“A penny for your thoughts” is a historically popular idiom that’s used in everyday conversation to direct someone lost in thought back to a conversation or situation. It is used among family and friends, as well as in writing, in order to inquire into someone’s thoughts. Although the idiom was once quite popular today, it is less commonly heard among English speakers. It’s likely that the older parts of the population will be more family with it than the younger.
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Meaning of “A penny for your thoughts”
“A penny for your thoughts” is a figurative way of asking someone to rejoin a conversation. It asks the person lost in thought or otherwise distracted to tell the speaker what they’ve been thinking about or to simply redirect their attention back to the conversation they’re supposed to be having. The phrase suggests that the speaker is willing to give the person lost in thought a “penny” to hear what they’re thinking. Their thoughts are valuable, but not very.
When To Use “A penny for your thoughts”
“A penny for your thoughts” should be used among friends, family, and close colleagues. This idiom, like most, is not appropriate for professional conversations, speeches, essays, or other formal occasions. Although it is less colloquial seeming than some, one is still better off saving it to be used among friends.
If one is in a conversation with another person and that person stops responding and appears distracted in some way, the person who is paying attention might use “a penny for your thoughts” as a way to direct the other person’s attention back to the conversation. Alternatively, if one comes upon someone they know, staring off into space, they might use the phrase to try to determine what the other person is thinking. That distracted person should return their attention to the moment and, if they want to, share what was going through their head.
Today, the phrase is less common than it used to be, so it is possible that one might use it and not get the response they’re hoping for. It’s not as universally recognizable among English speakers as some other idioms are.
Example Sentences With “A penny for your thoughts”
- Hey, Anna, penny for your thoughts? What are you thinking about?
- Penny for your thoughts, mom? We lost you there for a second.
- What are you thinking? Penny for your thoughts?
Why Do Writers Use “A penny for your thoughts?”
Writers use “a penny for your thoughts” in the same way that people use it in everyday conversation. It’s used in dialogue in order to return a character lost in thought to a conversation that’s going on around them. The phrase is usually used kindly and good-naturedly. It’s not something that’s used antagonistically among those bickering or fighting. This idiom, like others, is dated to a specific period. This means that if a writer uses it, they should be aware that it’s going to be more comfortable in some conversations and less comfortable in others.
Origins of “A penny for your thoughts”
Like most idioms, this phrase does not have clear origins that scholars can point to unquestioningly. Phrases such as this evolve over time, sometimes naturally within the language, and the source of their conception is often lost. The first written example of “A penny for your thoughts” that historians are aware of comes from 1535. It can be found in Sir Thomas More’s A Treatyce upon the last thynges. The passage reads:
In such wise yt not wtoute som note & reproch of suche vagaraunte mind, other folk sodainly say to them: a peny for your thought.
In modern English, it can be translated as, “when people notice that someone appears disconnected and one wishes them to rejoin the conversation, one should say: a penny for your thought.”
The phrase is far more common among older generations than it is among the younger. That being said, it can still be found in modern literature and heard in everyday conversations. Like other popular idioms, “a penny for your thoughts” is sometimes shortened. In this case, to “a penny” or even just “penny.”
- “Barking up the wrong tree.”
- “Bite off more than you can chew.”
- “Your guess is as good as mine.”
- “To make matters worse.”
- “Let someone off the hook.”
- “A dime a dozen.”
- “Cut somebody some slack.”