Sounding Polite (Part 3)

So far in our series of posts on politeness, we’ve looked at four different approaches that can be adopted to communicate appropriately in English.   

Read on for more tips on how to sound well-mannered when you speak or write.

5. Question forms

Using question forms is a great way of sounding diplomatic when giving advice or suggestions. One option is to form yes/no questions when requesting people to do things. Another is to use negative questions in order to introduce your views gently. Here are examples of both:

Close the door.

Could you close the door, please?

I want directions to the airport.

Could you possibly give me directions to the airport?

We need a better proposal to win the contract.

Don’t you think we need a better proposal to win the contract?

We should paint the cabin blue.

Wouldn’t it be better if we painted the cabin blue?

6. Qualifiers

If you make a direct statement to express your thoughts, the chances are you’ll upset others. This is particularly true when what you’re saying is something negative. In order for you to sound more diplomatic, you could use qualifiers, such as a bit, a little, or kind of. A qualifier can decrease the intensity of anything negative that you say. Here are some examples of how qualifiers can decrease the intensity of your words when you complain or criticise.

This curry is too bland!

This curry is a bit bland.

Jeez, it’s so hot in here!

It’s a little hot in here. 

Derek is extremely boring!

Derek is kind of boring.

7. Passive voice

We can use the passive voice to shift the focus of a sentence from the doer of the action to the action itself. It’s particularly handy when we wish to avoid blaming people for things that they fail to do. Using the passive structure makes the sentence impersonal, creating distance from the immediate present. Here are some examples:

You forgot to switch the outside lights on last night.

The outside lights were not switched on last night.

Looks like you have made a lot of spelling errors.

Looks like a lot of spelling errors have been made.

Remember, more often than not, non-native English speakers sound impolite unwittingly, because they take the wrong approach. 

Sounding Polite (Part 2)

In English-speaking cultures, great importance is attached to avoiding language that others may find offensive. In a previous post, we considered how using softening expressions and avoiding negative words can go a long way towards helping you sound polite.

Here are some more ways in which you can appear courteous while speaking English.

3. Distancing verb forms

When we ask questions, make offers, or give suggestions, it is possible to use the past tense instead of the present. In such contexts, past tenses indicate ‘distance’ from the immediate present, thereby making what we say less direct. Do note that there’s no difference in the basic meaning expressed when the past tense replaces the present. Here are some examples to help you understand this better.

When do you want to check in, sir?

When did you want to check in, sir?

Do you want more sugar in your tea?

Did you want more sugar in your tea?

In the same way, sometimes progressive (continuous) verb forms are used in place of simple forms to sound more casual or less definite.

I hope you can give me a lift after the concert.

I’m hoping you can give me a lift after the concert. (less definite)

I look forward to doing business with you again.

I’m looking forward to doing business with you again. (casual)

4. Modal verbs

Another way to avoid being too direct is by using modal verbs. The past forms of modal verbs will, can, and may are commonly used in everyday communication to exhibit good manners. When making requests or asking for help, the word ‘please’is often added to make a better impression on the listener or reader.

Will you need my car tonight?

Would you need my car tonight?

Can you please call the security?

Could you please call the security?

May I please ask you to wait for a few minutes?

Might I please ask you to wait for a few minutes?

Remember, being polite helps us build good relations with the listener or reader, so it is definitely worth the effort. We’ll be back with some more tips.

Sounding Polite (Part 1)

Communicating in English isn’t as hard as many people think. Once you have a collection of common words and learn to string them together, you can pretty much begin to use English in most everyday situations. On such occasions, poor grammar or diction doesn’t always get in the way of getting the basic message across.

That being said, making sure that you sound polite or appropriate when using English is a lot harder to achieve, especially if you’ve just started learning the language. This is because all our energies go into somehow conveying our thoughts, so we sometimes fail to recognise that what we say might be too direct or offensive.

Here are some tips to help you sound more polite when speaking English.

1. Softening expressions

In some cultures, being blunt or direct is acceptable, whereas in English-speaking cultures, this is frowned upon. Therefore, it’s a good idea to use softening expressions that make what you say less direct. Examples of such expressions are I’m afraid, perhaps, I think, I reckon, maybe, I was wondering if, and to be honest.

Examples:

I can’t help you.

I’m afraid I can’t help you. 

I don’t know much about politics, so I can’t comment.

To be honest, I don’t know much about politics, so I can’t comment.

You should ask someone else for advice.

Perhaps you should ask someone else for advice.

Could you help her?

I was wondering if you could help her.

