2 Things You're (Probably) Doing That Make You Sound Unnatural in English

2 Things You’re (Probably) Doing That Make You Sound Unnatural in English

Posted on Posted in Easy English Grammar, Easy English Speaking

You’ve come so far!

 

If you’re reading this blog, it means that you’ve got far enough with your English to understand the weird, and sometimes complicated, things that I keep talking about.

 

Congratulations!

 

It really isn’t easy. Learning a language is tough.

 

I’m guessing that sometime between when you started learning and now, you noticed something important:

 

Learning a language is about more than just the grammar and vocabulary, right?

 

You need to sound more “natural.”

 

This is, in a way, the final barrier to becoming an expert speaker.

 

You can have all the control over grammar, and vocabulary richer than a Russian oligarch.

 

But without those natural expressions and ways of speaking, you feel like you’re speaking like a robot. But not just any robot… like, a really awkward robot:

 

Awkward robot

 

But you don’t want that, right?

 

You wanna speak like this lady — she totally looks like she knows what she’s talking about.

 

Capable lady
Also, love the phone.

 

OK. Here’s where I step in. (Warning: there will be giraffes.)

 

Although sounding natural is complex, and may not even be something you need to do (there’s nothing wrong with displaying where you’re from through your English), there are a couple of useful shortcuts.

 

So today, I’m going to give you two simple little hacks that can make you sound more natural in English. They’ll also make your English more efficient.

 

Both of these hacks start from the same piece of advice:

 

Repetition is (usually) not your friend.

 

But first I want to tell you a story about Ranjit, Karen and the traffic cone:

 

Ranjit, Karen and the traffic cone
Why does Ranjit want a traffic cone? Find out here.

 

“I was outside with my friend Karen. Karen showed me her traffic cone. I was like, “Yeah, that’s a nice traffic cone. Where can I get a traffic cone?” And Karen said that there were traffic cones next to the police station and that I should just go and take a traffic cone, just like she took a traffic cone the day before.”

 

Sounds weird, right?

 

So much repetition — repetition of both nouns (“Karen” and “traffic cone”) and repetition of verbs, too (“take a traffic cone”/“took a traffic cone”).

 

We’ll come back to this story at the end of the post, but first, let’s look at the simple ways we can stop repeating ourselves!

 

1. Are you repeating verbs?

The rule: use the auxiliary verb. It's magic!

 

This is simple.

 

Instead of repeating a verb (or a verb phrase), you can replace it with the auxiliary verb.

 

What’s an auxiliary verb? Click here.

You might also know these as “helping verbs.”

 

In any sentence with a verb in it, the auxiliary is between the subject and the verb.

 

Usually you can see it:

He’s eating giraffe soup again.

or

I can see him!

 

Sometimes you can’t see it, but it’s there:

I live here. — I (do) live here.

or

She met him at an elephant factory. — She (did) meet him at an elephant factory.

 

The easy way to find the auxiliary? Just use the question form — it’ll be the first word of the question:

Is he eating giraffe soup again?

Can you see him?

Do you live here?

Have they even looked at the report?

Did she meet him at an elephant factory?


You can do this within the same sentence:

 

I've got loads of money and you haven't (got loads of money). Ha, ha, ha!

 

…in the context of a conversation:

 

Hey, Didem. Are you playing giraffe tennis tommorow with Tomaz? Yeah, I am (playing giraffe tennis tomorrow). But Tomaz isn't (playing giraffe tennis tomorrow). Will you (play giraffe tennis tomorrow)?

 

And you can also do it in an answer:

 

Is giraffe tennis difficult? (Yes, difficult.) Yes, it is.

 

Much cleaner (and more natural), isn’t it?

 

Although this last example is the kind of thing we learn very early on in English (“Do you have a computer? Yes, I do.”  “Are you eating lunch? Yes, I am.”) you’d be surprised how many advanced English speakers still say things like, “Do you have a computer? Yes, I have a computer,”  or “Are you eating lunch? Yes, I am eating lunch.”

 

Using the auxiliary like this may seem very simple, but that’s the beauty of it. We can remove sooooo many words and still understand what’s happening.

 

It’s like we’re speaking in code — special expert English-speaker code.

 

Here’s an example of one of my least favourite people in history using it rather well:

 

“Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

Margaret Thatcher

 

And here’s a little video of me having a very natural conversation using almost only auxiliaries:

 

 

2. Are you repeating nouns?

The rule: use a pronoun, "one" or "some."

 

Nouns are actually a little trickier than verbs because there are different kinds of nouns.

 

Nous can be:

  • Countable or uncountable (“thing” or “stuff”)
  • Singular or plural (“thing” or “things”)
  • Specific or general (“the thing”/“the stuff” or “a thing”/“stuff”)

 

But this is a bit of a boring, technical way of looking at it.

 

So let’s imagine a situation:

 

Alec and Tina are working on a massive project. They need lots of things to make the project work.

