5 things you may not know about spoken English

Do you ever make grammar mistakes?

Do you ever say one word then change it to another?

Do you ever change what you have just said because the the person who is listening doesn’t understand you?

Do you find you use too many words and would like to be more concise?

Do you ever use vague words like ‘stuff’ or ‘things’?

Do you ever start a sentence but don’t finish it?

Do you ever fill a pause with a sound like ‘mm’ or ‘erm’?

If you are like me, you will have answered ‘yes’ to all of those questions. 

Speaking is not like writing. We can edit what we have just said but we have to edit immediately. If not, the conversation moves on and leaves us behind.

Most of us speak in a chaotic way. Thought and ideas are like butterflies that come into our mind. We do our best to catch them and transform them into words before they fly away.

So, here are some features of spoken English that may make you feel better about your own English:

1. The historical present

When we tell a story or an anecdote about something that happened, we often start by using past tenses. When the listener is engaged and interested, we often switch to present tenses because this makes the story more lively, engaging and real to the listener.

The other day, I was walking to the station when I saw a huge black dog with enormous teeth. The dog started running towards me and I froze because I was so scared. Suddenly, the dog jumps and me and I manage to jump out of the way. But the dog grabs my coat in its teeth, I kick it with my left foot….

2. Discourse markers

Discourse markers are short words or phrases that connect ideas, indicate when somebody wants to start or end a speaking turn, check that the listener has understood, change the conversation or add something, show the listener how the speaker feels about something, and prepares the listener for what the speaker is about to say.

Common discourse markers in spoken English include: you know, like, right, OK then, actually, basically, as I was saying, what I mean is…

Listen carefully to fluent English speakers to identify which discourse markers they use. Try using them in your own speech.

3. Three is the magic number (I’ve written a blog post about this here).

What do all these famous quotes have in common?

Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen: lend me your ears.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.

Shake, rattle and roll

Stop, look and listen

Location, location, location.

That’s right. All of them use three part lists. Nobody is sure why but the human brain responds very well to three words or ideas. Why do you think I call myself British English Coach?

If you want to persuade or influence people, present your ideas in three-part lists and people are sure to listen to you.

4. General extenders

We lead very busy lives and there information is all around us. Maybe that is why young people in particular use general extenders in their everyday speech. These are words or phrases that are used when we want to refer to a set of items but don’t want to list them all.

For example: I went to the supermarket to buy bread and milk and stuff.

Phrases such as something like that, and all that, and those sort of things, and everything, and ‘stuff like that’ are all general extenders.

Listeners don’t always need to know the details so you don’t have to list everything. If you do, you might find that listeners start getting bored.

5. Hedging

We don’t always want to give strong opinions about things. Sometimes we are not sure how we feel about something or we don’t have a close relation with the listener and don’t feel comfortable expressing how we really feel. Sometimes, we don’t want to give a ‘black and white’ response because we don’t want to don’t know the correct answer.

Hedging words include items such as ‘may, might, could, quite, a bit, suppose, sort of, I guess.

What did you think of the meal?

It was quite OK.

Are you going to the party tomorrow?

Well, I may go. I suppose it might be fun.

The speaker is not committed to their opinion. This means that nobody can criticise them later because they were not direct about their feelings or their situation when they originally spoke.

So, get into the habit of listening to fluent speakers and noticing how they express themselves. I’m sure you’ll hear examples of these 5 speaking strategies all the time.

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