Speaking English can be difficult and scary – even for native speakers. However, there are many phrases you can use again and again in your daily life. If you learn these phrases and practice them, you will start to feel more comfortable speaking English with friends, colleagues, or strangers.
Useful Phrases for Daily Life
“What do you do?”
This is the most common question to ask when you meet a new person and want to learn more about them. Native speakers prefer this question to “What’s your job?” or “Are you a student?” because its avoids the awkward situation of giving a negative answer (“Actually, I’m out of work at the moment,” or “No, I’m not a student”). Native speakers tend to feel uncomfortable when they have to respond negatively.
How to respond:
If you have a job, you can say where you work (I work in a school), or the name of your profession (I’m a teacher), or the title of your position (I’m the Director of English Experts Inc.).
If you spend your time differently, you can talk about that instead: I study chemistry at the university / I’m a stay-at-home father / I make videos for YouTube / I’m writing a book about the secret lives of cats.
For people with boring or complicated jobs (or studies), this question may not be fun to talk about. Small talk should be easy and interesting, not an interview or interrogation.
So a better question to ask may be, “What do you do for fun?” or “How do you spend your weekends?” In this case, you should respond with some information about your hobbies or interests: I like to surf / I’m in to photography / I’m writing a book about the secret lives of cats.
Some native speakers also say something more general like “What’s your story?” or “Tell me about yourself”. This gives the other person maximum freedom about what to say (for example: where they are from, where they live, if they have a partner or children), but sometimes these phrases also feel too pushy — as if you’re trying to conduct an interview instead of make small talk.
“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”
When you want to try to start a conversation or make some “small talk” with another person, this is a common question to use. It is an indirect way to ask, “Do you want to make some small talk?”
Notice that the structure here is different from a normal question like “Is it cold outside?” or “What time is it?” English speakers use those questions when they want information (about the temperature, the time, etc). This other structure (called a tag question) starts with your opinion, and then adds a short question at the end, inviting the other person to agree or disagree.
Notice also that the first part of the question is positive, and the second part is negative — or the opposite of the first part. So you can also say “It’s not a very nice day, is it?”
How to respond:
If you want to agree, you can say “Yes, it is” or “Indeed.” These short answers are polite, but they also mean Sorry, I am too tired/busy to make small talk with you right now. If you want to make small talk, you should add some extra information to your answer:
— “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”
— “Indeed, it is. I hope it will be nice this weekend too.”
— “Oh? What are you planning for the weekend?”
— “My friend and I want to go swimming in the lake.”
— “That sounds lovely. Do you swim there often?”
— “Not so often, nowadays. But we swam there a lot when we were younger…”
To disagree, English speakers use the word “Actually”:
— “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”
— “Actually, it’s a little too hot for me. I prefer cold weather.”
— “Oh? Are you a winter person?”
— “Indeed. I was born in Austria, and loved to play outside in the snow…”
English speakers don’t say “
No, it isn’t” because this sounds very impolite. “No” is used when sharing information, not when sharing opinions.
There are a lot of other topics you can use to start making small talk, but the best questions are simple and not too personal. Remember, the purpose of this question is just to ask the other person “Do you want to make some small talk?”
— “Tomorrow is a holiday, isn’t it?”
— “This coffee tastes rather bitter, doesn’t it?”
— “That cake was delicious, wasn’t it?”
— “These chairs are really comfortable, aren’t they?”
— “All the presentations have been really good so far, haven’t they?”
“Do you mind (if I open the window)?”
This phrase is commonly used when you want to perform an action that might cause a problem for another person — such as opening the window on a cold day, or borrowing something from them.
— “Do you mind if I sit here?”
— “Do you mind if I borrow your bicycle?”
How to respond:
The verb mind in this phrase means that you feel negatively about something, or you have a problem with it. In this case, the most common positive response is “No problem!” You can also say “Sure, go ahead!” or “Be my guest!”
