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.

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

Record Your Way to Fluent English

Image courtesy of Ernest Duffoo via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

All language learners want to be fluent speakers, sounding both smooth and natural. Unfortunately, getting there isn’t that easy. Fluency is not just about speaking a language without hesitation; organising your thoughts well and expressing ideas clearly are important too.

 

When you’re working towards achieving fluency, regular feedback is a must. So, if you want to find out how well-structured and clear what you are saying is, you may need a listener, such as a study partner or teacher, to give you feedback.

 

What many language learners don’t realise is using an audio recorder can be extremely handy here. In fact, if you have one (and most smart phones will have one), you may not need help from others to find areas for improvement.

So, what exactly can a recording device do for you?

 

 

1. Assess yourself

When you’re giving a talk or presentation, you don’t always listen critically to what you are saying, because all your efforts go into talking for as long as you can and keeping your head above water! So recording your talk and listening to it repeatedly can help identify any language problems you have.

If your ability to use English is limited, it may be hard to notice all the mistakes that you make, but you could still make out things such as: how frequently you pause, what type of vocabulary you fall down on, and so on.

Intermediate or advanced learners, on the other hand, can discover a lot more about their language ability through such an exercise.

 

2. Chart your progress

Quite often, we’re unsure as to how much our ability to speak a language has developed over a particular period of time. Listening to different recordings of ourselves that are made weeks or months apart can tell us just how much progress has been made in that time. It can really spur you on to work even harder on your language fluency and make a step up.

So, put that recording feature on your mobile phone to good use, and start developing your speaking skills.

Six Ways to Improve Your English Pronunciation (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Ben Grey via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

In the first part, we discussed two key pronunciation features – individual sounds and word stress. Here are two more aspects that can change the way you sound when you speak English.

 

3. Sentence stress

A sentence in English generally has two kinds of words: content words and function words. The first kind are words that give you the overall meaning of the sentence, so they are normally nouns, main verbs, adjectives, or adverbs.

The second kind are usually small words that glue the sentence together to make grammatical sense. Naturally, function words are not usually stressed, whereas content words are. Here’s an example:

Tom has a brother and a sister
Content words: Tom, brother, sister
Function words: has, a, and, a

 

Learners also need to be aware that the way they say a sentence can affect its meaning. In other words, depending on which word(s) in a sentence they stress, the meaning changes. Here’s an example:

Question What the speaker means
Why are you flying to London tomorrow? What is the reason?
Why are you flying to London tomorrow? Why not someone else?
Why are you flying to London tomorrow? Why not travel by some other mode of transport?
Why are you flying to London tomorrow? Why not some other place? 
Why are you flying to London tomorrow? Why not some other day?

 

4. Weak forms

As we already know, some words in a sentence are stressed, while others are not. The words that aren’t are generally function words, and some of them have two pronunciations – a weak form and a strong form.

Generally speaking, we produce a weak form by changing the vowel sound in the word to a schwa /ə/. Here is the same example: Tom has a brother and a sister. 

When saying this sentence, we use the weak form of all the function words so that the content words get highlighted.

Word Strong form Weak form
has /hæz/ /həz/
a /eɪ/ /ə/
and /ænd/ /ən/

Listen out for it when you next hear a native speaker talk or radio. Remember, if you wish to talk like a native speaker, then mastering the use of weak forms is a must.

Six Ways to Improve Your English Pronunciation (Part 1)

Image courtesy of Matt Harasymczuk via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

What’s your biggest worry when setting out to learn a new language? Perhaps mastering grammar or widening your vocabulary?

 

For most learners, it never crosses their mind that pronunciation can be a key element in success.

 

No matter how accurate or fluent your English is, bad pronunciation can seriously weaken your ability to communicate successfully. After all, if you mispronounce a word, it can change the meaning of what you were trying to say entirely!

 

In this series, we’ll talk about six key pronunciation features that you can help you improve.

 

  1. Individual sounds

Did you know that the pronunciation of each word in English is a combination of short individual sounds called phonemes? Pronouncing these individual sounds accurately is half the battle. A good place to start would be the phonemic chart, which has all 44 phonemes, neatly grouped into three sections: consonant sounds, single vowel sounds and double vowel sounds.

