I don't understand why if someone says "I am in your debt" it seems to mean the opposite of the literal meaning.

The person saying this says that they are in the debt of the person the phrase is directed to. A debt being "an obligation owed by one party (the debtor) to a second party".

So, if the first party says they are in the second party's debt, then should that not mean that the second party owes the first party something?

I totally understand that this isn't what it means... whereas this is the correct meaning...

I am indebted to you

Am I wrong? Or is the phrase "I am in your debt" totally wrong and misunderstood through relaxation of the term "I am indebted to you"?

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    If you are in debt, you owe something (to somebody, or by extension, some organisation or even thing). If you are in X's debt / in debt to X / indebted to X, you owe X something. Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 18:32
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    As a native speaker of AmE, your logical explanation seems ostensibly correct but it's hard to think of anything other than the idiomatic sense that 'in your debt' means 'I owe you'. Try not to think so hard or literally; it's never understood any other way than 'I owe you'.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 20:02
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    Yep, Mitch, I've always understood the meaning perfectly, but I it was more a curiosity as to how you can be in someone's debt and have to owe them something... I wasn't sure if perhaps it's become idiomatic as you say, or continued use of indebted to you has perhaps altered it's meaning.
    – Layke
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 20:04
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    "I am in debt" means I owe something. "I am in your debt" is the same thing, but more explicit in saying to whom I owe it.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 22:45
  • The answers so far don't really address the question. It's clear that you know what it means; you don't need other people to regurgitate dictionary definitions to you or give you examples of their correct use. Mitch's comment is probably closest to a suitable answer.
    – John Y
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 3:45

3 Answers 3


As noted at oxforddictionaries.com, to be in someone's debt means to owe something to someone.

For example, if you tell Tom, “I am in your debt”, you are saying that you owe a debt to Tom / are in debt to Tom / are indebted to Tom. As another example, a grateful but penurious person might say (to the person they owe something to, or are indebted to)

I am forever in your debt, and can never repay you.


The issue you are confronting is whether the word debt (standing alone) refers to something owed or owing.

Imagine a reference to a "tax debt", does it mean that the national treasury owes you money or that you have an obligation to deliver some unpaid taxes?

So to be in X's debt, is equivalent to being indebted to X.

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    I don't see how "tax debt" serves to illuminate the phrase "in your debt". The OP knows what "in your debt" means. He's asking how it came to be that this turn of phrase means what it means. Specifically, why is the "direction" of the debt reversed when the word "in" is introduced?
    – John Y
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 4:00

One has to pay attn to ownership of debt.

A trio of shark loaners would meet regularly, Ahmed, Raghu and Shree. They would either trade or sell debts to each other. One day Raghu could not make it to the meeting and so he trusted some of his debts to Ahmed. At the meeting Ahmed pointed out to Shree a list and told him, "These are my debts, and those are Raghu's debts. We shall trade on Raghu's debts before trading on mine."

"OK, Shyam Chapati Co. is now in your debt, and we'll transfer Ghulam Herbs to Raghu's debt."

The passage illustrates how liberally we could assign grammatical possessive to the word debt.

With that in mind, a person could have a set of debt of honour owed to him and that set could be possessively assigned to him as his debts.

This is may not be how the phrase in someone's debt had dominantly developed, but having the perspective I explained would allay any sense of illogicality to the usage of phrase.

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