To understand the English we use today, we need to understand how the language came about in our past.
It is a story of death and elitism but from these murky beginnings sprang the language we love today.
A thousand years ago, there were two main influences, the Normans from France and the Saxons who were a Germanic people. The meeting of these languages and cultures were to form the English language we speak today.
From the battle of the Hastings (1066) England was ruled by French speaking kings and the land was comprised of the aristocracy and those who they ruled, the poor serfs. French was the language of the aristocracy and by extension, the language of the law and commerce. Therefore, if you were ambitious and wanted to get ahead in these fields, French was the language you needed.
Today, the same is true. However, it is not French you need but rather the side of the English language which has evolved from French. This is what we call Formal English. It often looks similar to other Latin-based romance languages.
The Norman influence was set to dominate the language but the Saxon side (informal language, like phrasal verbs) was saved by the Black Death in the 1340’s as this killed a lot of people in built up areas (the cities were largely French speaking they were seats of Government and other institutions). Peasants living off the land and Saxon speakers were not killed in such quantities as they were living in isolated areas.
There is a very interesting idea here, that we have the Black Death to thank for the uniqueness of the English language today.
Today, English speakers naturally ‘switch’ their language depending on where they are or more accurately, in what situation they are in, formal or informal. What the native speaker does is use language in a particular context, depending where they are, who they are communicating with and what they are doing. That means that the speaker, in any given situation, does not sound too formal or informal but rather just right. This is what we focus on in Englishour.
Context will dictate how we speak:
For example on the telephone:
|Could I speak to John please?||Is John there?|
|This is he||That’s me|
|Thank you very much. Goodbye.||Cheers. Take it easy!|
We can apply this to many different situations. Like in the office:
|To whom should I send this?||Who should I send this to?|
|Are you attending the party?||You’re coming to the bash I hope?|
|A preposition at the end of a sentence signals informality|
‘Bash is an informal version of party. It would be unsuitable in a formal context.
|I love this music||I’m really into this music|
|Phrasal verbs are often the informal equivalent.|
|The economic situation in the aeronautical industry is improving||The air industry is looking up|
So, we see that spoken English uses short forms more. And idioms and prepositions.
|He told me the gossip||He dished up the dirt|
|You’re guessing and you have no idea||You’re clutching at straws|
|I stopped smoking||I gave up smoking|
|Let’s continue||Let’s press on|
|He gave me €2 and it was not enough for me and I wasn’t happy.||He fobbed me off with €2|
|I am beginning to like this product||I’m getting into this product|
|They loved it||They lapped it up|
|He ate everything||He polished it off|
|I am visiting him for a short time later||I’m popping in later|
|They all entered at the same time||They all piled in|
|It will not happen due to unforeseen circumstances||It’s fallen through|
|I have an excellent relationship with him||We get on|
|I am leaving||I’m off|
|He is pretending to be sick||He’s putting it on|
|They made a careless mistake||They slipped up|
Of course, both sides are equally important for learners to focus on. The formal language promotes accuracy and allows understanding in reading and listening in formal situations. The informal side is wonderful because it is so rich in connotation and it can express so much using so few words! We need a strong foundation in formal language of course but by bridging the gap between ‘translation’ and ‘spoken English’ we can start switching between the two.
So switching means that the learner can CHOOSE whether to say
I’m leaving, which may be appropriate in one circumstance or,
The key is to explore options of the same message. Learn how to say the same thing in different ways and base your choice on your surroundings.
John Ryan 2018
When communicating through English, there will always be options presenting the speaker with a language choice. In this blog, we will show you ‘Switching’, a technique which will open up the range of language choices available to you.
In English, the language choice of the speaker will be either in a formal style or an informal style or perhaps somewhere in between and the formal style is often a direct translation from the learner’s language:
I told Peter everything he needed to know
The informal style will not be a direct translation but could rather be a PHRASAL VERB:
I filled Peter in.
In Englishour, we believe that learners today who come to an English speaking country to learn English want to become familiar with the informal side of English. To them, it’s new and exciting and is often something they have never come across before.
