Some Rules for Spoken Conversations

conversationBenson Kua

By Jacqueline Schaalje

Rule 1 In conversations you usually say one sentence or phrase in response to what another person said. Then you say your own “thing.” Then it’s time for the other person to do the same. Conversations are like catching a ball and throwing the ball back.

Something is wrong in your conversation when:

  • You find yourself talking for more than half a minute.
  • The other person is talking for more than half a minute.

Except when:

  • Someone is telling a joke.
  • Someone is telling a story.
  • Someone is explaining something.

Rule 2 You must use correct grammar in conversations. Some of my students think that native English speakers don’t use correct grammar when they speak. But what happens is that they only catch part of the sentence. Of course, when someone asks you where the ball is, you don’t need to answer in a full sentence: “The ball is in the garage.” Just the answer is enough: In the garage.

But otherwise, whether you choose to answer in a full sentence or in a phrase, you must use correct grammar. If people didn’t, no one would be able to understand other people. Grammar is nothing more than rules for correct communication.

So in my answer about the ball, I can’t say: on the garage. “On” means on top.

Rule 3 You really do ask questions with do you, did you and are you.

It takes some learners a long time to start using auxiliary verbs, such as “do” in “Do you like shopping?” Some students think it’s okay to ask: “You like shopping?” They fail to notice that there is a “do” at the beginning of the question that is swallowed (i.e. said very quickly).

However you can say: “You like shopping, don’t you?” You can say this when you already suspect that this person likes shopping. Don’t forget the tag: “Don’t you?”

You could also ask: “You like shopping, eh?” or “You like shopping, right?” This is informal.

Which form you want to use depends on what kind of person you’re talking to and what kind of conversation it is.

Compare the following:

Neutral Question Question with Expected Answers Informal Question
Do you swim every day? You swim every day, don’t you? You swim a lot, eh?
Can you play the guitar? You can play the guitar, can’t you? You play the guitar, right?
Are you Ms Robinson? You’re Ms Robinson, aren’t you? You’re Ms Robinson, is that right?
Have you collected stamps for many years? You’ve collected stamps for many years, haven’t you? You’ve collected stamps for many years, no?
Is breakfast served between 7 and 10? Breakfast is served between 7 and 10, isn’t it? Breakfast is served between 7 and 10, is that true?
What kind of breed is your dog? Your dog is a full breed, isn’t he? Your dog is a full breed, am I right?
Did you live in Brisbane when you were a child? You used to live in Brisbane once, didn’t you? You lived in Brisbane, or some such place, yeah?

Rule 4 Try not to answer with one word only. Only saying one word or a very short phrase sounds rude in English. If you mean yes, say yes, I do, or yes, I am, or whatever is the appropriate tag. If you want to say no, say no, I don’t, etc.

Always try to ask a question back, to keep the conversation going.

Tip: There are some good conversation apps for iPhone and Android. I will make a list of those soon. Meanwhile, try an app called English Conversation (for Android), or English Conversation for Beginners for Apple devices.

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