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“You have two choices”

Just what does “You have two choices” actually mean? Since “You have a choice” indicates that more than one option exists, what is “You have two choices” meant to convey?

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Hi HS, I presume you are simply expressing a dislike of the use of the word "choices" to mean "options" or "alternatives". But this surely quite standard, as in the expression "multiple-choice question", for example.

And this is nothing new:

"You appear to have two choices — matrimony, or a fight." William Hamilton Maxwell 1835

And here's an example (with three choices) from the University of Michigan, from 1927:

"At the end of this year the freshman would have three choices: he could enter a fraternity, apply for entrance to an upperclass college, or decide to live for the rest of his non-professional career in a private residence."

Admittedly few British dictionaries seem to include this definition, but Macmillan Dictionary does - "one of the things you can choose from" - with this example sentence:

"There are three choices of dessert on the menu"

And Merriam-Webster give these two examples:

"There is a wide range of choices."
"Other choices on the menu looked equally tempting."

It would seem that "choices" is used like this slightly more in American English:

But it's found in quite respectable places in BrE too:

"A drop in mining tax revenue as a result of lower commodity prices will offer two choices: ditch the surplus, or save it by cutting spending ..." The Economist

"Two choices presented: a £22 taxi fare to the next meeting – thank you, Ken Livingstone – or a quick mercy dash to Zara"- The Times

"Up to now, the traditional funeral business has really only offered two choices - cremation or burial" - The Independent

"The rat-catcher confirmed my diagnosis and told me that I had two choices: I could lift up the floorboards and remove the rat, or I could wait six weeks, after which the smell would go." - The Spectator

"It is as if there were only two choices – being critical, or being a dupe." - The New Statesman

Warsaw Will December 10, 2013, 4:04pm

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It means that you hav two and only two choices rather than say three choices ... three choosings ... three picks. As WW said, choice also means option.

AnWulf December 13, 2013, 2:13pm

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re: "...what is “You have two choices” meant to convey?"

Is this a trick question?

rstrats January 5, 2014, 11:25am

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As the scholars Page and Plant put it, "you know, sometimes words have two meanings." Choice means both 1) an opportunity to choose and 2) one of the options you can choose between. It's interesting that you can, therefore,simultaneously have one choice and two choices. But it ain't a crime against English.

Gordon January 9, 2014, 12:43am

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When "you have two choices" is used to imply you really don't have any choice at all, I think it's sometimes people mixing up saying choices with chances. "You have two chances of that" is often used to tell someone they have no chance. Even that expression is, as far as I know, wrong though and comes from the joke used to tell someone they have no hope of something "You have two hopes of that - no hope and Bob Hope".

Moonwaves February 13, 2014, 8:43am

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@Moonwaves - I suggest that you have a look at the quotes from various books above. I can't see any idea there that there is any implication of having no choice.

Let's take the joke about hope as read. The 'chances' one is quite interesting as where I come from (the UK), I'm pretty sure "You've got two chances" means exactly that: first one chance, then another.

But it seems that in the States there is an idiom:"You have two chances, slim and
none", to which some people add "and Slim just left town". But I would think you would need the whole idiom to give it that meaning. Australians have something similar to mean no chance: "You've got two chances; yours and Buckley's", or "Buckley's and Nunn (None) ". But there are also plenty of examples of two chances being used literally:

"When you're betting, you've got two chances of winning: you can take the pot there and then, or you can have the best hand" - The New Yorker 1994.

I don't think you can really just extrapolate idiomatic use of one word to a vaguely similar word. Unless you can show us some examples.

Warsaw Will February 14, 2014, 2:26am

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@Moonwaves - Of course "to have Hobson's choice" does have the meaning of no choice.