As well as opening up exciting new learning opportunities, there are clear advantages to making these language choices. Firstly, the informal side of English is often much shorter; more concise. English speakers love this! When non-native speakers use idiomatic language, English speakers really appreciate this and the door to a deeper communication is opened a little more. The journey from formal (translation) to the informal is something I call ‘switching’.
Switching is moving between the formal and informal. It is moving away from direct translation towards metaphor and image-based language.
Here are some examples:
A journalist, Peter Factotum, is talking about a corrupt director of a company who he suspects is destroying the environment illegally. In telling us about the director and his experiences he has used several phrasal verbs giving us information:
He has to answer to the shareholders
He tried to play down his role in the forest’s destruction
I tried to sound him out to see if he would reveal anything
He let it slip (it slipped out) that his company was responsible
He left out the fact that he had been in prison
I can’t wait to fill in my editor
Now lets understand!
- – To answer to someone – To whom do you answer to? Do you have anyone to answer to?
If you have a boss, then the answer is yes!
If you have parents, then the answer is yes!
You answer to the person who is responsible for you. The person to whom you answer to is the person to whom you have to justify your actions. People, who are self-employed have nobody to answer to (except perhaps themselves). Single people have nobody to answer to. Do politicians have anybody to answer to? Of course! The electorate. So who do you have to answer to?
- – To play an action/a fact down – This means that you try to make it seem less important than it really is. People often play things down because they are modest. For example, if I won a gold medal in the Olympics and I say ‘Oh it’s nothing’, then I am trying to play down the medal. In the case above however, the director is trying to play down something negative, saying it has no importance when actually, it does!
Politicians often try to play down their mistakes and play up their successes!
- – To sound someone out – This is where you get a ‘preview’ to see how someone feels about an issue. You may feel that is too early to ask them directly, so you ‘sound them out’ first to get an idea how the reaction might be. For example, if you want to ask your boss for a raise you don’t ask directly ‘can I have a raise?’ Instead, you sound them out by talking about money in general and getting a feel for what they might think. Then you may or may not ask for the raise.
Therefore the idea of ‘sounding someone out’ is the idea of talking loosely about something to gauge their reaction.
- – To let it slip – The phrasal verb is to slip out, but let it slip sounds better so we will use that form. This one is easy. It means that you told a secret accidentally. You opened your big mouth and said something to someone that you shouldn’t have! Perhaps you let it slip that he was hiding in the next room or that Mary’s surprise birthday is on Saturday. Basically, you let the cat out of the bag! Have you ever let something slip? Was it something important? What did you do?
- – To leave out (a fact) – If you leave out a fact, you don’t say it. It’s that simple. I told the police my name and address but I left out the fact that I’m not staying there. Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s what you leave out. Think about your CV. Did you write EVERYTHING or did you leave out a few things? Be honest!
- – To fill someone in on something – This means to give someone the necessary information about a situation. It basically means ‘tell them everything’. For example, if you go on holidays, when you arrive back in work/school, your colleague will fill you in on what has been happening and all the gossip. When Steven fills in his editor, he will tell her everything about the story he has. Look again at the original sentence at the top:
I told Peter about the project.
So with switching, we try to replace the formal with the idiomatic:
I filled Peter in about the project.
‘Switching’ is being able to manipulate language
Now, let’s add some more verbs that you can ‘switch’:
When Peter Factotum fills his editor in about the story she will either think that it is a good story or a bad story. If she thinks it is bad, then Peter will have to persuade her that he should write it.
He will have to talk her into letting him write it.
When you were a teenager you had to talk your parents into letting you do things. Like what?
You can also talk someone out of doing something.
He wanted to sell the house but we talked him out of it. – We dissuaded him!
If there was a situation where several journalists wanted to write the story:
Peter would pitch for the story
The idea of ‘a pitch’ is important in English. People pitch ideas to others in order to sell a product or get support.
We pitched the idea of an environmentally-friendly car to the managers and they loved it!
When there is competition to ‘win’ an account, for example, you pitch for it.
Every advertising agency in the city pitched for the McDonalds account.
In this case however, it is unlikely that Peter would have to pitch for the story as:
He came up with it.
He thought of it. It is his story.
