Speaking Out of Order

Speaking Out of Order

Remember: speaking has a certain flow. When you follow the right kind of sequence, you sound smooth. When you deviate, something sounds “off”.

If you’re learning English, you’ll be tempted to over-commit to certain phrases. Unfortunately, that makes you sound more robotic than natural. Here’s a good example from Japan:

A: Hi, how are you?

B: I’m fine, thank you. And you?

There’s nothing technically wrong with that, but without any room for deviation, it sounds pretty dull.

Breaking away from the mold needs some nuance and balance. Take this recent exchange with a client for example. Tetsuo wanted to know the opposite of “I’m busy”. We have a whole range of expressions:

  • I’m free.
  • I have nothing on my schedule.
  • Today’s slow.

They all essentially mean the same, but the method for using them can differ. “I’m free” is the most universal because it can be a reply or a general statement. The sentence about the schedule explains the reason. The day feeling slow is a commentary.

If you’re talking out loud and say, “Today’s slow.” No problem. On the other hand, if this was a conversation exchange:

A: Are you free?

B: Today’s slow.

Something sounds “off”. The reason is the sequence is out of order. Something is missing.

A: Are you free?

B: Yeah, I have nothing on my schedule. Today’s slow.

That sounds better. The combination works. Now, the trick is to not become too obsessed with the setup of the sequence. This is where people get trapped in extended small talk.

Just think of it this way: before you explain or provide commentary, you need to address the point first.

If you get ahead of yourself, that’s fine. Giving a detailed explanation or personal comment earlier works out okay, just as long as you have everything together in the end.

A: Are you free?

B: Today’s slow. [Personal Commentary] I have nothing on my schedule. [Explanation implies the answer]


Note: when I talk about speaking “out of order”, don’t confuse that with speaking “out of turn” (i.e. interrupting). In fact, I think for many passive speakers, they need to learn to be more aggressive and cut people off. Even in an interruption, you can be fluent. Native speakers interrupt all the time!

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