We all do it when we learn a language.
I’ve done it, and I’m sure you’ve done it, too.
You go through years of speaking English using a particular word, phrase or piece of grammar.
Then one day, someone tells you that you’re wrong — what you’ve been using for years is actually not correct. You’ve been speaking “bad” English all this time!
Then you want to kill that person!
Just joking. You’re probably a lovely person, so you thank them for showing you your mistake and then you don’t make that mistake again.
So I’m here to be that guy. You can thank me later!
This is part one of a series of common mistakes in English.
In this part, we’re going to look at the kinds of mistakes you might be making because you’re using words that you don’t need to.
Why are you making this mistake?
It might be because your first language is a more descriptive language rather than a concise language.
What does that mean?
The way I see it, there are two broad categories of language: descriptive and concise.
Descriptive languages usually use a lot of words, while concise languages use fewer words to express the same idea.
Perhaps we can say that descriptive languages are like this guy:
I’d like to call him Andre.
And concise languages are like this lady:
We’ll call her Anita.
English is a concise language, but a lot of languages around the world are more descriptive. Some examples of descriptive languages are Italian and Russian.
So when you’re speaking English, you need to “sound” more like Anita.
But if your first language is a descriptive language, your English might well sound like Andre’s.
The main trick? Cut out as many words as you can!
It’s important to remember that Andre-type sentences are still technically correct. They may even be preferable in some particularly formal situations.
But the reason I’m calling them mistakes is that 80% of the time, they will sound unnatural or too “wordy.”
So here are some of the most common “Andre” mistakes that you might be making:
- You’re using two words with the same meaning.
- You’re using “date,” “location” and “amount” when there’s a more natural solution.
- You’re using random words that are totally unnecessary.
- You talk about your university days like a robot.
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
1. Don’t use two words with the same meaning
“The weather is very foggy today.”
“The car’s colour is yellow.”
“The temperature is over 40 degrees. Let’s get an ice cream.”
“It’s foggy today.”
“The car is yellow.”
“It’s over 40 degrees. Let’s get an ice cream.”
Foggy is a kind of weather, right? So don’t use “weather.”
Yellow is a colour, isn’t it? So you don’t need to use “colour.”
Forty degrees is a temperature, so you don’t need to say “temperature.” Also — that ice cream won’t last long.
2. You’re using “date,” “location” and “amount” when there’s a more natural solution
“I still don’t know the date of the party.”
“Can you tell me the camel’s location?”
“We’ll never know the amount of carrots he ate. But he’s looking very orange right now.”
“I still don’t know when the party is.”
“Can you tell me where the camel is?”
“We’ll never know how many carrots he ate. But he’s looking very orange right now.”
As you can see, we prefer to use “when,” “where,” “why,” etc. as connecting words to make two sentences one sentence:
I still don’t know. + When is the party? = I still don’t know when the party is.
Can you tell me? + Where is the camel? = Can you tell me where the camel is?
We’ll never know. + How many strawberries did he eat? = We’ll never know how many strawberries he ate.
These are called embedded questions, and we LOVE using them in English.
Why? Well, they just “flow” better, and that’s exactly what Anita likes!
3. Just don’t use words when you don’t need to
“A lot of people didn’t come to this concert event.”
“This project’s actions will finish in three months.”
“I was asked about the situation of all the bats in my living room.”
“A lot of people didn’t come to this concert.”
“This project will finish in three months.”
“I was asked about all the bats in my living room.”
This is similar to the first part of this post (about the weather and colours).
A concert is an event — so you only need one of these words.
A project involves actions, and having bats in your living room is a situation. So you can cut those extra words out!
4. Talk about your university times like a human — not a robot!
“I went to the University of Leeds.”
“I entered university when I was 18.”
“I studied in the Department of Camel Studies.”
“I went to Leeds Uni.”
“I got into university when I was 18.”
“I did Camel Studies.”
OK. These are actually all a bit different, but they’re all about university and are examples of sentences I hear all the time.
When English learners talk about university, they often sound very, very formal and robotic.
I don’t know about you, but my university days were the least formal, not the most formal, days of my life.
And this is reflected in how we talk about university.
Let’s look at these one by one:
Uni rule 1:
Avoid saying “the University of…” unless it’s a formal situation. Also, you can abbreviate “university” to “uni.” It sounds more friendly!
Uni rule 2:
You don’t “enter” a university (unless you’re walking through the door). Use the phrasal verb “get into,” or simply “start.”
Uni rule 3:
You can say “I studied …” but a less formal option is “I did …” It’s more concise, and Anita will like you for it.
So … was I right?
Were you making any of these mistakes before you read this post?
I’d love to hear from you about which mistakes you were making (if any).
Also, do you notice other people making the same mistake again and again? Tell me about it — this stuff fascinates me!
So be awesome, join in the discussion and leave your comments below!
Thank you for the informative article.
Yes, I’ve been making this mistakes specially adding more words giving out the same meaning.
Thanks for commenting. Yes — sometimes grammar and vocab aren’t enough to fix our mistakes. It’s good to know that you now know what to do!
Let me know if you need some help 🙂
Thank you. It is very useful indeed.
Actually, I have been speaking English (language) for 11 years; I still make these (mentioned) mistakes. I think I didn’t pay attention,but now I will (pay attention).
The brackets are to let you know if I truely learnt.
Thanks for sharing:)
That’s fantastic news. Your comment shows that you definitely understood well!