Warsaw Will February 14, 2014, 2:35am

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Anwulf's explanation is simple,clear, and correct; "...two choices" means exactly two, while "...have a choice" can mean two or more. @Will, I think you may have missed part of Moonwaves' point. While I agree that grammatically and semantically, "...two choices" doesn't necessarily mean "no choice at all", it is often used that way in common speech. I frequently hear (and use) it to mean, well, "shut up and eat!" It goes something like this:

"I don't want this chicken. What else is there to eat?"
"Well, you have two choices. You can eat the chicken... or not eat the chicken."

porsche March 7, 2014, 7:50pm

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@porsche - OK, I accept that we can use it idiomatically to mean no choice; here's one from the British National Corpus similar to yours - "Well he's got two choices, he can either eat them or starve.". But the vast majority of the 50 examples shown at the BNC do not have that meaning, but refer to a simple choice. The same if you do a Google Search for "have two choices", or look it up in Google Books.

Interestingly, Googling ' "two choices" "no choice" ' brings up absolutely nothing relevant except for this page. At Google Books I did, however, find this:

'I had no choice' always, always translates to 'I had two choices, but one sucked. So really, I had no choice. Except I did.

Limiting the "two choices" "no choice" search to magazines brings up sixteen examples. None really qualify for this idiomatic meaning, although in a couple of cases one of the two real choices turned out to be so bad that in essence there was no choice, as in this one:

'Since they couldn't sell, they had two choices, hold or buy. Since the institutions are practically the only buyers of IBM, any decision to hold will also result in a declining price ... If they sell or hold the stock goes down. They have no choice'

I actually found moonwave's theory about the idiomatic expression coming from 'two chances' rather interesting, and followed up on it. Reading his post again, however, it seems I missed his opening 'When', and thought he was suggesting that this was the general meaning of 'two choices', which in fact he wasn't. In that respect I concede my mistake. But I still maintain that this jokey use is a minority one, at least in written English. I also think it might be more prevalent in your branch of English than mine, but have no evidence for that.

Warsaw Will March 8, 2014, 3:07am

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I must reiterate my initial point:-
Option and choice are not synonymous.
If there is more than one option then there is a choice, therefore "you have a choice", or "you have options" (even "you have two/three/four options").
Saying "You have a two choices" makes no sense whatsoever. It is just another damned Americanism sent to plague us. Just like the pronunciation of Bernard, buoy, lever et al.
And to make it even more galling we have educated native English speakers apparently supporting its use.
O me miserum!

Hairy Scot March 11, 2014, 1:48am

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@Hairy Scot,

But that's the thing two, three, four, etc. are adjectives and thus restricting the meaning of choice because there can be more than two choices. Here is a definition (as a noun):

"an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities"
Example: "the choice between good and evil"


"a range of possibilities from which one or more may be selected:"
Example: "you can have a sofa made to order in a choice of over forty fabrics"

It's just specifying the number of choices.

Jasper March 11, 2014, 2:48am

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Your example "you can have a sofa made to order in a choice of over forty fabrics" says it all.
"a choice" not "forty choices"
regardless of the number of options there is always "a choice"

Hairy Scot March 11, 2014, 3:22am

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@Hairy Scot,

Yes, the way that the syntax, which has forty modifying fabrics, is supposedly supports your claim, but, despite the evidence provided by Warsaw Will, AnWulf, who, although didn't provide any evidence, defined it most eloquently, and others, you remain intransigent. I will take a look in my Second Edition of Oxford English Dictionary for quotations later and then get back to you.

Jasper March 11, 2014, 4:40am

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Perhaps intransigent is a bit strong, but I do remain unconvinced.
To me the phrase "you have two choices" makes no sense.
It's in the same class as "do the math", "you have another thing coming", and all those other "strange" utterances that have crept into our language through "common usage" (or should that be common abuse?).
The fact that someone's granny used a phrase for decades do not render that phrase correct or logical and no amount of anecdotal evidence will convince me of that.
So we'll just have to agree to differ on this one.

Hairy Scot March 11, 2014, 4:57pm

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The fact that someone's granny used a phrase for decades does not render that phrase correct or logical and no amount of anecdotal evidence will convince me of that.

Apologies for the typo. :-)

Hairy Scot March 11, 2014, 4:58pm

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@Hairy Scot - "just another damned Americanism sent to plague us" - yeah, right!