Formal ➙ Informal
Informal ➙ Formal
The context will decide which option you use.
It’s up to you – You choose!
|Literal translation (formal)||Native equivalent (informal)|
|He is responsible to nobody|
|He answers to nobody|
|He made the situation seem less important|
|He played down the situation|
|I tried to get an idea of what she was thinking|
|I sounded her out|
|He accidentally said it|
|He let it slip|
|I omitted it|
|I left it out|
|He told me everything|
|He filled me in|
|I persuaded her to do it|
|I talked her into doing it|
|I dissuaded him from doing it|
|I talked him out of doing it|
|We gave a presentation to get the job|
|We pitched for the job|
|He thought of a great idea|
|He came up with a great idea|
|It’s up to you|
Look at the following sentences. You will see the long formal version. Translate to the shorter informal version by switching:
Eg: He told me accidentally___________➙_He let it slip.
- I asked him questions to see what he was thinking_➙
- He persuaded me to sell my car to him__➙
- We presented hoping to attract the new client__➙
- I told them that the situation was not as bad as they believed__➙
- Her only boss is the owner, nobody else_➙
Now try to do the opposite. Look at the informal and make it formal:
Eg: I left out the fact that I was unavailable___➙_____I failed to say that I was unavailable.
- He came up with a brilliant plan__➙
- They played down the disaster in the interview_➙
- She talked me out of selling_➙
- I let it slip that he wasn’t qualified_➙
- They pitched for the Medford account_➙
- Start using switching in your everyday life. Every time you want to say something, try to think of two ways to say the same thing and make a language CHOICE.
- In your professional life, try to use all of the above verbs in the next week.
- In your personal life, try to use 5 of the above verbs in the next week.
- Write a list of ten situations you know you will be in, in the next 7 days. Identify if they are formal or informal situations. Which side of the English language would you prefer to be using in each? When going to each, make decisions about the language choices that you will make before the event and then follow them!
- Show your colleagues the two versions and ask them which they use. Try to talk about language to as many people as possible.
- Keep switching. Learn to manipulate language so that you sound like you WANT to sound!
By John Ryan ©2018
Understanding phrasal verbs with ‘out’
‘Out’ means ‘outside’. There is a journey from inside to outside, a journey which takes you into the light, or into the darkness.
Let’s say you have a problem, like a maths problem. The solution is hidden deep in the problem. Your job is to work it out. Here, the image is slowly removing the answer from a dark hidden place into the light. When you’ve worked it out, the solution is there, in the light. You can see it!
Jim and Mary are trying to work out their marriage problems. By talking through their problems they begin to see solutions.
Likewise, you can also figure something out. Again, figuring out a problem means thinking about it until the solution can be seen.
I couldn’t figure out how to open the door.
It took me ages to figure out the complicated bus timetable.
When you figure it out, you can see the light!
Another case is to find things out. This involves bringing information into the light.
Sometimes you can find out accidentally:
I just found out that Mary is going to have a baby!.
I went on the internet and found out that the company doesn’t exist!
For working out, figuring out and finding out, a solution sees the light.
To come out can simply mean ‘come outside’.
Are you coming out tonight? Possibly to the pub, or the cinema etc.
Come out also means to reveal that you are gay. The idea here is that it is a secret. When someone is secretly gay, they are ‘in the closet’. Then one day, they tell their friends or family or the world that they are in fact gay. This is when he/she comes out.
Elton John came out years ago.
Again, the secret reaches the light.
To make something out means to be able to see or hear something under difficult circumstances. It is often used with ‘can’. For example, if something is far away and you can see it or read it:
I can’t make it out. A car registration for example or a bus number.
I can’t make out the signature. Here, it’s not far away, the quality is bad.
You can also use it for things you can/can’t hear, usually because of the clarity of the sound.
I find heavy metal lyrics difficult to make out.
I couldn’t make out what he was saying because of the noise.
When you can make something out, there is the lightbulb moment of throwing light onto the unknown.
Sometimes friendships can fall into darkness:
People can fall out. It means that they are no longer friends. They usually fall out over something:
Myself and Peter fell out over the money he owes me
They fell out over a stupid argument
Here are some more verbs which mean ‘go into the darkness, away from the light’:
The first is literal. To blow out a candle or a flame.