It should also be I don’t think I paid attention, not I think I didn’t pay attention.
Uni? Hmm, I feel it’s a bit too informal for me. I feel if it’s as if I called you Gabby. Mind you, it could depend on where you live. There are sometimes cultural differences depending on the country.
Yes, you’re totally right.
It’s more or less impossible to say “which English is right.” But it’s good to be aware of the flexibility of the language.
In my experience, with most learners, a step towards more informal has been needed more than a step towards more formal. Hence the inclusion of “uni.”
But it really does depend on so many factors, your immediate situation and where you are in the world (or the country) for example.
Awesome. I’ve been teaching for quite a while and have never paid attention to these details! Tks
Yeah! There are some things that mere grammar and vocabulary don’t address.
Glad you liked it! 😀
Then why do all elementary level study books have sentences like “The weather is sunny and warm” (the reference to No. 1)? They have been written by native speakers. Have we been teaching it wrong? Hmmmm….
I’ve found that a lot of the coursebooks have very, very unnatural English in them. This is a very common complaint about them in fact.
If you find the time, check out Scott Thornbury’s articles on this topic.
Dear Gabriel! You are a great teacher. The problem is that I am a cursed Italian talkative who has decided to learn English at the age of 80. What do you think? Am I crazy or not? HELLO!
You’re never too old to start learning!
Also, the “mistakes” in this post are only mistakes if you want to speak more like a Brit or an American.
As long as you’re understood, you should be happy to express yourself like an Italian!
When I saw the sentence “We’ll never know the amount of carrots he ate” in your picture, I thought the mistake was going to be that we don’t use “amount” with countable nouns. It should be “number,” shouldn’t it? We’ll never know the number of carrots he ate. Or we’ll never know the amount of milk he drank. I am not positive of the rule, but that seems right to me. However I’m an American so maybe American English is different…?
That’s a really good point, and yep — it’s the same in the UK and Aus.
I actually included that extra “mistake” because it’s usually in that form (regardless of countable or uncountable nouns used) that I’ve heard this particular mistake. So I figured that those who do make this mistake would recognise it as their error.
If it is possible to make your language even more concise, do it.
“Few came to the concert.”
“I was asked about the bats in my living room.”
Meanwhile, in North American English, being vague is viewed as a character weakness. So “I still don’t know when the party is,” is viewed as ineffectual whining undeserving of a response, whereas “When is the party?” is more likely to receive a positive (and informative) response.
I like the advice. One step further!
Also, great point on the whole “indirectness” of British English. So we sound whiny to you guys, huh? 😛
A good example of how “snide” and irritatingly indirect British English can be, have a look at this American’s account of it (start from 01:18)
The way you put it sounds more narural , I like it. I’ve been doing the same mistakes. Thank you.
Great! I’m so glad to help!
The way you put it sounds more natural and good. I liked it. I’ve been doing the same mistakes for years, thanks for the explanation.
I’m really happy that this helped.
Sometimes sounding natural is about more than just grammar and vocabulary, right?
Fun article, and I love the way you respond to comments. As I teacher, I find this stuff useful and intriguing too. I think students veer towards the formal because they so often need English for a job interview, but sounding human really is everything! Andre must be stopped!
Thanks loads Ali!
Yes, most learners have a very formal English education. I think this really gets in the way of learning the language as a whole. It gives learners “bad instinct” for English because informal language is the most natural form of the language. It came before formal language, which was built on top of it.
What’s more, most job interviews and business environments today are becoming less and less formal. They would hire Anita over Andre.
Let’s stop Andre, put him in a cupboard and only bring him out for those super-formal situations that happen once in a while.
I agree with most of your points, I can’t even count how many times I’ve corrected sentences like “The weather is sunny.” I don’t know where the students get it, I’ve always taught “it’s sunny” and that’s also how the books I’ve used teach it.
But I’d say that the two sentences in your last point about the Camel Studies have two different meanings – studying in the Department of Camel Studies doesn’t necessarily mean doing Camel Studies. E. g. if I say: “I studied in the Department of English and American Studies” that doesn’t mean I did English and American studies. Some people do English Studies, some do American Studies, others do Literature, Translation, etc. but it’s still in the same department. So, “I studied in the Dept. of E. and Am. Studies” isn’t the same as “I did E. and Am. studies”.
Such a good point. And one I hadn’t totally considered.
It kind of makes the whole issue of “overladen” sentences more important to point out to our students I guess. When I hear students talk about studying in the department of camel studies, what they’re trying to say is that they studied Camel Studies. So their over-explicitness is actually making them less accurate.
Thanks for the observation!
Great post! It helped me a lot. Thanks to Anita and thank you!
Thanks for the thanks and I’m glad you found it useful.
Anita says thanks, too! 🙂
hi, i came across your blog the other day. it´s a refreshing stle that you have. Nice use of different techniques, very accessible and has a ” friendly feel ” to it.
I have just found your website. IT IS FASCINATING. More than anything, your tone is lovely.
Greeting from Iran
Keep up the good work! 🙂
Just today I find your blog, and it’s really helpful. I think you’re helping us building on our ability with a concise touch!
Great post, thank you Gabriel!
One of my students keeps saying something like :”It happened because of the reason that …” I think this is exactly what you are talking about – random words you can easily go without..
Here are mine:
Yikes! The fog!
Where’s the camel?
The deadline’s in 3 months.
I took philosophy.