5 things you should know about spoken English

Have you ever written down (transcribed) a conversation between native or proficient speakers of English?

If you have, you will know that natural conversation is far more chaotic, far less structured than written text. It contains lots of reformulation, repetition, false starts, incomplete sentences, formulaic phrases, and unfinished questions.

Conversations are unpredictable. We don’t have much time to think about what we are going to say next so 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.

When we speak, we constantly edit, reformulate and paraphrase what we have said to make sure our conversational partner is able to understand us.

When we speak, we generally do it in ‘real-time’, which means we are not always able to create grammatically perfect sentences.

When we have a conversation, we have to react in ‘real-time’ to our listener’s verbal and non-verbal responses and utterances, which means we have to improvise.

In other words, speech is far more flexible than written communication and doesn’t always follow the grammar rules you may learn in class.

So, here are some features of spoken English that may help you speak in a more natural and relaxed way in everyday conversations:

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. Situational ellipsis

When proficient speakers of English have informal conversations, they often leave out certain grammatical words, particularly pronouns and auxiliary verbs.

A. You coming? (Are you coming?)
B. No, staying at home. (No, I’m staying at home).

Ellipsis refers to omitting or leaving out certain words so we communicate quickly and economically, using only the words which we think are necessary to convey what we need to express.

If you have everyday conversations and speak in full sentences, you may sound too formal. However, if you have formal conversations and leave out too many pronouns and auxiliary verbs, you may sound too familiar and too informal.

Other grammar words (articles and prepositions) can also be omitted. Make sure you don’t leave out content words (verbs, adjectives, nouns) though!

4.General extender

We lead very busy lives and 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 you bore your conversational partners.

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 relationship with the listener so 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 know the appropriate or correct response. This is called ‘hedging’.

Hedging words include items such as:

may, might,could, quite, a bit, suppose, sort of, I guess, and not with an adjective.

What did you think of the meal?

It wasn’t bad.

Are you going to the party tomorrow?

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

The speaker is not 100% committed to their opinion. This means that people are unlikely to criticise them later because they didn’t express their views with complete certainty.

One of the reasons we criticise politicians is because they always speak with such certainty, even when they are wrong or the facts suggest otherwise!

So, get into the habit of listening to fluent speakers, notice how they express themselves. I’m sure you’ll hear examples of these 5 features of natural spoken English all the time.

Useful Expression in Speaking and Writing

Are you looking for useful expressions to use in your speaking and writing? Then you might want to look at this post.Be careful! some are mostly used in spoken language. Start using them in and out of the class and see the results for yourself!

1. I think …
– I assume/presume (that)
– I have a hunch that…
– I suppose (that)…
– I guess…
– My assumption is (that)…
– To my opinion, …
– To me, …
– In my point of view,
– My impression is …
– As far as I can see,
2. I’m sure …
– I believe (that) …
– I have no doubt (that)…
– I’m certain (that) …
– I’m confident (that) …
I’m not sure …
– I doubt (that) …
– I suspect (that) …
– I’m not quite sure (about) …
3. I don’t know …
– I have no clue (about) …
– I have no idea/opinion (about) …
– I don’t have the slightest idea.
– I don’t have an inkling (of)
4. When [subject] is the issue …
– As far as [subject] is concerned,
– When it comes to [subject],
5. Generally,
– as a rule,
– generally speaking, …
– On the whole,
– In general,
6. Speaking in a … way …
– generally/honestly/psychologically speaking, …
7. I didn’t understand. Can you say it again?
– Pardon me? / I beg your pardon
– Sorry, I was not following you. Could you say that again?
– I’m not sure I get what you mean (by this).
8. Can you explain more?
– What do you mean?
– Could you expound on it?
– Will you elaborate that?
– Can you clarify what you mean by this?
– Could you provide more details/examples on that?
9. Let me explain…
– What I/he mean(s) is that …
– To elaborate/clarify the issue, I would like to say …
10. I agree/disagree…
– I couldn’t agree with you more.
– You could say that again.
– I totally agree/disagree with you (on that one)
– No offense, but I think it’s not true
– I am exactly the same/opposite way
– I am (not) in favour of [the issue].
– I am for/against this idea.
– You may have a point, but …
11. But,
– However,
– Though,
– On the one hand,…, On the other hand,
12. Exactly the opposite …
– Unlike,
– On the contrary …
– Vice versa,
13. I understand …
– Oh, I see (what you mean)
– I got it
– You’ve got a point here.
14. It is clear …
– It is apparent/obvious (that …)
– That is crystal clear (that …)
– It is quite clear-cut (that …)
– It is evident (that …)
15. Can I say something here?
– Can I take an edge?
– Can I inject something here?
– May I interrupt/interject?
– Sorry for my interruption, but …
16. Actually,
– In fact,
– As a matter of fact
– The fact is that …
17. Instead of…
– Rather than …
– In place of …
18. So,
– Therefore, …
– Thus,
– As a result…
– Consequently…
19. More than that,
– Moreover,
– In addition,
– What’s more,
– Further,
– Plus,
20. Starters,
– To start with,
– First of all, …
– Firstly, …
– Before anything, …
21. Anyway:
– In any case,

