7 things British English speakers say that your teacher told you not to

7 things British English speakers say that your teacher told you not to

For more British English, have a look at these 8 Very British Idioms.

Have you had the experience of leaving an English lesson feeling confident and able to speak English?

Then you start trying to watch a film in English, or you get on the phone with your English client.

And you don’t understand anything.

That’s because during the English lesson, you’ve probably been experiencing the kind of English that Jasper speaks:

Jasper the classic English guy

Jasper is the classic English guy. He drinks tea, carries a briefcase and wears a lovely hat.

And he speaks very, very, very clean English.

When you listen to Jasper or read what he has to say, you feel comfortable and you feel like you totally understand English.

But here’s the bad news: Jasper doesn’t speak English in the same way that normal people speak English.

In fact, the only people who speak English like Jasper are English teachers. During lessons.

But most British English speakers actually speak more like Jerry:

Jerry the normal guy

If you want to speak naturally, understand more and interact in real, natural English, you need to look at how Jerry speaks.

Before we continue, I’d like to say that there’s nothing wrong with Jasper. He’s a great guy and we need to have people like Jasper around so that we can easily understand the basics of the language.

But Jerry is closer to the guy we’re aiming for if you want to communicate easily with your English client, get into a conversation with your British friends, or understand what on earth is going on when you’re watching shows on the BBC.

So what are the differences between the way Jasper speaks and the way Jerry speaks?

Interestingly, the biggest difference is that Jasper doesn’t break the rules.

But Jerry breaks the rules all the time.

This isn’t because he’s uneducated or lazy. Everyone, including me, breaks the rules every day, usually not by accident. And I’m super educated and not lazy at all.

When I last went back to England, I noticed several interesting things that the people around me did all the time.

These are things that Jasper would never say, because they completely break the rules.

But it’s what we say in the real world.

Once you know these, you’ll be able to understand British English speakers much more easily. You may even be able to speak like them (if that’s what you’d like).

Remember, though, that there are hundreds of ways that expert English speakers break the rules and in this post we’re going to look at 7 of the most common (in my social circles).

What are they? Let’s take a look at them one by one:

Broken rule #1: Speak in small bits

For each of these interesting broken rules, I’d like you to listen to the audio first, try to understand what on earth Jerry’s saying, and then read about it. Then listen again and see if you can understand better this time.

So go ahead… listen!

What Jerry says:

I got the postman job!

Great news. Careful though. Walking around like that all day. So tiring. Best to sit down when you have the chance. Good for the back that way.

What Jasper would say:

That is great news. Be careful, though. It’s tiring to walk around like that all day. It’s best to sit down when you have the chance. It’s good for the back that way.

What’s going on?

OK. This is something Brits (and probably Americans, Australians, etc.) do a lot.

Here’s a line from one of my favourite stand-up comedians: “No flag, no country!” which means, “If you don’t have a flag, then you don’t have a country.”

It’s amazing how much more efficient the language can be if you cut words out.

How does it work?

In some cases, we can cut out the subject and am/is/are. That’s because the object is enough:

That’s fantastic. → Fantastic.

I’m on my way home. → On my way home.

We can also use verb 3 (the past participle) to create a passive feeling:

There he is. Exhausted after all that running.

Remember, you can’t just do this whenever you want. You must make sure that the meaning is clear from the context. People still need to understand you, right?

Now listen again. Easier this time, wasn’t it?

Broken rule #2: Finishing others’ sentences with a relative clause. Which is fun.

Listen first!

What Jerry says:

And then he sang that song again.

…which is really annoying.

What Jasper would say:

And then he sang that song again.

It’s really annoying that he sang that song again.

What’s going on?

Have you ever spoken to someone for an hour and walked away from the conversation without knowing anything new, but you still felt good because you got to know that person a little bit more?

That’s because language has two main functions: The first is to communicate and exchange information. The other is to build relationships between people.

In this case, Jerry’s using a relative clause to add meaning to the sentence and bond with the poor woman who had to listen to some bad singing.

It’s like saying “and…” to help support someone’s argument.

How does it work?

When you’re talking to someone about something you both already know, you’re using language to create a stronger bond.

That’s when you can add to someone’s opinion by making a statement about it with “which” + statement or “which” + verb (+ object).

There are only two choices left: broccoli…

…which is disgusting.

Or the hummus…

…which is delicious.

Now, listen again. Find it easier?

Broken rule #3: Clever though, isn’t it?

What Jerry says:

Look at this jacket. The colour’s perfect. The style’s perfect. It’s perfect!

Yeah. Expensive though, isn’t it?

What Jasper would say:

Look at this jacket. The colour’s perfect. The style’s perfect. It’s perfect!

Yes. But it is expensive though, isn’t it?

What’s going on?

This is like the opposite of using a relative clause to add to someone’s sentence.

If the relative clause was like saying “and…” to help support someone’s argument, this is like saying “but…” to provide the other side of their argument.

It helps create balance and make the dialogue more dynamic.