A negative answer to this question is “Yes”, because it means “I don’t want you to do that. I will be unhappy if you do it.” Most native speakers avoid answering negatively, however, because it sounds impolite, so they say something like “I’m sorry” or “I’m afraid”:
— “Do you mind if I sit here?” / “I’m afraid this place is already taken.”
— “Do you mind if I borrow your bike?” / “Sorry, I need it this afternoon.”
Another (informal) phrase that young people like to use is “Is it cool if…?” In the video below, listen to how Eric from Russia uses this phrase:
When you want the other person to do the action, you should use the phrase “do you mind X-ing”: “Do you mind closing the window?” / “Do you mind lending me your bicycle?” It is incorrect to use you twice: “
Do you mind if you lend me your bike?”
A formal/polite version of this phrase is “would you mind”:
— “Would you mind if I closed the door?”
— “Would you mind if I borrowed your bike today?”
— “Would you mind lending me your bicycle?”
Notice that the verb is now in the past form, even though you are talking about a situation in the present. This is a common way in English to make a phrase more polite; when a verb is in the past, it sounds softer and less urgent.
“Would you like (some coffee)?”
You hear this phrase often in restaurants or when visiting someone’s home. It’s a nice, polite way to offer something to someone, or to suggest an activity: “Would you like to dance?”
If the action is to be done by a particular person, you can add me, them, etc.:
— “Would you like me to close the door?”
— “Would you like them to cancel the order?”
How to respond:
For small offers or simple actions, you can answer “Yes, please” or “No, thank you”. For special activities, however, these short answers do not sound polite:
A: “Would you like to come to my birthday party?”
B: “No, thank you.”
A: (covers his face with his hands and cries quiet tears of sadness)
For special activities and generous offers, it’s better to say: “I would love some/to”.
— “Would you like some coffee?” / “I would love some. Thank you.”
— “Would you like to dance?” / “Sure, I’d love to!”
To answer negatively, native speakers usually say:
— “Would you like some tea?” / “I would love some, but maybe later.”
— “Would you like to dance?” / “I’d love to, but I’m too tired. Sorry. Maybe next time.”
With family members and close friends, you often hear the phrase “do you want”. This is more direct, and slightly informal — especially with the shorter form wanna: “Do you wanna play a game?” This can sound very impolite if you are speaking to an older and/or important person (such as your boss, or a customer).
Other polite phrases include “may I offer you” and “may I interest you in”. (It’s also common to use can and could.)
— “Could I offer you some water while you wait?”
— “Can I interest you in some car insurance?”
It’s not possible to use these phrases with actions, however: “
Could I offer you to dance?” and “ Could I interest you to play a game?” are incorrect.
“Shall we (watch a film)?”
A good way to build a relationship or to become friends with someone is to engage in an activity together — such as drinking coffee, watching a film, playing some football, etc. This phrase is common for suggesting activities. It’s not as strong as “would you like”, and sounds a little more friendly (since you are talking about “we” together, rather than an individual “you”).
How to respond:
English speakers use this phrase to talk about ideas, so a positive response is “Good idea!” Other good answers are “Sure!” / “Sounds great!” / “OK, let’s do that!” / “That would be lovely.” To native speakers, it sounds very strange to say “Yes” or “Thank you” because the question is a suggestion, not an offer.
To respond negatively, on the other hand, it’s not polite to say “Bad idea!” (Unless you don’t hate this person and want to end the relationship.) The more common answer is an alternative suggestion: “What about later?” or “How about tomorrow instead? I’m too tired right now.”
Shall has a slightly old but elegant sound for native speakers. It’s a word that kings and queens and Shakespeare often used. A modern, business-style alternative is the word should:
— “Should we start the meeting?”
— “Sounds good to me. I have a lot of work today.”
Other phrases for suggesting activities are:
— “What do you think about watching a film?”
— “What would you say to going to the cinema?”
Notice the “ing” here. These phrases require a noun (or gerund, which is the noun form of a verb); this means that you can also use these phrases with some: “What do you say to some pizza?”
It is incorrect to say: “
What do you say to watch a film?”
Photo by David Clode