As Duckpaddle has said, the mark "patent pending" means that a patent application has been filed but has not yet issued as a patent. The mark generally has no legal effect, except for the provisional rights described in the next paragraph below. In order for the mark to be used properly, however, a patent application must actually have been filed or else a penalty will be assessed according to 35 USC 292.
If a patent issues with claims that are substantially similar to the claims present in the patent application publication, the patentee has some rights under 35 USC 154 to obtain reasonable royalty damages for any infringement occurring prior to the issuance of the patent, provided that the infringer had notice of the patent application publication.
Jeremy Thompson's answer is incorrect, at least under current patent law in the United States. In the U.S., applicants for patents cannot ask the patent office for their patent application to "be put at the bottom of the pile." This type of practice used to happen in the U.S. under what was called Submarine Patents, but Congress enacted laws in 1995 to put an end to that practice. A patent applicant must make a bona fide effort to advance prosecution of the patent application, or the application may become abandoned (see MPEP 714.03.