Is there a common (not too formal) specific word or expression used to state that someone is doing something with a hidden, but not necessarily bad, purpose?

I mean something analogous to the Italian expression avere secondi fini.

Searching the net I've found two of them:

  1. to have ulterior motives
  2. to have a hidden agenda

The first seems fairly formal (I've never heard that until today), whereas I wouldn't use the second for small matters. A government or a manager could have an hidden agenda, but could we say that a 14 years old has an hidden agenda (not ironically, of course) if he asks his mom if he can help her washing the dishes?

Are my conclusions/impressions in the previous paragraph correct? Are there alternative expressions besides those two?

I'm looking for common, informal, idioms, but not slang, i.e. something that can be also acceptable in a written text, albeit informal.

  • 2
    You could certainly describe a fourteen year-old as having a "hidden agenda", that usage would be perfectly acceptable and normal.
    – Mike C
    Mar 12, 2017 at 11:13
  • 1
    @MikeC is right. See english.stackexchange.com/questions/302581/hidden-intentions/…
    – vickyace
    Mar 12, 2017 at 11:18
  • @MikeC thanks, that's reassuring, but doesn't it sound a bit ironic? Can we use "hidden agenda" even in a completely "neutral" sense, i.e. without any slight attempt at irony or sarcasm? Maybe it's my experience, but I've always heard that expression used in a somewhat ironic tone when referring to trivial situations. Mar 12, 2017 at 12:43
  • @vickyace Thanks for the link. Alas, that link doesn't address my doubts about the nuances of the usage of those expressions (formality vs. informality, etc.). Mar 12, 2017 at 12:45
  • I'm late in responding but just look up hidden agenda in the search bar at the top right. Hopefully you would find what you want.
    – vickyace
    Mar 12, 2017 at 15:26

2 Answers 2


Real reason

could work here.

The Oxford definition of real, in sense 2.1, is true or actual, and includes examples "his real name is James" and "my real reason for coming". It is contrasting the real (hidden or ulterior) reason with the apparent or obvious reason.

The 14-year old asked if he could help his mum wash the dishes, but his real reason was so that he'd be busy when his dad wanted help washing the car. This meant his brother would have to do it.

Here the boy is at least a little devious, but it can apply in a more neutral situation, where "ulterior motive" or "hidden purpose" would be less suitable.

Mrs Smith helps clean the church on Saturdays. She says it's to serve the community, but the real reason is she just likes a chat with the other ladies.

Here there is nothing devious. In fact, both reasons are probably true.

He told his wife he would be late home because he was extra busy at work, but his real reason was that he was arranging a surprise for her birthday.

This is probably used in a positive sense, although that depends on the surprise.


"He was hiding something up his sleeve" or "I had a hunch he had something up his sleeve". Maybe he "wasn't showing all his cards". Maybe "she worked, ostensibly, for the church", which, if true, says that that is her stated reason but others don't buy it.

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