Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

When was the last time that you messed up?

Have you heard that phrase used a lot in English?

This ultimately means to make a mistake, but it can be tough to know when it’s okay to use it in English.

We’re going to look at this phrase, when it may be okay to use, and how it can work in the right conversation.

We have a listener question about this phrase.

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Hello Lindsay,

You answered my question about the word “ain’t” in a recent episode. I wanted to also ask you about the phrase “messed up”. Is this a little too strong to say to somebody? Or is it possible that I’m being too sensitive?

Here’s what I recently heard and thus the reason for my questions about the word “ain’t” and the phrase “messed up”. “Ain’t that the truth !
Yeah, that’s all it is, she completely fooled Fanny and then messed up the entire branch. She’s the worst.”

Now that you can see it in context hopefully it makes some sense. I appreciate your help in trying to understand this phrase.

Thank you very much!

Understanding A Common Phrase

This is a phrase that you hear often, and it tends to be very casual.

The listener asked if it is too strong to say, and really this all depends on the circumstances and the person that you’re talking to.

To start with, what does “mess up” mean?

It means ruined or that something was done wrong.

“Sorry I messed up your hair. Here’s a brush.”

You can also say it alone if the other person knows what you are talking about.

“Oh I’m so sorry I did that–I totally messed up!”

Knowing When It’s Appropriate

So you can see what this phrase means and how to use it.

The question then becomes– is it too strong?

Well it is casual, so you wouldn’t use it at work with your boss or in a professional setting.

Also, it is strong but less strong than other things that you might say in a similar situation.

For example, it’s not as rude sounding as if you said someone “ruined” or “destroyed” something, but sounds stronger than “made a mistake.”

It really tends to be more about the context than sounding too strong.

Examples To Demonstrate

There are times when this phrase can work quite well.

Consider these examples or scenarios to help you to understand when this phrase may fit quite well.

  • You realize that you forgot to ask for something when you ordered food, and now the waitress delivers it: You’ve already missed the opportunity and now you have to take responsibility for that.

M: Oh no. I thought I ordered the dressing on the side.

L: I didn’t hear that miss. I’m sorry.

M: No no it’s not you. I messed up. I know I forgot to say it.

  • If you got misinformation from somebody about something like directions: This isn’t anybody’s fault exactly, but a mistake was made that now has to be fixed. You can usually tell this pretty quickly especially if it’s something like bad directions.

M: Ok so they said turn left.
L: But that can’t be right. Smith street is here.
M: Ohhh. I see.
L: Yeah, they must have messed up.

  • You’re talking to a co-worker about a presentation that you’re working on together: You have to be careful with this as it can come across as if you are accusing the other person of something. It can come off as rude if you’re not careful.

Often you may find that the nicest way is to say “made/make a mistake.” Also, this is a bit about giving feedback.

If it was really a mistake and you say it to someone else it may sound too strong.


Overall, it’s typically best for the person saying messed up (unless it’s formal) to say it about themselves.

If you say it about someone else, it can come off as a bit rude.

You can usually get along with it if they are close to you and you are lighthearted in your approach.

Just try using it in the right situation and see how it feels for you.

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

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

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