"to seeke some other place of stay and refuge, the better of which two choices, did carry with it the appearance of worse then one thousand deaths." - The World Encompassed, Sir Francis Drake, 1652

"Mr. Conflans had two choices, either to fly, or to stand and sight it out" - Edmund Burke, 1760

"There were two choices before the admirals for his course to the Havannah. The first, and most obvious, was the common way, to keep to the south of Cuba, and fall into the track of the palleons" - Sir Edmund Seymour, 1764

"We have only two choices; either to submit to the present, impositions, or demand the treatment proper for men." - from a Maidstone pamphleteer, quoted in William Cobbett's Annual Register, 1819

"My truly, she has gude cause to speak weel 0' him, was't only for the song he made about her the verra night before his auld surly uncle gae him the twa choices—-Jamaica, or the windy side 0' the ha' door" - Scots Magazine, 1822

".. you have but two choices — the ostracism or the throne" - Edward Bulwer- Lytton, 1837

We got choice from French, and it can be used exactly the same way in French:

"Nous ne voyons que deux choix qui auraient réellement quelque importance par eux-mêmes; l'un est un fils de l'infant don Carlo, l'autre est un prince de la maison d'Orléans" - Revue des deux mondes, 1834

"C'est entre ces deux choix que la grande famille humaine est appelée à se décider" - Benjamin Laroch, 1829

"Mais il paraît qu'il restait deux choix entre lesquels flottait l'esprit de madame de Grignan, deux choix que madame de Sévigné appelait deux extrémités." - Madame de Sevigné, 1862

'that have crept into our language through "common usage" - that's how languages develop - people were speaking and writing English (eg Shakespeare) quite successfully for centuries before the first non-usage-based grammar appeared (Dr Lowth 1762) - the first grammars, such as those by Ben Jonson (c.1600) and Joseph Priestley (1761) were almost entirely based on "common usage". It was only when Lowth and co started to try to 'make sense' of perfectly good idiomatic English, (and sometimes couldn't) that they started inventing all their silly rules.

Some of us are proud to belong to the common people and are infinitely happier that in a democracy our language is governed by common usage rather than by a self-appointed language elite. I really can't see why you put it into inverted commas as though it was some sort of dirty expression. That's just the sort of thing that PP would have done - "pearls before swine" indeed! :)

I really recommend you read Joseph Priestley's Rudiments of Grammar 1761.

Warsaw Will March 11, 2014, 7:37pm

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Now there are two choices for thee: either to go up on to the Isle and face all; or to die here by my hand --William Morris

he had been searching his brain for some clue that would tell him which of the two choices he should believe in – Jack London

Between these two choices Lord Randolph seems long to have hung in doubt – Winston Churchill

They had now reached that point in the road where three choices offer themselves to the wayfarer – PG Wodehouse

Gordon March 11, 2014, 8:28pm

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Warsaw Will March 11, 2014, 7:37pm
@Hairy Scot - "just another damned Americanism sent to plague us" - yeah, right!

Oh dear! I see no need for "yeah, right!".
Comes across a bit nasty, as does your reference to PP, which I take to be directed at Perfect Pedant.

As I stated in another thread; Perfect Pedant was in fact an acquaintance of mine who unfortunately passed away last year.

I fear this forum is beginning to lose some of its charm.
Probably best that I refrain from further input.

Hairy Scot March 11, 2014, 8:49pm

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@HS - I referred to PP as his comments are now labelled Hairy Scot, so I naturally assumed you were one and the same person; I'm sorry for your loss. As for 'yeah right' I think you're being a little sensitive; it's fairly mild in normal conversation, given the right intonation - a bit on a par with 'pull the other one'. And I did add a smiley later on. But sorry that I offended you.

I don't think 'these damned Americanisms sent to plague us' is exactly a charming remark either (and is by no means the first time you've had a dig at American English), nor are your dismissive remarks on common usage, but I've no doubt it was all meant tongue-in-cheek. Am I not allowed similar licence? Is it only OK to be critical if you use strong formal language, but not if you use an informal everyday expression? And more generally:

Why don't we use 'thee and thou' any more? - Common usage
Why do we now use progressive / continuous verb forms, almost unknown is Shakespeare's day? - Common usage
Why don't English nouns have case or gender (which they did have in OE)? - Common usage

Common usage is exactly how we've got to where we've got to today - it refers to the whole of the development of English, not just to some recent period (usually since people's schooldays) when English is sometimes perceived to have gone to the dogs.