2. Avoiding negative words

There’s no doubt that people respond better to positive sounding words, making it easier to manage social interactions. Keeping this in mind, avoid using negative words wherever possible. Instead, use a positive equivalent along with a negative helping verb. Here are some examples:

It’s a bad idea to call her at this time of the night.

It isn’t a good idea to call her at this time of the night.

I find him so boring.

I don’t find him interesting.

I think this project report is useless.

I don’t think this project report is useful.

You will fail the exam if you don’t prepare well.

You won’t pass the exam if you don’t prepare well.

We’ll be back shortly with more suggestions on how to sound polite when speaking English.

A Quick Guide to Adverbs (Part 3)

 

So far in this series, we’ve looked at five different adverbial groups – those relating to frequency, place, time, degree, and probability. Here are two more varieties that regularly appear in our everyday conversations.

 

6. Adverbs of manner

Manner adverbs tell us how something happens or the way someone does something. As seen in the example sentences below, adverbs of manner are commonly formed by adding –ly to adjectives (carefully, beautifully, calmly). Based on phonological structure, some words take on a slightly different spelling, as in the case of hungrily.

 

Shawn unboxed the present carefully.

Annie’s brother dances beautifully.

He calmly said that he was quitting.

The kids ate the ice cream hungrily

 

Mind you, there also exist manner adverbs that have the same form as adjectives, so don’t always go by appearance. For instance, the words hard, late, and fast have the same adjectival and adverbial form. In such cases, it’s the context which tells us which form the word is in. Here’s a comparison to help you understand better:

 

He drives a fast car.

(Here ‘fast’ describes the car’s ability to move quickly, so it is acting as an adjective)

 

He drives his car fast.

(Here ‘fast’ describes the manner in which someone drives, so it is acting as an adverb)

 

 

7. Sentence adverbs

Unlike other adverbial types, a sentence adverb refers to an entire sentence and not just a part of it. Also, it does not focus on an action in particular. Instead, it shows us the opinion of the speaker or writer. As they act as a comment, such adverbs are typically placed at the beginning and separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. Another thing that makes them easy to spot is that they almost always end in –ly.

 

Interestingly, he decided to stay away from the award ceremony.  

Unfortunately, the match had to be abandoned due to heavy rains.  

Luckily, we got a lift to the airport and reached there just in time.  

Clearly, he seems to have lost his magical touch.

 

Sentence adverbs can be used to convey various attitudes and feelings to situations, such as curiosity (interestingly), disappointment (unfortunately), relief (luckily), or clarity (clearly).

 

So, the next time you come across an adverb, think about what type it is and what it is trying to tell you.

A Quick Guide to Adverbs (Part 2)

 

In a previous blog post, we spoke of two specific adverbial groups – adverbs of frequency, which tell us how often something happens, and adverbs of place, which tell us where something happens. Here are three more varieties:

 

3. Adverbs of time

Time adverbs tell us when or for how long an action happens. In the first two examples below, the adverbs tell us when the action takes place, while adverbs in the last couple of sentences refer to the length of action.

 

Dan called me last night.

I’m afraid we’ll have to leave now.

We’ve been here since morning.

I think Tessa and Peter dated for a year.

 

Time adverbs are among the commonest words in English, so they appear quite frequently in our sentences. When talking about the length of an action, we often use the words for and since followed by a time expression. The word for is usually followed by a period of time (e.g. 12 hours, weeks, a year), whereas since is followed by a point in time (e.g. morning, Christmas, 1983).

 

4. Adverbs of degree

An adverb of degree refers to intensity, indicating the degree or extent of something. In the examples below, the adverbs enough, a bit, really, and too tell us just how hot the coffee is.

 

The coffee is hot enough.

The coffee is a bit hot.

The coffee is really hot.

The coffee is too hot.

 

Degree adverbs can modify adjectives (like in the examples above), verbs, or other adverbs. So, it is common to place them before the word they modify in a sentence.

 

5. Adverbs of probability

Adverbs of probability indicate how certain the speaker is about something. In the sentences below, the adverbs perhaps and possibly show less certainty, while definitely and certainly indicate high probability.

 

Perhaps Tom will be there at the party.

Tom will possibly be there at the party.

Tom will definitely be there at the party.

Tom will certainly be there at the party.

 

One challenge when learning new adverbs is knowing where to place them in a sentence. So, remember to read up on placement rules when learning new adverb categories. We’ll be back soon with some more types.

A Quick Guide to Adverbs (Part 1)

 

Many English speakers believe that an adverb is any word ending in –ly, but holding such a belief may do you more harm than good.

 

In reality, not every word that ends in –ly is an adverb, so this approach can be misleading at best. For example, the word rally is a noun as well as verb, while silly, friendly, and pally are adjectives. More importantly, there is no regular structure to adverbs, which means that they come in all shapes and sizes. The words only, well, already, too, and sometimes are all adverbs, although they aren’t similar in appearance.

