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The Meaning of “Be careful what you wish for” Explained

The Meaning of “Be careful what you wish for” Explained

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Wishes are a cornerstone of daydreams, stories, and blockbuster animated movies.

But what if, when your wish was granted, you found out it wasn’t what you wanted after all?

It may sound unrealistic, but that situation is the topic of today’s post.


What is the meaning of the phrase “be careful what you wish for”?

The phrase “be careful what you wish for” means that situations don’t always turn out like you expect. Although it can be used as a direct warning, this phrase can also be used to comment on someone whose good fortune ended up hurting them.


The importance of irony

To understand the meaning of “be careful what you wish for,” you need to understand irony.

Put simply, irony is when there’s a difference between expectations and reality.

Typically, irony is used when discussing books, poems, plays, and other forms of literature.

There are two main types of irony, “dramatic irony,” where the reader understands something that the characters do not, and “situational irony,” where the outcome of a situation is different than expected.

It’s situational irony that’s at the heart of “be careful what you wish for.”


Why wishing can be dangerous

Just like irony, there are two kinds of wishes.

The first is what we might term “magical wishing,” where you idly wish for impossible things, like “I wish I could fly” or “I wish my husband would come back to life.”

That kind of wishing has its own dangers, as anyone who has read stories about wish-granting genies or fairies knows.

The other type of wishing is when you wish something would change in your life.

Wishes for large amounts of money, a new pet, a reunion with someone, or even a promotion at work all fall into this category. We’ll call these “mundane wishes.”

Although mundane wishes are less dangerous than asking supernatural creatures for help, there’s still the potential for things to go wrong.

Let’s revisit irony. Say your mundane wish is to get a promotion at work. One day, you get a call from your CEO that you’re being promoted.

You’re excited, but when you ask what happened to your current supervisor, who is a work friend, the CEO goes quiet.

It turns out that the only reason you’re getting that promotion is because your friend had a heart attack and died.

It’s a depressing example, but a great example of “be careful what you wish for.”

Before we stare into the abyss too long, let’s consider a less depressing example: winning the lottery.
Especially if you have financial problems, winning lots of money sounds great.

However, studies have shown that many lottery winners end up worse off than they were before winning.

The same idea can be applied to becoming a famous actor or singer.

Although the glamor is undeniable, the lifestyle can be alienating, and not everyone is cut out for it.


What the phrase “be careful what you wish for” actually means

“Be careful what you wish for” isn’t necessarily a warning about magical or mundane wishes.

Rather, this phrase means you should think through the circumstances of your goals before you execute them.

What are the possible side effects? Is everything in your mundane wish really what you want? What might go wrong?

It’s important to note that having wishes and hopes is human nature.

We’re always looking for ways to make our lives better.

This saying isn’t an injunction against that kind of behavior.

Rather, it’s just used to caution someone who might be thinking only of the best possible outcome of a new situation.


How to use “be careful what you wish for” in a sentence

To recap, the phrase “Be careful what you wish for” is used to warn people that wishes don’t always turn out the way they expect.

Using this phrase is relatively easy from a grammar standpoint. That’s because it’s a complete clause and is almost never joined with other clauses or phrases.

Instead, it stands alone as a sentence. (If you’re not sure about the difference between clauses and phrases, read our article on clauses vs phrases.)

In terms of when to use “be careful what you wish for,” it’s worth remembering that this is kind of a negative phrase.

After all, you’re pretty much telling someone that the wish they have might turn out badly.

Make sure you know the person well before you tell them this.

Alternatively, you can think of other ways to point out possible problems with what they want, by acknowledging the importance of their wish before asking “Have you thought about what might happen?”

Example Sentences

Pat: “I wish you weren’t always putting me down like this.”
Terry: “Be careful what you wish for.”
Pat: “Wait, come back!”

This example might be part of a break-up. When Pat complains about how negative Terry is, Terry takes it as a cue to leave.

This is an example of situational irony, where the desired outcome happens in an unexpected way.


Meg: “I heard that John won the lottery but bet all his winnings away at the horse races and lost his house after declaring bankruptcy.”
Lin: “Oh, be careful what you wish for, huh?”


In this example, “be careful what you wish for” is not the entire sentence. The interjections “oh” and “huh” have been placed at the beginning and end.

However, the meaning is not really changed by either addition. Remember that you usually need a comma after oh or other interjections.