English slang

Reported speech

And I was like… What on earth are you doing? And then he was like, I live here, actually. So I was like, well why don’t you tidy up sometimes. And he was like, I can do what I want, thank you.

So I arrive there and then she’s like, why didn’t you get here earlier? So I’m like, well, come on, I’m here now – I’m not late. 

In colloquial English, especially among young people, when they are describing what somebody said, they will use the verb to be + like to mean say or said. It’s simply a way of talking about what someone said. Depending on how many people are involved and the tense (时态), you can use was/is/will be or were/are.

If you get there really early, they’ll be like, “This guy must be a good worker, he’s here 20 minutes early!”

Slang

You muppet!

This means, you silly person! It is used between friends, and is still reasonably polite (it is much more polite than stupid, for example). 


I’m gutted 

Gutted means disappointed. So you can say, I was gutted because we tried so hard but we still lost the game. Or, maybe you missed a TV programme that you really wanted to see, so you say, I was gutted that I missed that episode of Friends – it’s my favourite TV programme!

Wimp

A wimp is someone who is weak and easily afraid. It’s not a rude word, but obviously the meaning is negative, but it could be used among friends. For example,

Don’t be such a wimp – it’s not raining that much. You can still go to the shops in this weather.

Don’t be a wimp – cleaning those toilets won’t kill you. It’s only a bad smell. 

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Conversational English and other unusual words

Here are some expressions that I have heard in conversation today, said by English people – and which could be difficult to understand if you are not from the UK and are not familiar with the Western culture.

That was a curve ball!

A “curve ball” is something that you did not expect – something that took you by surprise and which you weren’t ready for – you weren’t prepared for it. For example, if your lecturer suddenly asks you a very difficult question that you can’t answer, you can say, “He threw in a curve ball”, or, “that last question was a bit of a curve ball – I didn’t know how to answer it”.

Can you bring me up to speed?

Maybe you have missed the first part of a meeting with your class mates, and they have already talked about some of the discussion topics, and you want them to tell you the things that you missed, you can say, “Sorry I’m late. Can you bring me up to speed with where we are at now?” This means, I am behind, please help me catch up with where you are now in the conversation. 

The anti-christ

This is a term from the bible, and it is talking about an evil person who will be against God and against Jesus Christ. From time to time you might hear the phrase anti-christ on TV, or someone might say it to mean an evil person. 

Nun

A woman who lives in a church all of the time and lives a quiet life separate from other people (there can be many nuns doing this together – but it is not very common nowadays.)

Fillers: words that appear to fill the time while the speaker is thinking about what to say next

Kind of

Kind of will appear in sentences without the speaker thinking (just naturally and automatically), and kind of often doesn’t mean anything – the speaker is just thinking about what to say next. But it can also make the sentence a bit softer and a bit less certain:

I was… kind of… happy he came… but… kind of… annoyed… because he came round to my house and made a mess and then I had to kind of  tidy everything up afterwards.

He’s kind of crazy… I was kind of scared when he wanted to talk to me.. I was kind of like “go away – leave me alone”.

Learning about English is not the same as learning English

Learning about English is not the same as learning English

It is common for people who have grown up studying a language in school, for example in schools in China, to be surprised that they still can’t speak English fluently, even after so many years. They think, “I’ve been studying English for more than ten years – so why is it still difficult to speak to native English people?” The answer is that learning about English is not the same as learning English. It has been argued, convincingly (i.e. 是一个有说服力的论据)that there is a part of our brains that naturally learns language, especially the grammar of language (Chomsky 1983). This means, for children, that if they hear enough language and simply interact (交流) with other people as they grow up, then they will naturally (自然) develop excellent grammar; this happens for all of us in our first language. But when we learn a second language, especially in schools, we often spend more time learning grammatical rules then using the language. And the information – the rules – we learn about the language (such as, use ‘more’ with adjectives of 3+ syllables (3+ 音节)) cannot be easily transferred (moved) into the part of our brain that naturally learns language. They are separate systems in our minds (Scwartz, 1993; Foder, 1983). So if you study a lot of grammatical rules, they will be stored in your long term memory (长期记忆)and you can retrieve (重现出来)this information to help you pass an exam, but it will not be accessible (易接近)to your brain’s language system when you want to suddenly start speaking English.

