Submitted by Hairy Scot • December 9, 2013
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?
December 10, 2013, 4:04pm
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
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December 13, 2013, 2:13pm
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.
January 5, 2014, 11:25am
re: "...what is “You have two choices” meant to convey?"
Is this a trick question?
January 9, 2014, 12:43am
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.
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February 13, 2014, 8:43am
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".
February 14, 2014, 2:26am
@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 andnone", 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.
February 14, 2014, 2:35am
@Moonwaves - Of course "to have Hobson's choice" does have the meaning of no choice.
March 7, 2014, 7:50pm
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."
March 8, 2014, 3:07am
@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.
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