the girls in this example have exited or departed the room.

At the same time, you could also use it in a way such as “How many girls are left?”

This asks the question of how many girls remain or are still there.

The key here is the grammar of the verb, and that’s what you want to focus on when trying to determine which meaning it has.

If used to mean departed, the sentence will have a subject and then “left” as the past simple verb.

So as with any of the contronyms that we have looked at, it’s all about the context and the way in which the word is used.

Looking At Some Examples

This is another time where looking at actual real life examples can be quite helpful.

Sometimes if you see word in its natural state and context, you can determine which way it is meant to be used.

Here we look at the word left when it’s meaning is “depart.”

-“The train left the station at 2 p.m.”

-“They left awhile ago.”

If the tense is present perfect or past perfect, you’ll see have or has with the verb—but the meaning here is still the same as in to depart.

-“The train has left.”

-“We had left the restaurant when the kitchen fire started.”

So if you see the verb alone or with has, have, or had you know the meaning is departed.

When we use left to mean remain, we use to be as a helping verb.

-“Who is left?”

-“How many are left?”

So if you see any form of to be – am, are, is – you know the meaning is remain or stay.

These examples can help you to remember how to use it and which usage fits best in the individual situation.

Considering The Exceptions

There are exceptions unfortunately which may add to the confusion!

Don’t let this frustrate you, but just be aware of these exceptions.

Phrases like the question used at the beginning are a good example–“What do you have left to do today?”

It’s interesting because you don’t have “to be” as a helping verb, but if you think about the meaning of the question it’s “What is left?”

The problem that causes confusion even for natives is that we blend words together and “who is” and “who has” both become who’s.

So this is a time where you just have to really listen and focus in on what is being said or intended.

Here’s a potentially confusing situation to highlight so that you can see how this works.

You’re waiting for a job interview with several other candidates, and a few people leave.

The person conducting interviews comes out and asks, “Who’s left?”

It’s impossible to tell if they’re saying “Who is left?” or “Who has left?”

Natives would even be confused and might ask, “Do you mean who left, or who is still here?”

These situations are going to come up from time to time, and you just have to take your time and think it through.

Though it may seem confusing at first, you will figure it out if you listen, focus, and ask questions as necessary.

Idioms With Left

There are a few idioms with the word “left” that may be helpful to look at.

You want to understand how these work, and then start using them when applicable in your own situations.

  • To be left in the dark: This means to be kept uninformed or not given knowledge about something. You could say “I’m always left in the dark about my kids’ grades.” Another example could be “The soldier was left in the dark so he would not have confidential information in case he was captured.”
  • To be left high and dry: This means to be given no help in a difficult situation. You are in a bad situation without any support or backing. You might say “My cell phone was dead when my car ran out of gasoline, so I was left high and dry.”
  • To be left in the lurch: This means to be abandoned in a difficult situation. It can create bad feelings or make for a bad situation or consequence. You might hear “The witness left everyone in the lurch when he refused to testify.” You could say something like “My mom was supposed to pick me up after school, but she left me in the lurch when she never showed up!”

-To be left hanging: This means to keep someone waiting. You might hear this a lot as it comes back to keeping somebody on the hook or delaying the reaction or response. You might say “I needed to know her decision, but she kept me hanging for 3 days!” You could also say to somebody as you are awaiting their answer or decision “Don’t leave me hanging!”

All of these are very common, and you want to try to use them in conversation.

They are great ways to get the conversation going, and to practice using something like this in a fun but effective way.

Roleplay To Help

In this roleplay, Lindsay and Aubrey are supposed to present at a meeting with another coworker, but she is late and the meeting is about to begin.

Aubrey: “It looks like she’s not going to show. I can’t believe this–she’s never left us in the lurch like this before.”

Lindsay: “Maybe she slept in. I texted her 20 minutes ago, but she left me hanging.”

Aubrey: “We are in serious trouble. She was going to share the year-end reports and I don’t have any of those numbers. She’s seriously left us high and dry.”

Lindsay: “She shouldn’t have left us in the dark about those reports.”

Aubrey: “We should’ve thought to make sure we had copies of everything. Next time we’ll be better prepared.”


There are so many idioms that use the verb “left” that can help you sound native and natural.

This is an aspect of conversation that can really help you to make connections in English.

It has the potential to cause serious confusion though, so today’s episode can help you be aware of these opposite meanings.

Don’t worry if you aren’t sure right away of the proper usage, as it will come in time.

Be sure to listen to the way in which the word is being used, the context it is being used within, and then you can decide which usage is intended.

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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