 

Remember, producing a phoneme accurately requires you to position your mouth and jaw in a specific way. So, you could be in for hours and hours of diligent practice before you are able to make the right sounds.

Here’s the British Council phonemic chart to get you started: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/phonemic-chart

 

 

  1. Word stress

In English, a word is usually made up of one or more syllables, which are basically small sound units with a vowel sound and one or more consonant sounds. Here’s an example:

 

Word English
Phonetic transcription /ˈɪŋɡlɪʃ/

 

The word English has two syllables – ‘En’ and ‘glish’. While pronouncing, the first syllable has to be emphasised more than the second. Similarly, all words in English have a unique stress pattern, so while speaking, some parts of words need to be pronounced more strongly than others. If you don’t, the listener may find it difficult to understand you.

 

Here’s a quick tip: once you begin recognising all the phonemes, use a dictionary to check if you’re producing the right sounds while pronouncing a word.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

set out
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to begin doing a task with a particular aim
Example : Having saved up for years, Matt and Eva set out to build their own house.

 

half the battle
Form : phrase
Meaning : the most challenging part of doing something
Example : As a salesman, winning a potential customer’s trust is half the battle.

 

be in for something
Form : phrase
Meaning : going to experience something,
Example : Your dad is in for a shock when he finds out you’ve had your tongue pierced!

 

How To Use Time Conjunctions Correctly

Image courtesy of David Vega via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

Imagine you are asked to deliver an impromptu speech on some topic. Chances are that you would just focus on producing sentence after sentence, paying little attention to the order in which they appear.

 

However, when speaking at length, it’s important that what we say is coherent, i.e. our thoughts appear in a logical sequence. Using conjunctions of time is one way of achieving this.

 

Wondering what conjunctions of time are?  They are tiny words (such as before, after, once, while, etc.) which connect an action to a point in time. Put simply, they indicate when something happens.

 

In part 2 of the IELTS Speaking test, candidates need to speak continuously on a topic for two minutes. Here’s how time conjunctions can help structure your answer better:

 

Topic

 

IELTS Speaking: Part 2

 

Describe a holiday you went on recently.

 

 

Sample Answer

I love exploring new places, so holidays are something I always look forward to. The last holiday I went on was to a place called Kumarakom, which is in Southern India.

 

I first heard about Kumarakom when a friend spoke of her trip to India. Her vivid descriptions of the place and its people intrigued me so much that I knew I had to visit it. In fact, while she was busy recollecting her holiday experiences, I’d already started comparing tour packages on my phone. The following week, I found a great deal on a travel website. Before booking the holiday, I checked with my sister if she wanted to come. She jumped at the chance, and thus began our exciting journey.

 

Once we reached Kumarakom, I couldn’t contain my excitement. To be honest, since a visit to Egypt in my teens, never had I been to such an exotic location. As soon as we checked into the resort we were staying at, my sister and I decided to go for a swim. We enjoyed ourselves so thoroughly that we remained in the pool until sunset. After a sumptuous dinner that night, we decided to ….

 

Remember, time conjunctions also help create complex grammar structures, which is a major plus in a test situation.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

impromptu
Form : adjective
Meaning : not planned in advance
Example : He gave an impromptu performance at the wedding.

 

chances are that
Form : phrase
Meaning : used to say that something is likely to happen
Example : Chances are that Lilly will be moving abroad soon to join her parents.

 

at length
Form : phrase
Meaning : for a long time and in great detail
Example : Mike and I spoke about his career choices at length.

 

plus
Form : noun
Meaning : advantage
Example : Knowledge of current fashion trends would be a major plus in this job.

 

Collocation: Finding The Right Words For The Job

Image courtesy of Janet Galore (CC Flickr)

Even Words Love and Hate Each Other!

 

Many of us are picky when it comes to socialising. We hang out with the people we like; and as for the others – we don’t tend to bother.

 

Guess what? Words do the same, in the sense that they are often seen together in exclusive groups. This relationship that words in a language share with each other is known as collocation. For example, you can have a drink or make a cup of tea, but you can’t do a drink.

 

Types of collocations

There are different varieties of collocations in English. Here are some:

 

Type Example
adjective + noun express train
verb + noun run a marathon
noun + noun car salesman
verb + adverb speak softly
adverb + adjective newly married
verb + prepositional phrase run out of

 

Why words collocate

There’s no specific reason. It’s just that users of a language put certain words together more frequently than they do others. This also means that there are no clear rules that govern the use of collocations. So, as a learner, you just have to know which words go with which others.

