“I can't tell what that word's supposed to be. Any ideas?”

English Lesson: I can't tell what that word's supposed to be. Any ideas?

A patient at the doctor's office you work at filled out an information form. His handwriting is messy, and there's a word that you can't read. After trying to figure it out yourself, you turn to a coworker and ask for her help.

I can't tell what that word's supposed to be. Any ideas?

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I can't tell (clause)

In this case, "tell" doesn't mean "say". It means "decide" or "figure out". The phrase "I can't tell ___" is used to talk about something you're not sure about:

I can't tell whether it's finished or not. I can't tell whether she's being shy or just doesn't want to talk to me.

You can use "can't tell" with any question word like "how", "what", "who", and so on:

I couldn't tell what they were saying.

For the life of me, I can not tell how he did it.

what (something) is supposed to (do/be)

One of the ways to use the phrase "supposed to ___" is to talk about what a person intended, or what they were trying to communicate. 

For example, if you see a number written down, but it's not clear, you can ask:

Is this supposed to be an 8?

Or if your friend says something that might be critical of you, you can angrily ask:

What's that supposed to mean?

This means something like "Why did you say that?"

Any ideas?

This sentence is a shortened version of "Do you have any ideas?" Ask this when you want someone to help you think of something like:

  • a solution for a problem
  • the answer to a confusing question
  • suggestions for fun things to do

Here's an example:

We need to get Trey somethng for his birthday. Any ideas?