The solution (答案) is, simply, that if you want to become more fluent in English, then you need to listen, speak, read and write more English. This also means that if you want to improve your English grammar, then it is better to encounter many examples of good grammar then to read a book about English grammar. If you want to improve your ability to write good essays, then you need to read good essays – if you read lots of good essays in English, then you will naturally learn how to write better essays without even thinking about it.

So it may be that much of the time that you have spent learning English has developed your Metalinguistic awareness (元语言学意识) rather than your ability to use English. And it is unlikely that this metalinguistic awareness (元语言学意识) can be easily or directly converted into fluent language skills, but it can help you when you start using the English language, because it can help your brain to notice things when you read essays, or when you are having conversations – and as you notice things while using the language, this is more likely to develop your brain’s language system.

Article problems and a connection with the topic-comment structure

Articles: the and a

Chinese does not use the definite article the (定冠) or the indefinite article a (), so using articles correctly is often a problem for Chinese learners of English. Although Chinese does not have the definite article, a similar meaning can be indicated using a topic-comment structure likeJiang, 2009, 158):

还了

Shu wo huan le

The book, I have returned

The effect of  placing at the front of the sentence, as the topic, is to indicate that “both the speaker and the listener had known the book and had talked about it before the sentence was uttered” (Ibid. 158).  But in English this meaning would be expressed using ‘the’, indicating that the listener/reader knew about the book and had discussed it previously. On the other hand, if ‘a’ is used (‘I have returned a book’) then it means that the listener/reader does not know which book it is, and you have not already talked about returning a specific book.

Chinese learners very commonly omit articles, and the seems to create more problems than a. The examples below are typical situations where the  is wrongly omitted: before abbreviations and in certain phrases like ‘on the other hand’.

(1) …make recommendations for the improvement of IMF in global economy

(2) On one hand,

If the full non-abbreviated form needs an article, then the abbreviation should have an article as well, and here IMF stands for ‘international monetary fund’, and so we need to say ‘the international monetary fund’. ‘On the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ are set phrases that require ‘the’. And finally, ‘the’ has been omitted before ‘global economy’, when it is required because ‘global economy’ is a specific thing known to both the writer and reader. 

Common errors with “the”

We do not usually use an article with continents or countries, so we say “In Europe, France, and England” (and it is wrong to say e.g. “In the England”). But we do use the before the abbreviations UK and US (because articles are used before country names that also contain a common noun e.g. state, kingdom).  

Incorrect: In US and UK there are many different views.

Correct: In the US and the UK there are many different views.

Incorrect: US and UK are major consumers of coffee.

Correct: The US and the UK are major consumers of coffee.

 

Note, however, that ‘the’ is required before nationality adjectives (e.g. Japanese/Chinese) when used as nouns:

Incorrect: Americans consume more coffee than Japanese and Chinese.

Correct: Americans consume more coffee than the Japanese and the Chinese.

Incorrect: French love croissants.

Correct: The French love croissants.

Lexical overlap

One challenge of learning a language is that it's not just about picking up the new words, but about working out exactly how the meaning of the new words maps back on to the words in your first language – since it's rarely one-to-one. For example, the dictionary may give you a simple translation, but then when you see how native speakers use the word, its usage is not the same as the word in your native language.

I've been thinking about tebie in Chinese  (defined in the dictionary as 'especially/special/particular/unusual') , which is most often taken as meaning especially. But tebie is normally followed by shi (the verb 'to be'), so a literal translation from Chinese would give 'especially is..' – which doesn't make sense in English because especially is an adverb. Tebie often occurs in brackets e.g. Mobile phones (especially HTC phones) are becoming widespread in rural areas. The Chinese equivalent of this sentence would have (tebie shi…) for the bracketed part. 

