What does the idiom "to sound a little off" mean in American English?

  • 1
    Are you asking about idioms which don't sound quite right, or are you asking specifically about the idiom "to sound a little off"? Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 6:07
  • yes "to sound a little off", please edit my question if you think is not written properly ;-)
    – GibboK
    Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 6:17
  • 1
    To me this idiom can refer to different things or at least a range of related things, I think we need some context. How did you hear or see this used? Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 6:23
  • I heard his idiom during a text revision, they mention some phrase as "to sound a little off". let me know thanks
    – GibboK
    Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 6:31
  • We need more context. Was it that an English learner tried to say something in imperfect English, then a native speaker informed them that their attempt didn't sound quite right to them? Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 6:33

4 Answers 4


It means “to sound not quite right”. Three rather literal examples plucked from the web:

“Sometimes the bass on music will sound a little off, almost distorted.”
“it sounds a little off ’cause i still haven’t tuned it”
“Starting this morning when i turned the truck on i noticed the engine sounds a little off. Kinda like one cylinder isn’t firing. ”

It can also have a slightly metaphorical use, to describe a situation that is not right: e.g., “the price they quoted sounds a little off”.

In a related vein you have “to feel a little off” meaning to feel not quite right, applying both to people and things: “I feel a little off after eating the whole tub of icecream”, “the atmosphere of the meeting felt a little off to me”.


Literally, it could mean "out of context" or "not completely pertaining to the matter being talked about".


It's from off-key [music] pitched higher or lower than the correct notes of a melody.

The word little is arbitrary - in other contexts you might say "That sounds really off to me".

From which it can be seen that the original/literal sense implies a bad fit with the surrounding context (i.e. - the meaning or style of preceding utterances). But in practice today people usually use it to mean a bad fit with my ideas on what you should be saying, or how you should say it.


If a coffee cup was not placed directly in the center of its saucer, someone might also say it was "a little off".

Also, if someone didn't want a completely dark room and dimmed a nightstand lamp, they might say "I turned it a little off." (As opposed to completely off.)

  • 2
    "I turned it a little off" actually sounds more than a little off to this native British person. I might say "I turned the light down a little". But a light is either one or off - it can't be "a little off"!
    – TrevorD
    Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 15:41
  • My comment above should (of course) have read "a light is either on or off" - not "one or off"!
    – TrevorD
    Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 15:57

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