It’s the thought that counts

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It’s the thought that counts is a truncated version of an American proverb, that may not be as old as you think. A proverb is a short, common saying or phrase that gives advice or shares a universal truth. Often, a proverb is so familiar that a speaker will only quote half of it, relying on the listener to supply the ending of the proverb himself. We will examine the meaning of the phrase it’s the thought that counts, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.

It’s the thought that counts means that the important part of a gift is the effort, consideration and sacrifice that is put into it. Whether or not the gift-giver has chosen a present that the recipient truly wants or can actually use is of little consequence. The fact that the gift-giver thought hard about what he thought the recipient would want, went to the trouble and expense of procuring it, and finally gave it to the recipient, shows a level of respect and caring that is intrinsically valuable. In practice, the phrase it’s the thought that counts is uttered for two reasons. One reason is that the recipient truly appreciates the effort, consideration and sacrifice that went into procuring the gift. The second reason is that the gift was a terrible disappointment, such as an article of clothing that doesn’t fit, a food that one is allergic to, or an item that arrives broken. It’s the thought that counts is a sentiment that parents impress upon their children when presents do not live up to their expectations. The proverb is credited to Henry van Dyke Jr., a professor at Princeton University, an ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg, a Presbyterian clergyman who chaired the committee that printed The Book of Common Worship of 1906, the first printed Presbyterian liturgy, and was a friend to Helen Keller, as well as the officiant at Mark Twain’s funeral. Also a writer and poet, van Dyke coined the aphorism: “It is not the gift, but the thought that counts.” Van Dyke lived from 1852 to 1933. Note that as with many proverbs and idioms, only the latter half of the phrase is generally quoted, the listener is expected to supply the beginning of the proverb for himself.


He might say “it’s the thought that counts,” and while that may be true, everyone still appreciates a small gift. (New York Magazine)

We’ve all heard plenty about how it’s the thought that counts and that a thoughtful gift is the Holy Grail of holiday time, but here’s the thing: This year, you just want to put one in the win category. (The Courier)

A Baltimore Sun article on the issue noted that such a measure “would have little immediate impact because there are no pet stores in the city that now sell cats or dogs,” but still, it’s the thought that counts. (The Baltimore Sun)

At the risk of sounding like a nerdy, holiday-challenged scrooge, I would argue that the content of a message matters more than the delivery mechanism — it’s the thought that counts. (The Tennessean)