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Those two expressions have close meaning:

He is not meant to do this

He is not supposed to do this

What is the difference between them, and when I should use one or the other?

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6 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

They are freely interchangeable in many everyday contexts, but there are differences in the tone of voice. "Meant to" has a more philosophical, fatalistic connotation, while "supposed to" might refer to a transgression or snafu of some sort. For example:

  • Despite the best efforts of the director, the actors and the rest of the crew, the movie didn't do well- it just wasn't meant to be a blockbuster. Try substituting 'supposed to' here and it sounds way wonky.

  • Despite the best efforts of the director, the actors and the rest of the crew, the movie didn't do well- it just wasn't supposed to be a blockbuster. Well, what can I say. It was supposed to be a blockbuster; unfortunately, it wasn't meant to become one.

So, my submission is, the context matters. 'Meant to' might be used in situations that can be remedied as well as in situations that can't, while 'supposed to' might be used in a situation that can possibly be reversed.

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Sorry about the words "List Item" showing twice in the post above- I was just trying to bulletize the sentences. I should pay attention to the preview while typing. –  Autoresponder Aug 22 '11 at 14:33
    
@ Jeffrey : thanks for the edit! –  Autoresponder Aug 22 '11 at 14:49
    
I think you're on the right track when you make that distinction, but mostly what it actually comes down to is that "meant" can be used with the implication it was God (or "fate") that didn't "intend" something to happen. You can't normally use "supposed" in that way. –  FumbleFingers Aug 22 '11 at 18:08
    
I wanted to upvote this, but I can't. When something isn't "supposed to" be something else, it usually has the connotation that the supposition is by the creators. The phrase "It just wasn't supposed to be a blockbuster" would probably mean "It was intended by the creators to not be a blockbuster; they wanted a sleeper cult hit instead". –  jprete Oct 24 '11 at 12:22
    
@jprete : yes, you're right. Which is exactly why the post makes use of the phrase in the context- to illustrate that supposed to and meant to are not freely interchangeable in all contexts.I think the comment above yours - by FumbleFingers - is quite lucid. –  Autoresponder Oct 24 '11 at 13:29
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As far as what they mean, they are fairly similar. The connotations of the two words, however, differ slightly. "He is not meant to do this" implies a plan or design where the intent is not that he do it. "He is not supposed to do this" implies an expectation or understanding, and seems to come from a more observational standpoint, whereas the first seems to come from a standpoint more knowledgeable about some plan involving the subject and his actions.

Actual definitions:

to mean:

a : to have in the mind as a purpose : intend she means to win

to suppose:

(2) : to think probable or in keeping with the facts seems reasonable to suppose that he would profit

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I believe that this is the best answer, but I would put a slightly different spin on it. “He is not meant to do this” means “He was not told (instructed) to do this.” “He is not supposed to do this” means “He was told (instructed) not to do this.” For example: he was meant to write a paper, but he was not meant to do it all in one day, and he was not supposed to copy from the encyclopedia. –  Scott Jun 6 at 16:55
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Thursagen's answer is right, but I wanted to expand:

1) I think that "meant to" is a bit more formal. "He's supposed to..." strikes as extremely informal and I would keep "supposed to" out of formal writing. Likewise, 'meant to' seems rather off in informal conversation. That said, I think that both of these phrases are rather casual and you would generally use another phrase in writing anyway.

Take this conversation:

He's supposed to make sure the printer is working!

He's meant to make sure the printer is working! <-- weird

Take this piece of writing:

He is supposed to implement this feature by December 2011. <-- Too informal

He is meant to implement this feature by December 2011. <-- Good

He intends to implement this feature by December 2011. <-- Better

2) "Supposed to" always implies that there exists a definitive set of steps that someone could potentially take to accomplish something. This is not always the case for how "meant to" is used.

You might say:

He's meant to end the war.

He is not meant to follow this path.

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I don't think your "piece of writing" example quite hits the mark. He is meant to implies to me that someone has ordered that it be done by that date. However He intends to implies that the person implementing is planning on that date, regardless of orders he has been given. –  Sir Crispalot Aug 22 '11 at 13:25
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http://www.thefreedictionary.com/being+meant+to+be

The relevant meaning is this, I believe:

4, To design, intend, or destine for a certain purpose or end:

He is not meant to do this

meaning: It's not his purpose to do this, or he cannot do it.

Example: I am not meant to be a father!

Note that there is a similar sentence:

He did not mean to do this.

meaning: He did do it, but accidentally and against his intentions.

Lastly:

He is not supposed to do this

This has a very similar meaning as the first, he is not expected or intended to do this, but it can also mean that he is (weakly) forbidden to do "this". It's not strictly illegal to do "this", but hardly acceptable for some reason, like for social norms or an informal agreement.

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"Meant to" implies competence. "He is not meant to do this work" (because he's really not cut out for it).

"Supposed to" implies "permission." "He is not supposed to do this" (because he doesn't have permission/approval).

They are used "interchangeably" in the sense of "can." But I consider this misleading.

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Actually, I think "meant to" implies, first and foremost, fate; using it for competence is somewhat metaphorical. –  Marthaª Oct 21 '11 at 17:21
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"Meant" implies that the object was destined for or built for a purpose. "Supposed to" implies flexible intent. The car was meant to go 200 mph but only managed 190 mph. Conversely, I was supposed to meet someone at 10pm, but ended up meeting at 11pm because of a train delay.

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