Warsaw Will March 12, 2014, 3:42am

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Just to clarify the situation regarding PP.
He was an elderly neighbour whose views were similar to my own (in effect "another grumpy old fart") who accessed the internet from his laptop via my wireless router using an account I had set up for him on PITE.
Since we used the same router our posts came from the same IP address.
I did also have another ID on PITE and shortly after PP passed Dykse picked up on the fact that multiple ids were using the same IP.
Rather than go into long explanations, I asked Dykse to cancel my second id and PP's id.
This apparently resulted in various posts falling back to my id when I had thought they would be deleted.
I suppose it must now look a bit confusing as there were posts where PP expressed support for my views.

As for common usage and related issues:
If to me a word or phrase seems wrong or illogical then I will comment on it.
I do not expect everyone to agree with my opinions and am quite happy to read or hear contrary opinions.
Since there are so many grey areas there is obviously no right or wrong and it all comes down to opinions and I feel that my opinions are just as valid as yours or anyone else's.

In any event I have decided to take a break from posting on PITE.


using my wireebin fact used an account that I set up for him

Hairy Scot March 12, 2014, 4:21am

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Please ignore the last line of my previous post.
Some garbage that I forgot to delete.

Hairy Scot March 12, 2014, 4:23am

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@Hairy Scot,

I used intransigent because you're unwilling to change your mind (the definition) on something that does have usage beside it, and, like you, if something seems illogical, I will examine it before dismiss it. I agree that sometimes usage is sometimes a bad argument (it has a whiff of the appeal to popularity fallacy). Unlike you, I don't see anything wrong with "n choices" (where n is any number [greater than -1]). Ironically, you're not the first person to dislike it; my Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which, admittedly, I didn't think expect there to be entry for it, states that:

"A correspondent in Safire 1984 says that he often sees, "He has two choices, either A or B." "Of course," the correspondent goes on, "there is only one choice." This correspondent's belief, which seems to rest on the notion that choice has but a single meaning, is of very obscure origin, unless the correspondent himself thought it up. We have unable to find such a concern expressed in our collection of usage books,..."

Sorry for that mouthful.

What is it about "do the math" that you don't like?

As for a hiatus, don't do it. Differing opinions are better than a concord. No debate or disagreement would be a terrible thing. I'm also sorry to hear about Perfect Pedant. I actually wondered where he had gone to myself some time ago. I still haven't gotten those quotes yet; I've been busy.

Jasper March 12, 2014, 9:31am

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Au contraire, I am willing to change my mind if convinced.
I'm just hard to convince. :-))
Plus I do like to play devil's advocate now and then.

As for "do the math"; should it not be "do the maths" or to be more precise "do the arithmetic"?
Either way it is a phrase which, like a number of things, just gets up my nose.

Hairy Scot March 12, 2014, 10:46am

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@HS - math is simply American for maths:

Funnily enough the earliest examples of maths I can find are from the first volume of the American Educational Journal, dated 1864, where teachers advertise the subjects they offer. There don't seem to be any instances of math here.

'Do the math' also appears to be a specifically American idiom (first example in Google Books 1938) - much more common in American books than 'Do the arithmetic' or 'Do the sums'. It's simply a matter of one being more idiomatic in one branch of English, and another in another - a case of East, West, hame's best, perhaps.

Warsaw Will March 14, 2014, 6:05pm

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In my opinion there is no vagueness to the sense of the word. The meaning of the word "choice" is identical both in "You have a choice" and "You have two choices".
This is because the choice in "You have a choice" is the one that you choose. Sure, there may be a variety of options available, but you only ever have the one that you end up choosing.
This, however, does not break contract of meaning with the sentence "You have two choices". Sure, there is a supplement of information concerning the perceived number of options available, which analogously insinuates the reality of multiple simultaneously choosable options, but they will only ever be options to choose from singularly.

Paul Hristea August 30, 2016, 5:54pm

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Yes     No