Adverbs, put simply, are words that modify the meaning of other words (e.g. verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs) around them. At times they can also modify the meaning of entire sentences. Here are some common types of adverbs:

 

1. Adverbs of frequency

As the name suggests, such adverbs show just how frequently something happens. It is common to use an adverb of frequency with the present simple tense to talk about how often we do something.

 

I always drink green tea in the morning.

John often goes to the cinema with friends.

Sally hardly ever listens to rock and roll.

I never buy clothes online.

 

Sometimes we talk about repeated action by using the word ‘every’ followed by a time expression, or by pluralising a day of the week.

 

Jan plays football with friends every Sunday.

I wash my car every week.

Mathew goes to Spain every month.

They have a barbeque in the garden on Sundays.

 

2. Adverbs of place

An adverb of place generally provides information on location or movement. The first two sentences below talk about the direction (ran downstairs, drove past old building) where someone is moving, whereas the next two talk about distances (miles away, nearby).

 

The kids ran downstairs when they heard the doorbell.

We drove past many old buildings.

Mona’s house is a couple of miles away

There is a decent café nearby.

 

We’ll be back with more on adverbs in later posts.

Acing the IELTS Speaking Section (Part 2)

 

In the first part, we spoke of how it’s important to sensibly utilise the one minute allotted for preparation during the IELTS Speaking section.

 

Read on for more advice on how to do well in the IELTS Speaking section.

2. Generate some main ideas, not many

Test takers commonly but wrongly try to produce as many different ideas related to the topic as possible, which doesn’t always work. After all, thinking up new ideas is a lot harder than extending ideas you already have. What they really should be doing is to come up with a few main ideas and then think of ways to develop them. Wh-words (what, when, which, where, why, and how) come in handy when you wish to elaborate a point. Learn to put them to good use, and you should be able to keep talking until the two-minute time is up.

 

3. Be descriptive

Topics used in the second part of the IELTS Speaking section often encourage test takers to draw on their own experience and feelings. And when doing so, it’s a good idea to vividly describe people and things you include in your talk. If you’ve been asked to talk about your favourite type of food, for example, talk about its appearance, smell, texture, and aroma. That way, you’ll have a lot more to say, meaning that you are less likely to dry up. As well as this, the examiner might also find your response more impressive, as detailed descriptions involve use of precise vocabulary.

 

4. Speak at a steady pace

It’s only human nature to talk faster than usual when we are fairly stressed out, and exam conditions can do just that sort of thing to you. The problem, though, is that the faster you go, the more content you need to produce to last the two-minute duration. Going at breakneck speed can also interfere with your diction, lowering your pronunciation score. It is best to stay calm and speak at a steady pace – not too fast, not too slow.

 

Equip yourself with these sound strategies, and speaking non-stop will be a walk in the park!

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

come in handy
Form : phrase
Meaning : be useful
Example : Some ability to speak European languages will come in handy in this job.

 

draw on (something)
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to make use of skill or experience that you have 
Example : The book draws heavily on the author’s experiences as a tourist in Asia.

 

a walk in the park
Form : phrase
Meaning : something that is easy to do
Example : I’ve been a cop for over two decades, so investigating petty crimes is a walk in the park. 

Acing the IELTS Speaking Section (Part 1)

 

Talking about any topic at length, in itself, is never too easy, so imagine having to do it without any prior preparation.

 

Giving an extempore speech, or an impromptu speech, is something that many people find daunting. For one thing, the speaker needs to be able to think on their feet. With zero preparation done beforehand, they have to make up content as they go along. Another challenge is that the speaker also needs to organise the ideas they generate as they speak. If not, there is every chance of the talk becoming directionless, with ideas popping up randomly.

 

An extempore task brings to the fore a person’s ability to think, organise, and talk all at the same time, when little to no preparation time is available. No mean feat, right? No wonder then that B-schools commonly use such tasks to measure the speaking as well as logical thinking ability of applicants. Several international language tests also have a component that assesses the test taker’s ability to speak at length without preparation.

 

In IELTS, the second part of the speaking section, known as the individual long turn, requires the test taker to speak on a particular topic for up to 2 minutes uninterruptedly. Of course, there is the advantage of having a minute to prepare and make notes, but the task is essentially extempore speaking.

