Tag: language

Unexpected Word Flow

Unexpected Word Flow

“What a terrible question! Look at how they worded this! What does it even mean?”

My girlfriend was taking an online survey and wanted backup in processing this question: “How often does your cat use the litter box?”

  1. 25% of the time
  2. 50% of the time
  3. 75% of the time
  4. 100% of the time

“Just what exactly is it trying to ask me?”

I told her that I think it’s trying to figure out how well-trained your cat is at using the litter box (i.e. s/he goes where s/he’s supposed to, or s/he makes a mess on the floor).

“Oh? Is it? Well, pft, what a poorly-worded question!”

And it kind of is, but it kind of isn’t… (well, okay, it totally is but I’m using this as a setup to make a point). Sometimes when there’s misunderstandings and miscommunication, it’s not actually because something is poorly-worded. If you go back to the original question, “How often does your cat use the litter box?”, there’s no grammatical errors.

Even if you had an accent, the question could be heard well enough. So why then all the confusion? That question plays against our expectations.

If you’re trying to figure out is your cat pees on the floor or not, how would you ask it?

  • Does your cat pee/ on the floor (a lot)?
  • Does your cat pee/poo outside the litter box?
  • Is your cat well-trained at using the litter box?

There’s plenty of other variations, but those would be the most “immediate” to mind. When you stray away from the typical kind of talk (i.e. the expected flow), the listener is going to be caught by surprise. As a result, they’ll second-guess if they heard it correctly.

So when they ask you to repeat, it’s just to stall so they can process “Did I really hear what I thought I heard?”

Here’s another example. When you meet someone, what’s one of the first things you might say?

  • Hey, how’s it going?
  • How are you?
  • Long time no see?

Again, there’s a whole list of other phrases. Depending on the closeness with the individual, you’re more likely to stray away from that sort of small talk.

Imagine if you said something like, “How’s your Mom?”– wouldn’t that be kind of weird? Maybe you’ve known your friend’s mother for a long time. Maybe you genuinely just want to know how she’s doing. But hearing that as the first thing coming out of your mouth, the listener will hesitate. The listener will probably ask you to repeat.

Not because there’s anything grammatically incorrect. Not because of the wording either. The confused reaction is caused by a non-typical flow of conversation.

So for my non-native speaker clients and readers:

Next time you’re having a conversation and someone asks you to repeat? Stop automatically assuming it’s because of your English. Stop immediately thinking you made a mistake. Cut that shit out.

It’s annoying. This sort of situation can happen to anybody.

It doesn’t do you any good to automatically assume you’re being deficient, and then take a blow to your self-esteem. In the next post, I’ll point out how native speakers can experience the same exact thing. In the meantime, you can check CollegeHumor‘s take:

English Lesson: To Keep

English Lesson: To Keep

One of the worst things you can do when learning a language is to know only one meaning of a word. You shouldn’t stress over trying to learn all the variations of meaning. That can be a nightmare especially when it comes to phrasal verbs. However, you want to make sure you know the most common usage of the word.

Let’s take “to keep” as an example.  Most of you know this as “to have” or “to hold”. If you look it up in the dictionary, this is the meaning that’s usually listed first.

Yes, it is possible to see native speakers use this meaning:

  • keep my cell phone in my left pocket and my keys in my right.
  • My brother keeps his car parked in front of the house instead of the garage.

But, I’d argue that a much more common usage of “to keep ” is “to continue”. In essence, you keep doing something.

  • Jon keeps forgetting her name.

You’ll notice that we need to use a gerund [base form + ing] when we use “keep” in this way. Here’s some more examples:

  • You need to keep studying and practicing.
  • People had better keep watching Jon’s videos.

Also, be aware that you can use this combination of “keep” with a gerund as a soft way to complain:

  • Sometimes, it’s hard to keep studying.

The formula you’re using is: Sometimes, it’s hard to + gerund

This sounds a lot better than simple saying something is hard. “Studying is hard” just sounds whiny.

Finally, be sure to watch your pronunciation.  Anytime you’re stuck sounding out each individual word sounds bad. So remember, it’s not hard / to / keep, but it actually sounds something like like har-ta-keep. Check out the video!

Explain to Me: Season’s Greetings

Explain to Me: Season’s Greetings

The most important thing to remember with any greeting: don’t be robotic. Unless you’re an actor, scripted dialogue is such a waste– and it’s a good reason why so many people hate small talk.

Unfortunately, lots of English learners rely on these kinds of phrases because they prioritize perfection instead of connection. Here’s my reminder to you: if you properly connect with a person, s/he won’t care how good or bad your language skills are.

A big problem with using textbook phrases is that you’re bound to encounter people who don’t play by the book. They’ll react in ways that don’t follow what you’ve studied, and you’ll feel extra unprepared in how to respond.

Case in point this holiday season: you might wish someone “Merry Christmas”. But instead of cheers and smiles, they give you a dirty look. Surprised? Not everybody in the US celebrates Christmas!

So what’s a better way to greet someone this holiday season? Check out the video to find out!

English Lesson: “End Up”

English Lesson: “End Up”

I’ve mentioned before that using “how come” is a lot better than “why” because it’s a lot less direct.

  • Why do you know Japanese?
  • How come you know Japanese?

In sort of a similar way, using the phrasal verb “end up” can help you loosen up your speech. When someone asks you about last night, you could say: I watched a movie.

No glaring problems there. Subject, verb, and grammar are all on point. But if I say: I ended up watching a movie. The person who uses this sentence structure sounds a lot more comfortable speaking.

So what’s the difference? The short answer is, there really isn’t any. If you use “I ended up~” instead of the simple sentence, your listeners are going to interpret it as the same meaning.

However, if you wanted to dissect the nuance, “end up” focuses on the result. Let’s imagine this scenario:

  1. Yesterday, we had lunch.
  2. You asked me what I would do in the evening.
  3. I say I’m planning to watch a movie.
  4. The next day, we have lunch again. You ask me how was the movie.
  5. I say that I ended up staying home.

Here, “end up” indicates a result that was different from my original plan. I planned to watch a movie, but I ended up staying home. In this case, I’m highlighting the change of plans.

Keep in mind, sometimes we stick to our plan: I ended up watching a movie (just like I planned). Note: in both examples, we use the gerund form (verb + ing) after “end up”.

There’s one more variation in how we can use “end up”. We can take out the gerund and use a location. For example, I ended up at Taco Bell.

Now what can we interpret from that sentence?

  1. I planned to go to Taco Bell, and I went there.
  2. I planned to go to somewhere else, but I went to Taco Bell instead.
  3. (NEW) I got lost and somehow went to Taco Bell.

The question becomes, how do you know which meaning is behind the words?

Remember, context is the most important thing! From the person’s delivery and tone of voice, we’ll be able to tell if they had a change of plans or got lost. Don’t overthink it!

If you have any further question, or if you’re interested in booking an online English lesson, send an e-mail my way at letstalk[at]commdao.com