 

Sometimes what they need is countable, sometimes uncountable, sometimes they just need one thing, sometimes they need a lot of them. Sometimes it’s a specific thing that they need and sometimes it doesn’t matter which one. As long as they have one.

 

Like I said, it’s a massive project.

 

So here they are working on the project:

 

Have we got the motor yet? No. We'll need to get it. What about the material? Emma's got it. And a flag? Yeah. We've got one. Have we got any gas? Yeah. Emma got some today. Where are the keys? They're in my pocket And did you buy me some flowers? No! I want some this time.

 

For the more technically minded, here are the rules in table form:

 

 SpecificNon-specific
Singularit
(the motor)
one
(a flag)
Pluralthey / them
(the keys)
some
(flowers)
Uncountableit
(the material)
some
(gas)

I know this is, in a way, quite simple stuff.

 

But as I said, I regularly hear advanced English learners make these kinds of mistakes.

 

So, remember this paragraph from the beginning of the post?

 

“I was outside with my friend Karen. Karen showed me her traffic cone. I was like, “Yeah, that’s a nice traffic cone. Where can I get a traffic cone?” And Karen said that there were traffic cones next to the police station and that I should just go and take a traffic cone, just like she took a traffic cone the day before.”

 

Can you fix it?

 

Make Karen’s story more natural! Write your answer in the comments. I’d love to see how you do.

17 thoughts on “2 Things You’re (Probably) Doing That Make You Sound Unnatural in English

  1. I was outside with my friend Karen. He showed me her traffic cone. I was like, “Yeah, that’s a nice one. Where can I get one?” And Karen said that there were some next to the police station and that I should just go and take one, just like she took one the day before.

  2. I was outside with my friend Karen. She showed me her traffic cone. I was like: “Yeah, That’s a nice traffic cone. Where can I get one?” She said (that) there were some next to the police station and that I should just go and take one, just like she did the day before. What about my “naturalization”?

  3. I was outside with my friend Karen. Karen showed me her traffic cone. I was like, “Yeah, that’s nice t. Where can I get it?” And Karen said that there were some next to the police station and that I should just go and take one, just like she took one the day before.

    1. Hi Ane.

      Good work. I’ve just got a few suggestions:

      1. “I was outside with my friend Karen. She showed me her traffic cone.”
      2. “Yeah, that’s a nice one/traffic cone. Where can I get one?” — remember — Ranjit isn’t thinking of a specific traffic cone. Any traffic cone is enough!
      3. “…that I should just go and take one, just like she did the day before.”

      Otherwise, excellent work!

  4. “I was outside with my friend Karen. Karen showed me her traffic cone. I was like, “Yeah, that’s a nice stuff. Where can I get one?” And Karen said that there were quite a few next to the police station and that I should just go and pick one, just like she did the day before.”

    1. Ooohhh… I like it. A bit different.

      Suggestions:
      – “I was outside with my friend Karen. She showed me …”
      – “Yeah, that’s a nice one.” (cone is countable, right?)

      Awesome bit that I thought was innovative:
      – “…quite a few next to the police station.”

      Good work Monika!

  5. I was outside with my friend Karen. She showed me her traffic cone. I was like, “Yeah, that’s a nice one. Where can I get it?” And she said that there were some next to the police station and that I should just go and take it, just like she did a day before.

    1. Awesome — so close to perfect.

      Just one error: “”…that’s a nice one. Where can I get one?” — remember Ranjit’s still not interested in a specific cone. Any cone will work for him!

      Otherwise PERFECT! Good work!

  6. I was outside with my friend Karen. She showed me her traffic cone. I was like, “Yeah, that’s a nice traffic cone. Where can I get one?” And she said that there were some next to the police station and that I should just go and take one, just like she did the day before

  7. Love this Gabriel. I actually think some teachers are at fault here for forcing students to make complete sentences even though it sounds “unnatural”. I haven’t decided if I’m including myself in that – I possibly have at times!
    2 questions – what were you drinking before the phone rang?
    Was there someone on the end of the line and what were they asking you about? They sound pushy!

    1. Haha! Good questions. I’ll answer those first.

      I was drinking black tea I think. Tea is awesome.

      I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess what they were talking about. But it was based on a certain British sitcom from the 70s. Set in a hotel. In Torquay. With John Cleese in it. And a Spanish waiter.

      But I say no more on that.

      And yes… I think we’ve all been guilty of correcting students who use complete sentences instead of just letting it sound natural. I guess it begs the question: are they doing it for the right reasons? I mean the whole “you’ve gotta know the rules to break them” thing. Interesting area, but at least learners should be made aware of the phenomenon. Hence this post!

  8. I was outside with my friend Karen. she showed me her traffic cone. I was like,”“Yeah, that’s a nice one. Where can I get one?” she said that there were some next to the police station and that I should just go and take one, just like she did the day before.

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