Ten Steps for Writing an Essay

  • Read the essay question carefully
    • Highlight key words.
    • Use the dictionary to check the meaning of any unfamiliar words.
    • Identify the task words that indicate what needs to be done, eg ‘discuss’, ‘explain’, ‘compare’.
    • Identify the topic words that indicate the particular subject of the essay, eg the character of ‘Juliet’ in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the ‘causes’ of World War 1.
    • Identify any limiting words that restrict the discussion to a particular area, eg in ‘Chapters 1-3′, during the ‘nineteenth century’.
  • Finish any necessary reading or research as background to the essay
    • Be selective: use sources which are relevant and accessible.
    • Write notes in your own words.
    • Write down quotations that may be particularly useful, but ensure the source of these quotes is acknowledged if they’re used.
    • Take note of sources so they can be provided in footnotes and the bibliography.
  • Brainstorm ideas in response to the question
    • Jot down any relevant points.
    • Make note of any relevant evidence or quotes that come to mind.
    • Use a mind map to help stimulate lateral thinking.
  • Develop a thesis (idea/argument) that encapsulates the response to the question
    • The thesis should be a statement that strongly expresses the overall response to the question.
    • Avoid a thesis that’s too simplistic – show thought has been put into some of the complexities behind the question.
    • The thesis is the backbone of the essay – it will be stated in the introduction. It also needs to be referred to several times in the essay before restating it and demonstrating how it has been proven in the conclusion.
  • Write a plan for the response
    • Order ideas in a logical sequence.
    • Make sure every point in the plan is relevant to the question.
    • After the plan has been written it should be clear where the essay is going.
  • Write the introduction
    • Open up the discussion.
    • Introduce the thesis.
    • Indicate how the questions will be answered.
    • Name any texts to be discussed, if appropriate.
    • Engage the reader.
  • Write the main body of the essay
    • Ensure each point is given a new paragraph.
    • Use words or phrases at the start of each paragraph that will indicate to the reader how it relates to the previous paragraph, eg, ‘however’, ‘in addition’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘moreover’.
    • Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that clearly links the paragraph to the rest of the essay, eg “A striking example of Gary Crew’s use of light and darkness imagery to suggest notions of knowledge and ignorance occurs in the scene on the jetty”.
    • Provide supporting evidence for each point that you make.
    • Revisit the thesis, and express it in different ways if possible, to emphasise how the question is being addressed.
  • Write the essay conclusion
    • Summarise the main ideas.
    • Demonstrate how you have proven your thesis.
    • Finish with an interesting or thought-provoking, but relevant, comment.
  • Edit the draft
    • Check for spelling, punctuation and grammar.
    • Delete any sections that are not particularly relevant.
    • Change vocabulary to improve expression.
    • Seek feedback from peers or a teacher before writing the final copy.
  • Write the final copy
    • Add any footnotes or bibliography if required.
    • Present a clean, neat copy.
    • Submit on time.