5 English Phrases Everyone Learns but No One Should Use
You have been taught some English phrases that you should never use.
I’m talking about some simple, basic phrases that everyone learns, but are usually never used in actual conversations.
They provide a base to help beginners understand grammar and sentence patterns. It’s only a problem when students keep using these simple phrases instead of using authentic words.
Don’t worry though, we’ll tell you exactly why you should stop using each phrase, and give you several options that you can say instead.
- 5 English Phrases that Sound Unnatural in Real Conversation
5 English Phrases that Sound Unnatural in Real Conversation
1. Hello. How are you?
It’s an innocent question, right?
It’s a question that students tend to ask their teachers every day at the beginning of class. Every English teacher has heard this question asked hundreds of thousands of times. That’s the problem, it’s used too much by ESL students.
It’s such a common and overused question that it’s no longer a good question. At best, the speaker sounds like a robot and at worst, the speaker sounds bored.
The easiest fix is to make the question longer. The longer the question, the better. Not to mention, you’ll sound like you really care about the answer.
Here are a few alternative questions to ask instead:
- How are you doing today?
- How are you doing this morning?
- How are you doing this afternoon?
- How are you doing this evening?
Beginning with the word “Hello” is part of what makes the phrase sound unnatural and robotic. Instead, with friends try “Hey,” “Hi” or “Hey there.”
Then, you can also change the question completely:
- Hey, how’s it going?
- Hi, how are you doing?
- Hi, how are you doing lately?
There are lots of options out there for greeting someone.
But no matter what, please avoid using the phrase “Hello, how are you?” It’s the first thing that English students learn and it should be the first thing you replace with a new phrase. There are more than enough options so that you’ll never have to say, “Hello. How are you?”ever again.
2. I’m fine. (And you?)
If “Hello. How are you?” was the worst opening question someone can ask, then “I’m fine” is the absolutely worst answer that anyone can give. It’s so bad that most instructors call it the “conversation killer.”
Instead, talk about anything else. Just broke up with your girlfriend? Mention it here. Bought a new car? Brag a little bit. Going to watch the soccer game tonight? Say that! There is no limit to what you can say in response to “How are you?”
- Not great, I just broke up with my girlfriend.
- I just got a new car. It’s awesome.
- I’m doing pretty good. In fact, I’m going to watch a soccer game tonight.
- I’ve been better. I think I’m getting sick.
When people ask “How are you?,” don’t be afraid to bring up some recent good news. Talk about how you just celebrated your daughter’s birthday or how you got a new high score on Super Mario. Have fun with the answer.
Say anything besides a memorized response.
Sometimes your answer to “How are you?” will change depending on who asks you the question, so check out these possible answers based on how formal you need to be.
And no matter how you answer, you should always ask “How about you?” in return. It’s the polite thing to do.
3. How old are you?
Age is a very powerful thing.
In some parts of the world it is important, while in other parts it isn’t at all. But in some cultures it’s rude to ask a person how old they are, so you have to be careful.
In case you really need to know someone’s age, there are better options. For example:
Did you go to college/university? (Where did you go? What did you study?)
Then, you can ask, “When did you graduate?”
If you know the person when to college, another question you could ask is:
How long has it been since you graduated?
There are lots of other ways you can figure out more or less how old someone is. If they have children, ask how old the children are. You can also ask, “How old were you when…?” to find out about the person’s past.
- How old were you when you started teaching?
- How old were you when you took your first flight?
- How old were you when you moved to Vermont?
It’s a bit more work, I know. But it’s worth it to avoid offending the person you are talking to. Of course, waiting until the subject comes up naturally helps too. Almost anything works better than asking the question directly.
Personally, I always tell students not to ask “How old are you?” It should come up in conversation naturally or not at all. No matter how curious you may be, just forget the question and talk about something else instead.
4. Are you from ____?
Here’s a big one that gets asked too often. Grammatically, there’s nothing wrong with this question. But what it really means is:
I think you’re from _____. Are you?
I’m going to say this once. No one should ever ask this question, ever. There’s no reason to phrase this question like this.
Many people ask this question to people they meet for the first time. And most of the time, people feel at least a little insulted. Even if you’re right, the person could feel offended. So this is never the right way to ask.
Instead, try one of these questions:
- Where are you from?
- Where did you grow up?
These questions are much better. The chances of insulting someone are very low.
Asking a person’s nationality can be a sensitive topic. But handled carefully, it usually isn’t a big deal. Still, it’s safer to be considerate of others when asking.
5. Did you eat dinner?
Before I jump into the explanation, I’d like you to know that this question isn’t just for dinner. The word “dinner” can be changed out for anything else like lunch, breakfast or coffee.
Now I know, it looks like a simple and harmless question. The problem is that this question is part of a set:
A: Did you eat dinner?
B: No, I haven’t yet.
A: Well, would you like to eat dinner together?
If someone answers with a “yes” to the first question, there is no reason to ask to eat together. But, if someone answers with a “no,” the speaker should ask the second question. Asking someone if they’ve eaten dinner without then asking them to eat with you is considered rude.
So if you do not want to invite the person to eat with you (you only want to know if they’ve eaten or not), there are other options. Here are a few other questions to ask instead:
- Did you get a chance to eat yet?
- Did you get some breakfast/lunch/dinner?
- What did you grab for breakfast/lunch/dinner?
For more formal or general situations, use the following questions or variations of them:
- Where did you go to eat?
- Where did you go for breakfast/lunch/dinner?
- What did you eat?
- How was breakfast this morning?
- How was lunch today?
None of these questions require an invitation to eat together. In fact, if someone answers “no” you can just respond with, “Aw, that’s too bad.” Here are a few options for a follow up:
For “no” answers:
- Well, would like to get some ____ with me?
- Oh, that’s too bad. You should probably get some ____.
For “yes” answers:
- That’s good. What’d you eat?
- Great, how was it?
Remember, there’s no reason to ask “Did you eat dinner?” There are more than enough options that are much better.
And there you have it, five phrases you have definitely learned, but should never use. They’re not terribly hard to re-learn, either, which is the plus sign.
To avoid using phrases that aren’t used by native speakers, it’s a good idea to immerse yourself with authentic English content, like magazines, movies, TV shows and so forth. These are made for native speakers, meaning they’ll feature natural English speech. From them, you can see how native speakers really talk, and copy them.
There are plenty of places you can find such content. You can use online websites like English blogs, news sites, YouTube or Netflix. There’s also the language learning program FluentU, which has a library of authentic English videos. Each clip has interactive subtitles, so you can click a word or phrase (including slang) for its in-context definition and usage details.
Get a lot of exposure to casual, everyday English speech, and you’ll find more creative things to say besides the phrases in this list. Soon, you’ll be speaking that much more like a native!