“Do as I say, not as I do”: Meaning & alternatives + 3 example sentences

English idioms can be complicated, but the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do” has a meaning we can all relate to. We’ve all been caught in a moment before when we’ve said one thing, but we’ve personally acted differently. It’s called being hypocritical, but while being hypocritical is often viewed as a negative thing, this idiom gives a little nod to the fact that you know you’re being hypocritical but you expect to be taken seriously anyway. Let’s break down this common english phrase to it’s individual parts to understand it properly.

What does “Do as I say, not as I do” mean?

“Do as I say, not as I do” means that you want someone to follow your advice even though you often act differently. The first half is used to tell somebody to follow the command you’ve given, while second half is to say that you acknowledge that you don’t follow this rule, but you still expect the person to follow your instruction.

This is not necessarily used for an actual skill or talent, but usually used when instructing on morals. It is most often used from a parent to a child, but can be used in other contexts as well. It can be appropriately used in any circumstance where you would be telling somebody to follow the rules, even though you yourself have been known to break those same rules.

3 examples using “Do as I say, not as I do”

Example 1:

“never leave the front door unlocked. I know i forget to lock it sometimes, but Do as I say, not as I do”

Example 2:

Parent: “don’t use swear words.”

Child: “but you use swear words all the time!”

Parent: “Do as I say, not as I do”

Example 3:

“never take up smoking. I know i smoke, but… Do as I say, not as I do”

3 alternatives to saying “Do as I say, not as I do”

Listen to my words, not my actions.

Take what i say to heart even though i don’t always manage to.

Try to follow my advice, even if i don’t always follow it myself.

How common is this phrase?

The phrase “Do as I say, not as I do” is still in fairly common use, although its message might be getting a bit outdated. Many people believe in modeling the behavior you want to see instead of simply expecting people to follow your rules when you can’t follow your own example. In the past, it was a lot more common for a parent or another person in authority to make rules that they wouldn’t follow themselves, and expect those under their authority to follow them.

This phrase was often used to denounce habits that would be considered hard to follow, making it all the more frustrating that one should use it. It could really leave you arguing: if you can’t follow your own rule, why should i? It’s because of this obvious frustration that “Do as I say, not as I do is more often used in a light tone than a serious one, although both can be used acceptably if the circumstance is right.

Using “Do as I say, not as I do” seriously

While you can use the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do” in a serious way, it is most commonly not meant to be used seriously. The context of using it seriously is out of fashion. A parent may once have used it to scold a child for something they’ve done that they mimicked from their parent, or a religious leader may have used it to imply that they are not without fault but you should strive for perfection despite this. If the tone is stern then it is most likely intended to be taken seriously, but more often it will be used as a way to make light of a bad behavior one sees in themselves. Either way, the advice being given is usually good advice. You would not tell someone to “Do as I say, not as I do” if the thing you are telling them to do is bad advice.

For example:

Parent: “don’t leave your shoes out in the hall.”

Child: “but your shoes are in the hall.”

Parent: “Do as I say, not as I do!”

Using “Do as I say, not as I do” as a joke

You can use “Do as I say, not as I do” in a light-hearted fashion instead of a serious one. You might not mean the advice you’re giving to be taken seriously, but it’s more common that the advice is real and the joke is that you know you’ve been terrible at following it yourself.

For example:

Parent: “you’re not allowed to date until you’re an adult.”

Child: “but you dated people when you were a teenager!”

Parent: “Do as I say, not as I do”

In this example, the parent might not seriously want their child to wait until they’re all grown up. They’re making a joke about not being ready for them to start dating, and mean for it all to be taken lightly.

Somebody who regularly makes silly or foolish decisions might also use this phrase light-heartedly to point out their own shortcomings when it comes to making decisions.

For example:

“you should only date people who treat you properly, but… Do as I say, not as I do, am i right?”

The origin of the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do”

The first known usage of the phrase was in a religious context, in john selden’s “table-talk” c. 1654:

“preachers say ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ but if a physician had the same disease upon him that i have, and he should bid me do one thing, and he do quite another, could i believe him?”

Even in its origin, the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do” calls to question the logic of telling someone to do one thing while you do another. Selden suggests that if a doctor were to have a disease while telling you how to cure it, you might not believe he knows how to cure it. If he did, why would he still have it? Using this same logic, how can a preacher tell how to behave morally, if even the preacher himself can’t follow those same morals?

Idioms can be nuanced, but the primary takeaway is the you generally shouldn’t take the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do” too seriously. If it is meant in a serious context, you’re being told to follow instructions that the speaker doesn’t follow, but most usually it’s meant in a flippant, joking manner. Very rarely does a person seriously expect you to obey an order that they struggle with themselves, but even when they mean it seriously it’s usually implied that following it will be a challenge for you as well.