English phrases learned at school versus real life

Posted on February 9, 2016

When did you start learning English? What English phrases did you learn at school? I started learning Japanese at  university. A typical Japanese phrase for beginners is “Watashi no namae wa Emily desu”. This translates as “My name is Emily”. This phrase seems intuitive for native English speakers because it follows the pattern of English. It has direct equivalents for all the English words, and the idea of possession. The problem is, Japanese people don’t tend to say it! In Japan, people told me it’s more natural just to say “Emily desu”.

In our company English classes we hear phrases that students learned at school. These phrases often seem out of date or unnatural. Here is a selection of English phrases learned at school and more natural, modern equivalents used by native English speakers.

How do you do?

This is extremely formal, in fact, I have never used it. I imagine at an ambassador’s reception or something it could be used. The problem with “How do you do” is that it obliges the other person to reply “How do you do”. To sound more natural try saying “Nice to meet you” or “Pleased to meet you”.

Note that you should wait until you both know each other’s names before you use these. Otherwise you haven’t really “met” the person. I would use this structure when meeting someone in a business or social situation:

Emily: “Hi, I’m Emily.”
Robert: “Hi Emily, I’m Robert. Nice to meet you”.
Emily: “Nice to meet you too”.

Please wait a moment

This is OK if you are a receptionist in a five star hotel. It has the air of formality and it’s definitely an instruction rather than a request. In most situations if you want someone to wait it is more polite to ask them. If I was on the phone in a business situation and I needed the person I was speaking to to wait, I would say something like “Could you hold on a second please?” or “Would you mind holding on a minute please?”

Repeat please!

An important phrase to avoid. I can see how this is used in the classroom when teachers use it to instruct children. In this situation the teacher is in a position of control over the children where he or she can make demands. When you’re speaking to other adults, saying”Repeat please!” could sound quite rude. If you want someone to repeat what they’ve just said it’s much more polite to say “Pardon?” instead.

It’s a fine day

This is lovely and nostalgic but it’s very old fashioned. You’re too young to use it! Try “It’s a sunny day” “It’s a nice day” or “It’s a lovely day”. “Fine” in modern English usually means “OK”. “How was your day?” “It was fine.” (It was OK) The exception to this is saying “fine wine” or “fine dining” where “fine” means luxurious.

It’s raining cats and dogs

An expressive idiom that is hugely overused by learners of English. I think I must have heard people learning English use this phrase about a hundred times more than I have heard native speakers use it! For variety, try “It’s pouring down”, “It’s raining torrentially” or “It’s bucketing it down”.

What other English phrases did you learn at school that you don’t hear now? Do people learning your language use unnatural phrases?

Read about the trap of useful phrases when learning English here.

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