 

Here are some ways to perform well in the extempore part of the IELTS speaking test:

1. Use prep time wisely

Test takers do get time to think about the topic and make notes before they start talking, but one minute is not a lot of time. So, do not write in full sentences. Instead, jot down keywords that can help you talk elaborately on the topic. For instance, if you have been asked to talk about an unforgettable meal you’ve had, add words such as ‘exotic’ and ‘flavoursome’ to the notes you make. Once you begin talking, they’ll serve as a reminder to describe the origin of the food and its distinctive flavours.

We’ll be back with more IELTS Speaking tips in the next part. Stay tuned!

 

 

GLOSSARY

at length
Form : phrase
Meaning : for a long period of time
Example : The ministers spoke at length about the need to bring down crime rates.

 

think on your feet
Form : phrase
Meaning : to have the ability to think and react quickly 
Example : Stand-up comedians need to have the ability to think on their feet while doing live shows.

 

no mean feat
Form : phrase
Meaning : not easy to do
Example : He has played in over 300 international matches, and that’s no mean feat.

 

British vs American English (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Secabtien Wiertz via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

In the first part, we spoke of how Britons and Americans tend to spell and pronounce a lot of words differently. Here are some other ways in which UK and US English differ.

3. Vocabulary

This is arguably the most striking difference between the versions of English spoken on either side of the pond. Let’s do a quick comparison: in British English ‘you take the lift from a friend’s flat to the ground floor of the building’, while in American English ‘you take the elevator from a friend’s apartment to the first floor of the building’.

 

There are hundreds of such everyday things that are described using different terms. That said, Britons and Americans are generally able to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words from the context. On rare occasions, though, it could cause confusion. For example, the phrase ‘first floor’ can be found in both versions, but it carries a different meaning in each.

 

Here are some common examples of different words describing the same things:

 

British English American English
biscuit cookie
flat apartment
petrol gas
trousers pants
chips French fries
crisps potato chips
aubergine eggplant
mobile phone cell phone
torch flashlight
football soccer
the cinema the movies

 

4. Grammar

Like spelling, the way speakers of UK and US English use grammar can also be slightly different at times. For starters, Britons use question tags (a phrase added to the end of a sentence to turn it into a question; e.g. You don’t eat meat, do you?) a lot more than speakers of American English.

 

Here are some more grammatical differences:

 

British English American English
Preposition Are you in my team or his?

 

I’ll see you at the weekend.

Are you on my team or his?

 

I’ll see you on the weekend.

Tense Use of the present perfect to describe something that has happened recently

 

I’ve just had dinner.

Use of the past simple to describe something that has happened recently

 

I just had dinner.

Verb forms Some verbs are considered irregular

 

dream, dreamt, dreamt

learn, learnt, learnt

The same verbs are made regular

 

dream, dreamed, dreamed

learn, learned, learned

Collective nouns Collective nouns can be singular or plural

 

My team is / are in the lead.

Collective nouns are always singular

 

My team is in the lead.

 

 

All in all, these two versions of English have a lot more similarities than differences, so if you can understand one, the chances are that you’ll be able to understand the other too.

 

GLOSSARY

 

the pond
Form : noun
Meaning : an informal term for the Atlantic Ocean, which lies in between Britain and America
Example : This rock band is huge in Britain but relatively unknown on the other side of the pond. 

 

British vs American English (Part 1)

Image courtesy of Mo Riza via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

With well over a billion speakers, English is the most widely spoken language in the world by some distance.

Interestingly though, there are only a handful of countries where it is spoken as a native language by the majority of the population. For the rest, English is a language they’ve acquired.

As a result, different variants of the language have evolved over time – Singlish (Singapore English), Strine (Australian English), and Namlish (Namibian English) to name a few.

However, British and American English remain the most widely recognised variants.

So, just how different is the English spoken in the UK to that in the US? Let’s find out….

 

 

1. Spelling

It’s common knowledge that UK and US spellings differ. One reason for this is that American English has modified the spelling of a number of words to reflect the way they sound when they are pronounced.

For instance, while Britons spell the printed form issued by a bank as cheque, Americans spell it as it sounds, i.e. check. Although there are hundreds of such words that are spelled differently, the difference is often minor, so it hardly ever causes confusion. Here’s a quick comparison:

 

2. Pronunciation

This is a grey area, as there are a wide variety of accents within both countries, making it difficult to clearly distinguish between UK and US pronunciation features.

To take one example, a Londoner and Mancunian (someone from Manchester, UK) may sound radically different from each other despite being from the same country, i.e. the United Kingdom.

That said, one easily noticeable thing is how Americans generally accentuate every ‘r’ in a word, whereas the Brits don’t emphasise that sound, or they sometimes omit it altogether if a word ends in ‘r’.

While it isn’t important which version of English you speak, being aware of how accents differ is always useful.

 

GLOSSARY

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