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What Does It Mean to Take Something at "Face Value"?

By Kelly Ferguson
Updated May 23, 2024
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"Take something at face value" is a commonly used idiom in the English language. To take something at face value is to simply accept it for what it seems to be on the surface. This idiom assumes that a piece of information has been given, and the recipient acknowledges it and believes it without putting any thought toward ulterior motives, hidden meanings, or anything else not blatantly apparent on the "face," or surface, of the information.

The origin of this idiom is reported by several dictionary and etymology resources, and is believed to have something to do with money. The face value of a piece of money is the exact amount printed on its front, or "face," with no second-guessing or questioning needed. Therefore, to take something at its face value is similar to accepting unquestioningly the worth of a piece of money, because the information is accepted with no further thought or consideration.

An example of correct usage of the idiom would be an individual saying to another person, "Please tell me outright what you are thinking. I cannot easily pick up on hints, so I just take everything you say at face value." This means that the individual does not feel able to search out hidden meanings and subtle undertones in the conversation, and instead wishes to be told information in plain terms that can be taken literally without the need to assume or decode anything. An incorrect use of the idiom might be, "I have taken what he said at face value, but I still think he might be misleading me." In this case, the individual has not really believed the speaker, because the assumption is still there that there are hidden meanings or misleading pieces of information.

Often, the tendency of people to take things at face value is taken advantage of by advertisers and other people or groups that stand to benefit from a slight deception. Advertisements frequently use "fine print" to modify an earlier, more eye-catching statement, providing a hidden truth that many people will fail to notice. For example, if a person accepts at face value an advertisement heard on the television that he or she can purchase a new car for an outrageously low price, that individual will likely be surprised to learn upon arriving at the car dealership that an outstanding credit score or other qualifying requirement must first be met.

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Discussion Comments
By fify — On Mar 19, 2012

I think that "taking something at face value" has one more meaning. I realized this when my favorite writer wrote a new book and asked her readers to take it at face value.

She used to write in another genre before and her new book was something very different. What she meant by "take it at face value" is that she wanted her readers to look at this new book individually without comparing it to her previous books.

I think this happens a lot with people who come to be known for something specific and do something new and unique suddenly. People might feel disappointed with their new work because they already have preconceived notions about that person's work and have expectations based on that.

So taking something at face value also means that you are going to be open minded and consider that thing individually without comparing it to anything else. Because this is the only way to understand the true worth of something.

By ddljohn — On Mar 19, 2012

@simrin-- That's a sweet story! Thanks for sharing that!

I agree that very few people are like that, but I think we have to be that way. Even in English, most idioms have meanings that have nothing to do with what the phrase actually says.

I don't really mind this because I think it makes language very playful. One of the most intriguing thing about the human mind in my opinion, is our ability to infer meanings that are not directly given to us. Of course, this could be used incorrectly and we could reach a point where we are almost paranoid about people we meet and experiences we have.

But being able to come to conclusions about things and not taking everything at face value, is a good quality too. I think it protects us from looming dangers and helps us make better decisions. Anyone else agree with me that taking things at face value all the time could be bad for us?

By SteamLouis — On Mar 18, 2012

My brother who has Asperger's syndrome always takes everything at face value, it's what I love about him the most. Asperger's is a kind of autistic disorder and one of the characteristics of it is that the person cannot make inferences about what people mean. They literally take everything at face value.

I can never forget it one time when we went over to a neighbor's house. Our neighbor told us to make ourselves at home. My brother, of course took this very literally and half an hour later we found him in the kitchen making himself a sandwich. I asked him what he was doing and he said "I'm making myself at home." He's just too sweet and funny.

I think in this day and age, it's so hard to find people like him. I have not met many people who understand everything in such a straightforward, face value meaning.

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