By Colm Boyd

06 Nov 2019 - 12:30

10 useful basic phrases in English

“How are you?”, “See you later”, “We will rock you”: some English expressions are surely known by even the most isolated of Amazonian tribes (however dubious the practicality of “We will rock you” may be in the deep jungle). These days, if you want to impress somebody with your English, you’re going to need a few key expressions that go beyond the obvious. Read on for some ideas.

1: Variations on “How are you?”

I sometimes walk into a class of students and, without thinking, use my standard greeting “Hey! How’s things?”. I only realise that I’ve used this question when I notice their confused faces and quickly correct myself to a more recognisable “How are you?”. Many students fail to realise that native speakers use many variations of our most basic greeting. In my native region (Cork, Ireland), “How’s things?” (or a more grammatically-correct “How are things?”) is common. In many countries, it’s common to say “How’s it going?”or “How’s everything?”. All these questions mean the same thing and can be met with a simple “Fine, thanks”. What’s not so clear is how to respond to a colloquial American “What’s up?”. Most Americans would say that the only appropriate response is repetition:

Jess: Hey, Frank! What’s up?
Frank: Oh, hi Jess! What’s up?!

The same goes for an informal British “Alright?”:

Lee: Alright, Nick?
Nick: Yeah, alright?

2: Gotcha!

Not all students realise how common it is to use the verb “get” to express the idea of understanding. If you’re struggling to understand something in English, it’s typical to use this verb:

Tina: I’m thinking of studying Medicine in university.
Sam: I don’t get it, I thought you hated Biology.

Conversely, when you’re quite sure that you’ve made sense of what somebody is telling you, try reacting with a simple “Gotcha!”. This colloquial exclamation comes from the linked pronunciation of “Got you!” (¡entendido!), where the “t” and the “y” sounds merge to create a “ch”. You won’t find “Gotcha!” in formal texts but it’s used a lot in everyday conversation.

3: To be “in”

The simple preposition “in” can express many ideas. One of the most useful is related to participation. In English, if you’re “in”, it means that you are going to take part in something:

  • “Amy and me are going for drinks after work this evening. Are you in?”
  • “Do you want to come to see Wonder Woman on Friday?” “Oh my God, yes! I’m in!”

Connected to this idea, it’s also possible to use the phrasal verb “count somebody in”, meaning to include somebody in a plan:

  • “I heard you’re collecting money for a wedding present for Steph. Can you count me in please?”

4: Oh dear!

This is the ever-appropriate reaction for when something bad happens. It’s often used to react to minor annoyances:

  • Oh dear, I can’t remember the password for my phone.

Pronounced a little more emphatically, it can also be used to express bigger grievances:

Jim: Do you know that Steve had a car accident yesterday?
Sandra: Oh dear! Sorry to hear that!

“Oh dear!” is a simple way to show empathy or to express annoyance in a polite way. Of course, there are many less polite expressions to use if you wish but I’ll leave it to Urban Dictionary to explain those ones.

5: Look forward to

This is undoubtedly one of the most common phrasal verbs in English. If you “look forward to” something, it simply means that you feel positive now about something in the future. It can be followed by a noun:

  • “I’m looking forward to my holidays next week”

Or by a gerund:

  • “I’m looking forward to starting my holidays!”

It’s also a really common way to finish an informal or semi-formal email:

  • “Thanks for confirming that you’ll be at the meeting next week. Looking forward to seeing you then!”.

If you like expressions like this one, have a look at this article about ten of the most common phrasal verbs

6: Cheers!

Every student knows to say “Cheers” when sharing a drink. What not all students realise, however, is how multipurpose the word is, particularly in British English. In the UK, people commonly use the word as a quick way to say thanks, almost like a mini “thank you” for some small favour:

Laura: “I’ll Whatsapp you with the restaurant address”
Sarah: “Oh great. Cheers!”

Also common with Brits is to use Cheers in conversation as a colloquial way of saying goodbye:

  • “Cheers, John, see you next week!”

It can even be used as a way to end an informal email on a positive note:

  • “Looking forward to seeing you next week. Cheers! Susan” 

7: Your “place”

As any students who have ever lived in an English-speaking country will tell you, in colloquial English it’s very common to refer to your house as your “place”. It’s common to use this in invitations:

  • Hey, I’m having a barbeque at my place this Saturday. You should come!

In fact you can use it pretty much whenever you want to refer to your house in an informal way. Note that it’s usually used with a possessive pronoun (“my place”, “your place” “our place”, etc.). An exception to this is when you visit somebody’s house for the first time and want to show them that you’re impressed:

  • Oooh! Nice place!

8: Right?

Question Tags in English are a pain. It’s like us native English speakers have invented them to annoy foreigners who simply have the innocent goal of studying our language. The mix of positive and negative auxiliary verbs create a minefield:

  • It’s the fourth of September today, isn’t it?
  • Tom works in a bank, doesn’t he?
  • I’m going to fail the exam, aren’t I?

I often tell students that when in doubt, just imitate native speakers and use the handy word “Right?”. It’s not a perfect solution. Often it sounds more natural to use the grammatically-correct tag and this is certainly the form you should use when writing. That said, “Right?” can be very useful in conversation when you don’t have time to scan your mind’s selection of matching auxiliary verbs.

9: Talking about the “point”

English has many expressions which refer to a “point”, which generally refers to a reason or an argument. So for example, you might use this word to show agreement:

Natalie: Don’t forget the bus strike tomorrow. You’ll need to leave the house earlier.
Dave: Oh yeah, good point!

It can also be used to focus on the most central idea in a discussion:

Mike: London is so expensive, I don’t see why so many people want to visit it.
James: The point is that London is a great city, expensive or not.

A "point" can also refer to the objective of a certain task. Often parents tell their children that winning isn’t everything, the "point" is to participate. Or the next time your English teacher asks you to do an hour-long exercise on mind-numbing Question Tags, perhaps you will interrupt him/her and cheekily ask the question:

  • What’s the point?

10: In a nutshell …

This useful expression has two possible meanings. The first is to conclude an idea, whether in conversation or a text that you’ve written. So, for example, after writing an essay about Nature, you could conclude:

  • “In a nutshell, if we don’t do more to protect endangered species, more of them will continue to disappear in future years”.

The second, related, idea is to express the most important aspect of a more complicated idea:

  • “People have different opinions about the new novel but I think that, in a nutshell, it’s an important piece of literature”.

Take a look at these other useful expressions for concluding your ideas.

These are just some basic expressions to help your fluency and writing. No matter your level of English, a few well-chosen expressions at the right moment can make any student sound both comfortable and convincing in English.