How does it work?

The formula is quite simple. After someone makes an observation about something, but you feel there’s another side to it, then you simply add:

adjective + though + isn’t it?

This can be used to express the negative side of something positive:

That rabbit is so pretty! Dangerous though, isn't it?

Or the positive side of something negative:

These musicians are really noisy.

Fun though, isn’t it?

Listen again:

Broken rule #4: Dropping the subject

What Jerry says:

Was going to the shop the other day. Saw a guy. Had a very strange hat on. Haven’t seen him since.

Was going to the shop the other day. Saw a guy. Had a very strange hat on. Haven't seen him since.

What Jasper would say:

I was going to the shop the other day. I saw a guy. He had a very strange hat on. I haven’t seen him since.

What’s going on?

This is always the first thing I notice when I go back to England.

It’s not very complicated. Simply that if the context is clear, you can just drop the subject if you like.

It sounds more casual and relaxed. It also makes everything a little easier.

How does it work?

Just … erm… drop the subject and go straight for the verb.

So instead of saying, “I’ll check it out,” say, “Will check it out.”

Or instead of  “She doesn’t like giraffes very much,” you can say, “Doesn’t like giraffes very much.”

This is particularly fun because your English teacher will hate it! But it really is how a lot of Brits speak.

Just remember that it’s important that you’re understood. So don’t use it if you think the meaning isn’t clear.

Listen again:

Broken rule #5: Wanna do it?

What Jerry says:

Wanna come to my house and see my new elephant?

Wanna come to my house and see my new elephant?

What Jasper would say:

Would you like to come to my house and see my new elephant?

What’s going on?

This one is also very simple.

When we want to invite someone or suggest something to do, we can use “Wanna …?” as a question (shortened from “Do you want to…?”).

This really only works for invitations:

Wanna go to the theatre with me on Wednesday? I’ve got a spare ticket.

Or suggestions:

I’m bored.

Wanna watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus? I’ve got it all on DVD.

How does it work?

Simple! Instead of “Do you want to…” or “Would you like to…” or “Shall we…” just say “Wanna…”

Listen again:

Broken rule #6: Are you ok with that, or…?

What Jerry says:

Thanks for lending me that cash. Can I pay you back on Monday, or…?

What Jasper would say:

Thanks for lending me that cash. Can I pay you back on Monday?

What’s going on?

This is a signal to show that you’re not completely sure about the answer and you’d like to leave it open for the other person to make the decision.

You leave an open window.

It’s very polite and it’s a great way to deal with sensitive situations (like paying money back).

But we can also use it to show that we’re really not sure about what we’re asking:

Do potatoes grow on trees, or…?

Are you coming on Friday, or…?

How does it work?

Here’s the formula:

Question + or

Listen again:

Broken rule #7: You’re OK with that, yeah?

What Jerry says:

Hey, Amber. Your graduation is in March, right?

What Jasper would say:

Hey, Amber. Your graduation is in March, isn’t it?

What’s going on?

This is like using “or…?” or “isn’t it?” at the end of a sentence, except it’s more confident.

Use it when you feel sure about what you’re asking but you just want to confirm it.

How does it work?

After a sentence, add “right?” or “yeah?” Make sure you pronounce it like a question.

Listen again:

So now you have the option to speak like Jasper or like Jerry, depending on the situation.

It’s important to remember that if you’re in a formal setting, don’t speak like Jerry. It might be uncomfortable. It’s safer to speak a bit more like Jasper. He also has the advantage of being easier to understand.

Finally, remember that we only looked at one “Jerry” today. The way today’s Jerry speaks is how I speak (when I’m not speaking to an elementary English speaker) and how my friends and family from my generation speak.

My Jerry would be different if I was from Newcastle, New York, Johannesburg or Mumbai.

So when it comes to choosing what kind of English you should speak, remember that you don’t have to sound like you’re from England, America, Australia or Saturn (where they speak excellent English). You can sound however you like.

But just remember that there are a lot of English speakers out there. And a lot of them — even well-educated, motivated ones — speak like Jerry.

21 thoughts on “7 things British English speakers say that your teacher told you not to

  1. Thanks for making it clear.Jerry’s talk is just casual whilst Jasper’s is more formal. So, in school standard English is fine to be taught. No problem, right?

    1. I think everyone’s English should be taught.
      For sure it’s good to have an understanding of formal English, but that’s not very useful by itself. We need Jasper AND Jerry.
      What’s more, depending on our situation, we might well need Jerry more, especially since the business world has become more and more relaxed and informal.
      But, yes. Standard English (Jasper’s English) is fine to be taught as long as it’s not the only one.

  2. Strange that one should be urged to break grammar rules,whatever rules,for that matter!After all,a man is known by the company he keeps and the way he speaks!

    1. You make a good point, and I’m never going to tell anyone that they have to break grammar rules.

      What I want to make clear in this post is that in reality people DO break them, and we need to be prepared to deal with that.