He made a wish and blew out his birthday candles.
What do you do with a finished cigarette? You put it out. (extinguish it)
Or when the room is too hot, or your blood pressure is very low? What can happen? You can faint. Lose consciousness and fall onto the floor. You can pass out.
When you pass out, what do you see? Darkness!
As well as flammable material, people can burn out. This is due to excessive stress, usually in work:
He was a stock broker, but burnt out after five years.
When you burn out, you’re finished!
We often hear of governments trying to stamp out crime. (destroy it)
Sometimes, they will phase something out.
At the moment they are phasing out free medical care. (little by little it will be gone)
When you close the curtains, you block out the light. You can also block out sounds.
Some people try to block out bad memories.
Out can be also associated with negative experiences:
If you decide to stick it out, you decide to remain in a bad situation:
I hate my new job, but my friends have advised me to stick it out, at least for another month.
Sometimes, you can stop a negative experience:
We talked him out of doing it. We persuaded him not to do something we viewed as being bad.
He was going to sell the company, but we talked him out of it.
The purpose here is to show that there is a logic and a clear line of thought running through seemingly unrelated phrasal verbs. This logic is, I believe, contained in the preposition. If you can unlock the meaning of the prepositions, you can understand better the idiomatic side of the English language.
Shortcuts in English
When thinking about phrasal verbs and idioms it occurred to me that they are just like shortcuts on a computer. Shortcuts are things like:
• Ctrl+C (Copy)
• Ctrl+X (Delete selected item and save a copy to the clipboard)
• Ctrl+V (Paste)
• Ctrl+Z (Undo)
Obviously, when you start learning how to use a computer, you don’t immediately start learning shortcuts. You learn the long version first and when you have reached a particular level of expertise you can then start learning and using shortcuts. People who are very proficient on computers use shortcuts all the time. People who have an elementary level of knowledge usually don’t.
The reason shortcuts exist is that there are certain things which we do over and over again.
For example the copy and paste function is one you perform many times daily if you regularly use Word on a computer. Because of the frequency with which we perform the action, it can be tiresome repeating the same actions over and over again, hence the shortcut.
It’s exactly the same in language. There are thousands of ideas which we regularly express to each other. These are specific ideas which may convey a feeling that we have in a particular situation at a particular time. The nuances of the idea may be really subtle and therefore to express it properly might take a lot of words. That’s where the shortcut comes in. Here are some examples of the long version and the shortcut expressing the same thing.
Everybody worked together and therefore saved time and effort – shortcut – We all pitched in
He spoke for a long time about his car. It was really boring! – shortcut – He went on and on about his car
I don’t know where it came from. It might have been stolen – shortcut – It fell off the back of a lorry
From the A1 to the B1+ levels we don’t learn too many phrasal verbs and idioms. It’s really at B2 that this side of the language comes into the spotlight for the learner who then begins to use language in a more metaphorical way. This is a very exciting time for the learner because this is when they feel that they are speaking and listening ‘like native speakers’.
Native speakers of course love and use this type of language all the time.
Instead of saying I was very ‘excited and nervous’ before my speech, I was ‘keyed-up’. Instead of saying ‘it is very isolated and nobody goes there’ say ‘it’s off the beaten track’. These little phrases are shortcuts. They are a means of saying a lot with little language. And that is a thing of beauty.
Learners who get good at these shortcuts sound very natural when they speak. They also find it easy to understand native speakers as the language is common and familiar. However, it’s not easy to get there. There are many phrasal verbs and the lists of idioms are long indeed. But it is possible. Here are some more examples of shortcuts:
I said something stupid socially – I put my foot in it.
I managed not to laugh when I really wanted to – I kept a straight face
I am very busy at the moment and probably have to refuse your offer – I have a lot on my plate.
In Englishour, this form of language plays a large part of our syllabus. It’s fun to learn and it’s fun to teach. So in future, when faced with a phrasal verb or an idiom, don’t think of it as ‘hard language to understand’. Just think of it as a shortcut – an easy path to expressing an idea.