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A Problem With No Problem

© John Keith 2008

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I got a problem with “no problem”.

The other day I went to the store and bought some pens. I gave the cashier, a young woman in her twenties, a twenty dollar bill. She gave me my change and she gave me my receipt.

So far so good.

Then I said, “Thank you.” And she replied, “No problem.”

This was not so good.

I thought, “No problem?” I had not expected this to be a problem. Why would she have a problem with giving me my change? The cost of the pens was $3.15. I paid with a twenty dollar bill. She owed me $16.85. She should not have a problem with giving me my change. In fact, I would very much have a problem with it if she had a problem with it.

The problem, I realized, was not in fair business practices, like giving change, but in language. As I see it, “no problem” means “it’s not a problem ” or “I have no difficulty with this.” If you make a request and the other person says okay -- they will do it, they can say “no problem” to show that they are happy to do what you asked or to say this request can easily be done. The problem with the conversation with the store clerk was that she was using “no problem” to mean “you’re welcome”.

Christine Ammer in her book The Facts on File: Dictionary of Clichés, says the phrase “no problem” originated about 60 years ago in the US, but it has connections with the earlier British “Not to worry” – from which comes the later Australian, “no worries”. The phrase “No problem” has been around for decades and it has become more and more popular in English-speaking countries, and it is even being used around the world. With this popularity, came change: the word is now being used in a different way. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English states that the “mindless overuse (or cliche) (of “no problem”) has made it grate on the nerves of many Standard speakers. . . particularly when used in response to ‘Thank you’ instead of ‘You’re welcome’.”

So I’m not the only one who has a problem with this.

English speakers beware. Whether English is your first language or second, it’s better to say “you’re welcome” when you mean “you’re welcome”, because if, when you mean “you’re welcome”, you say “No problem”, then, well, you could have a problem.

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