      1. Couldn’t agree more. Actually the world is changing a lot. Has always changed but now it’s changing much faster. That includes the way people work, interact, get information and the way we all use English. Whether we like it or not, people now tend to be more casual and relaxed in situations they wouldnt before.

        I’ve read that even the Queen is speaking differently these days. Estuary English is a more relaxed English that is regarded as ok. Even some celebrities choose it

        Also I’ve read that because English has become the net language it will be very different from what it is now . Not everybody will be able to speak standard English and no one can stop or control the way a language evolves.

        Love this post. Really. So useful, right? The British rule again.


        1. Well, if the Queen’s starting to lose formality, then the Empire has truly fallen!

          But more seriously: yes — I think you’ve got it exactly right. The world is changing, so language is changing with it.

          The fact that more and more people will use English as a “net” language will, I think, change the way we use English even more.

          What was unacceptable even just 20 years ago is becoming perfectly acceptable now.

          I could talk about this for hours!


  3. Yeah, you are right. We can’t limit our expressions to certain rules. Especially the non-native of English. They are found quarreling with rules as there is more focus on them in the schools. Consequently voice doesn’t come out from the throat. Finally, rules are for us, we are not made for rules. However, they must not be broken beyond some limit as it may lead to confusion between both the listeners and speakers.

    1. Vishal,

      I couldn’t agree more. It’s an important issue, isn’t it? We all speak a bit differently and, as you said, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of communication, we should celebrate that.

  4. I’ve finally found an article which confirms what I used to think. It’s so obvious that native English people don’t speak like Jasper.

    1. Yep. It’s all a conspiracy!

      Just kidding. But yeah — what you learn in standard courses is definitely not enough.

      Although — there are some great teachers out there that realise that and make sure their students are prepared for the so-called “real world.”

      I’m glad you found what you were looking for Dawid! 🙂

      1. It’s a conspiracy Huahuaaa. Yeaaah. Omfg 🙂

        Know what. Now we finally have a way to be with the British without having to travel to Britain. These vids some people are posting plus your blog are second to none when it comes to showing the real language .

          1. Hi Gabriel, thanks again for your interesting posts. Do you think that pronouncing certain sounds will change ? I read an article where they said that the sounds corresponding to ‘TH’ will become different from the actual RP.

          2. Hi Emma,

            Very good point.

            Yes — the sounds of all languages are in constant shift. If you even listen to some early 20th century recordings, you’ll hear some of the vowel sounds are pretty different from how we tend to pronounce them now, not to mention the different accents there are in English anyway.

            Some larger features (like “th”) are also predicted to change, and for good reason.

            Since most of the conversations in English are between non-native speakers these days (the vast majority of them), that means that many unnecessary features are starting to disappear from everyday speech. One of these features is the “th” sound. We just don’t need it and most people can’t pronounce it, so why have it?

            Another one of these features is the third person -s (“She goes” might become “She go”), and the word “fewer” (“There are fewer people here today” might become “There are less people here today”).

            Great question!

  5. OMG Gabriel I am in lurrrvvveee with this blog post so much. I say as much in the message I’ve prepared for sharing it on FB during the week. Learners are obsessed with the idea that they can’t understand spoken English because of slang – if I had a euro for every time I’ve heard that, well I’d give up online teaching in a heartbeat and move to my own private desert island! Lol!
    But no – the real problems are shortcuts in pronunciation (connected speech) and shortcuts in syntax and grammar as you outline so wonderfully in this post. When you’re expecting to hear full sentences, then of course you freak out when you only hear half of one!
    I make space in my lesson worksheets for going over things like non-standard grammar and vague language after listening to some “real” English. I’m going to bear in mind your list and add some of my own examples so the students I work with start to integrate how this also affects their comprehension and how they can use these structures in their own speech to sound more fluent and natural. Nice one!

  6. Thank you very much, Gabriel!
    As always the devil is in the factoids. I am not unconvinced by your arguments, just don’t like the term “break”; it’s provocative in a good sense, yes, but you can’t do that with the rules, really, only playing in an unorthodox ways — when it’s your native language and you are mature and/or confident enough not to forget them at all. So, in the end, it’s the question of appropriateness as well as the maxim: “you can’t fake it till you make it” 😉
    And there’re heaps of the ways to annoy your teacher, but that’s the very bad strategy in a long run especially. (Just being authentic is always quite enough.)
    If I were to add something, I’d go with the abbreviations and a double negative, but it’s me, of course, who can’t get no satis’faction or TLC. 😉
    As for: “I could talk about this for hours!” — please do the audio podcast — I mean it!

    1. Absolutely! I totally agree about the usage of “break.” What does it mean to break the rules? What rules? We make the rules!

      And yes — not the best idea to annoy the teacher! Though most teachers these days accept the plasticity of English.

      Ooohhh… yeah — abbreviations and double negatives are a good one. I hadn’t thought of them. Perhaps in a later post? Will think about the podcast. Promise!

  7. It’s really a cool and helpful piece of info. I am satisfied that you just shared this useful info with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

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