Furthermore, tebie shi can start a sentence, qualifying the whole sentence, whilst in English we can only use especially to modify verbs. The equivalent of a sentence beginning tebie shi  would be one starting, In particular. 

Dan

Language learning: Extensive exposure or focused repetition

When learning a language, is it better to cover a lot of ground and achieve an initial exposure to a wide variety of language, or to instead reinforce a smaller area of learning so that the language studied becomes actively usable?

Obviously some mix of these is called for, and yet whilst it seems more sensible to incline towards the latter of these options, finding a kind of middle ground, I think it does depend on your actual goal in learning. If you intend to become fully fluent, then you intend to reinforce all of the material at some point, so maybe it is OK to cover a large amount of topics in a new language even if they are not yet sufficiently reinforced to be part of your active repertoire. After all, you will return to them later, and no impression on the mind is wasted, even if it is unlikely to be accessible/retrievable until reinforced.

I have met learners who insist on repeatedly going over the same vocabulary items and phrases so that they don't forget them, but since they do this they don't venture out and cover further topics, eliminating even the possibility of picking up further language (if you haven't ever encountered a language item, then it is impossible to learn it). This kind of defensive hold-your-ground approach to language learning seems defeatist from the outset.

In actuality, the approach taken will change according to the stage of the journey you are in – that is, 6 months in may call for a different approach from 2 years in, and both approaches are necessary at different times. And yet I think at all stages a more 'adventurous' attitude is a key to success.

Dan
@ NCL Proofreading Services

Rhetorical patterns in Chinese and English essay writing

This post will simply introduce the idea that there are different patterns of rhetoric (i.e. different conventions of essay structure) in written Chinese and written English, and contrast one particular Chinese rhetorical pattern – a so-called "Start-Sustain-Turn-Sum" pattern (Connor, 1996; Grabe & Kaplan, 1998; Hinds, 1990; Swales, 1990) – with the English introduction-body-conclusion essay structure.

To begin with, it is worth pointing out that culturally-based styles of structure can actually be very different, and that this difference has its origin in the divergent historical and philosophical pasts of the Chinese and Western peoples. As Igor observes, what is involved are the academic cultural norms and their unknowing subversion by those from a different background:

“Unlike the native speakers of English,
who expect expository prose to be developed as a
sequence of claims and (direct) Aristotelian proofs,
non-native users of English employ rhetorical
progression of text that are incongruous with the
expectations of the Anglo-American reader." (Igor, 2011, emphasis added)

The Chinese pattern to be mentioned here is one that has been called the "Start-Sustain-Turn-Sum" pattern, and is described in Xing, Wang and Spencer (2008) as follows: 

"It is claimed that Chinese rhetorical style consists of a four-part pattern: qi ('start, open') establishes the field or prepares the reader for the topic; cheng ('carry on, sustain') introduces and develops the topic; zhuan ('turn') turns to a seemingly unrelated subject or looks at the problem from another angle; and he ('conclude') sums up the essay whereby the author's opinion is established or hinted at (Connor, 1996; Grabe & Kaplan, 1998; Hinds, 1990; Swales, 1990, cited in Xing, Wang and Spencer, 2008, emphasis added)." 

The point to notice about this pattern is that it unfolds gradually before delivering the author's opinion – that is, the author's argument or fundamental thesis statement – at the end of the essay. In other words, it is the reverse of the claim and proof approach mentioned by Igor (2011). 

In the English pattern – introduction, body and conclusion – the main point would occur in the introduction and be supported or proven throughout the body and then finally summarised and highlighted in the final paragraph. In the Chinese structure mentioned here, the proofs precede the claim (which is given in the final paragaph). 

To what extent the Chinese rhetorical pattern mentioned here is actually taught on Chinese academic writing courses is not clear (it is certainly only one of a number of such patterns), but in any case an awareness of this difference should help Chinese students when writing essays in English. 

Dan