Lesson #156: The Many Different Ways You Can Use ‘Thank You’ In English

📘 And so it came about, in the end, that Mr. Spenlow told me this day week was Dora’s birthday, and he would be glad if I would come down and join a little picnic on the occasion. … 

At six in the morning, I was in Covent Garden Market, buying a bouquet for Dora. At ten I was on horseback (I hired a gallant grey, for the occasion), with the bouquet in my hat, to keep it fresh, trotting down to Norwood. …

‘Oh, thank you, Mr. Copperfield! What dear flowers!’ said Dora.

– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850) 📘

🎁 Today I received this lovely gift that you see in the photo, kindly given by my good childhood friend. Whether we receive gifts for Christmas, birthdays, or just as a gift given from the heart, the natural response is (as I am sure you already know) just like Dora’s – ‘Thank you!’

But did you know that we use ‘thank you’ in more ways than one in English?

It expresses an essential standard of politeness (non-negotiable in English culture, especially British English) and can also be used in many types of sentences.

I am drawing on Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (one of my favourite novels by Dickens!) with its different instances of ‘thank you’ to illustrate what I mean.

‘Thank you’ can be used:

📝 – to refuse something

📘 ‘Do you want to spend anything now?’ he asked me. ‘No thank you,’ I replied. ‘You can, if you like, you know,’ said Steerforth. ‘Say the word.’ ‘No, thank you, sir,’ I repeated.

📘 ‘But if you want a dog to race with, Little Blossom, he has lived too well for that, and I’ll give you one.’ ‘Thank you, aunt,’ said Dora, faintly. ‘But don’t, please!’

📘 ‘Can I—or Copperfield—do anything?’ asked Traddles, gently. ‘Nothing,’ said my aunt. ‘I thank you many times.’

– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

📝 – to express dislike of something (usually in the negative, with ‘thank’ here as an infinitive rather than a conjugated tense), e.g: [Subject] will not thank you for

📘 ‘Aye! He is sharp enough,’ said Mr. Murdstone, impatiently. ‘You had better let him go. He will not thank you for troubling him.

– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Put differently: he will dislike it / be disappointed if you trouble him.

📝 – to express difference of opinion or action

📘 ‘Thank you,’ said my aunt, still eyeing him keenly. ‘You needn’t mind me.’

📘 ‘Thank you, sir. But you’ll excuse me if I say, sir, that there are neither slaves nor slave-drivers in this country, and that people are not allowed to take the law into their own hands.’

– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

📝 – to acknowledge another person’s interest or concern for you

📘 When we came into the country road, she permitted him to relax a little, however; and looking at me down in a valley of cushion by her side, asked me whether I was happy? ‘Very happy indeed, thank you, aunt,’ I said.

📘 ‘Made so, I am sure, by Mrs. Micawber,’ said I. ‘I hope she is well?’ ‘Thank you,’ returned Mr. Micawber, whose face clouded at this reference, ‘she is but so-so.’ 

– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

📝 – to express irony or sarcasm

📘 ‘Now, I am glad I have been so foolish as to put the case, for it is so very good to know that your duty to each other would prevent it! Thank you very much.’

– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

📝 – to express agreement [depending on the context] 

📘 ‘Do I understand, my dear Mr. Traddles, that, at the expiration of that period, Mr. Micawber would be eligible as a Judge or Chancellor?’ ‘He would be ELIGIBLE,’ returned Traddles, with a strong emphasis on that word. ‘Thank you,’ said Mrs. Micawber. ‘That is quite sufficient.’

– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

📝 – to respond to an expression of special honour, attention, or favour

📘 ‘What do you consider me, sir?’ asked Mr. Dick, folding his arms. ‘A dear old friend,’ said I. ‘Thank you, Trotwood,’ returned Mr. Dick, laughing, and reaching across in high glee to shake hands with me.

– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

📝 – to express sincere gratitude (usually followed by ‘for [what you are grateful for and want to acknowledge]’)

📘 ‘I have got your message. Oh, what can I write, to thank you for your good and blessed kindness to me!’

– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

📝 – to respond to congratulations or cheers 

📘 ‘And you are happily married at last, my dear Traddles!’ said I. ‘How rejoiced I am!’ ‘Thank you, my dear Copperfield,’ said Traddles, as we shook hands once more.

– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield


As you can see, ‘thank you’ is a small but very common expression in English with many different functions.

It is almost as expressive and subtle in its meaning as the tone of your voice when you speak.

Don’t assume it always indicates a polite appreciation because, depending on the context, its potential meaning is often broader than the literal ‘I am appreciative or grateful’.

One word of caution however: don’t fall into a habit of saying ‘thank you’ too often, as Uriah Heep in David Copperfield does:

📘 ‘Oh, thank you, Master Copperfield,’ said Uriah Heep, ‘for that remark! It is so true! Umble as I am, I know it is so true! Oh, thank you, Master Copperfield!’

… ‘Thank you,’ he returned, with fervour. ‘Thank you, Master Copperfield! It’s like the blowing of old breezes or the ringing of old bellses to hear YOU say Uriah. …’

– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Through Heep’s over-use of ‘thank you’, Dickens intends for us to realise that Heep is a false and fawning character, pretending to be very polite so as to gain favour from others. Heep’s using ‘thank you’ too often also made other characters in the novel uncomfortable. 🤐

✍️ As always, the more you read and listen to typical English conversation or exchanges, the more you notice how and where ‘thank you’ is perfectly apropos!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)