 

Why learn collocations?

When you learn collocations, you are learning words in chunks, or groups of words. Naturally, this not only improves your accuracy but also fluency. For instance, suppose you learn the word ‘good’ along with the many other words it collocates with; this will widen your vocabulary and enable you to speak more fluently.

 

Adjective Preposition Meaning Example
good at something able to do something well He is good at singing.
with something able to use something well She is good with computers.
for health having a useful effect This drink is good for health.
to me Loving, friendly My Grandma is really good to me.

 

Remember, English tests such as IELTS assess a candidate’s ability to use collocations correctly. So, learn new vocabulary in chunks, never in isolation.

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

picky
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes someone who is difficult to please
Example : Olga is quite picky about what she eats.

 

hang out
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to spend time with particular people in a particular place
Example : Sylvan enjoys hanging out with his cousins at the local pub.

 

bother
Form : verb
Meaning : (often used in a negative sense) to spend time or energy doing something
Example : Miguel doesn’t bother brushing his hair.

 

fluency
Form : noun
Meaning : ability to speak or write a language easily and to a high standard
Example : Philip is fluent in Swahili.

 

isolation
Form : noun
Meaning : the state of being alone or separate
Example : Prisoners at this prison are kept in isolation if they cause trouble.

Top Tips to Improve Your IELTS Speaking Score (Part 2)

In the previous part, we spoke of how it is best to avoid memorised answers in the IELTS Speaking test. Here’s another way to be yourself during the interview.

State YOUR opinion, not the examiner’s

 

Bad example

Examiner: Let’s now talk about the role of advertising. Do you think advertising influences what people buy?
Candidate: Hmm… No, I don’t think so!
Examiner: Well, how do we then explain companies spending billions on advertisements?
Candidate: Oh, OK; I guess advertisements do influence people in some ways. Sorry!

 

The Speaking module has three parts:

  1. Introduction and interview (4 – 5 minutes)
  2. Individual long turn (3 – 4 minutes)
  3. Two-way discussion (4 – 5 minutes)

 

The third part gives candidates an opportunity to state their views on abstract topics and justify them. Sadly, some candidates don’t express how they really feel about a topic; instead they agree with whatever the examiner says the whole time!

 

As a candidate, you are assessed on your language, not your ideas or views. All the examiner wants to know is how wide your range of language is, so focus on exhibiting that. If your opinions are different to those of the examiner, feel free to disagree with him/her. Be confident and speak your mind.

 

Good example

Examiner: Let’s now talk about the role of advertising. Do you think advertising influences what people buy?
Candidate: No, I don’t think so!
Examiner: Well, how do we explain companies spending so much money on advertisements?
Candidate: In a highly competitive market, it becomes necessary for companies to promote their products and services. Advertising helps them reach out to billions of people. How else would people notice a particular product or come to know of its existence? But the question here is whether it influences consumer behaviour. Now, I strongly believe that there isn’t enough evidence to ….

 

Remember, always be frank and express your thoughts; do not change your opinion to mirror that of the examiner – just be yourself!

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

be yourself
Form : phrase
Meaning : behave or act naturally
Example : Why do you put on an accent, Tom? Have the confidence to be yourself!

 

abstract
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something based on general ideas, not anything in particular
Example : They spoke about love in abstract terms – for example, is it valued in today’s world?

 

justify
Form : verb
Meaning : to show that something is right, especially when others think it is wrong
Example : It’s difficult to justify paying huge salaries when the company is making a loss.

 

 

 

 

 

exhibit
Form : verb
Meaning : to show something such as a quality or skill
Example : He exhibited his skills during the football match.

 

speak your mind
Form : phrase
Meaning : to honestly say what you think, usually in a direct way
Example : Clara always speaks her mind, which sometimes gets her into trouble. 

 

frank
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes someone who is honest about their opinions
Example : Dan was completely frank about the problems he was facing in his marriage.

 

mirror
Form : verb
Meaning : to match the feelings of someone
Example : He always makes sure his views on office matters mirror those of his boss.

 

 

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