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Change Your Meaning with Your Voice – Intonation, Inflection, & Tone of Voice

You can say the same question in several different ways:

  • What are you doing? (falling intonation)
  • What are YOU doing?
  • WHAT are you doing?
  • What are you doing? (steep fall in pitch)
  • What are you doing? (wavy pitch)
  • What are you doing? (flat pitch)

Even though the words are the same, the feeling you get from them is totally different.

In this video, you’re going to learn three ways to change your meaning with your voice:

  • First, we’re going to discuss how to move stress or emphasis to a different word to express what you mean.
  • Next, you’ll find out how changing intonation patterns can communicate a whole other meaning.
  • Last but not least, we’ll talk about how you can adjust the overall pitch levels in your speech in order to show different emotions, feelings, and attitudes.

As you’ll often hear me say, your voice is a powerful tool.

Let’s explore how to use it to communicate clearly, confidently and intentionally.

Let’s get started!


Change Your Meaning By Stressing a Specific Word

The first way to change your meaning with your voice is by stressing, or emphasizing, one word more than the rest.

In normal, neutral sentences, the final content word is usually the one that stressed the most.

(This means the stressed syllable of this word will be the longest, the loudest, and the highest in pitch.)

Let’s look at a normal, neutral sentence:

My cousin moved to California last year.

When I’m just stating this as a fact, I’m going to stress “year”:

My cousin moved to California last YEAR.

When you stress one word more than the rest, you’re basically underlining it with your voice.

If you stress a different word than people expect, you can subtly or obviously change the meaning, depending on the context.

What happens if I stress a different word?

My COUsin moved to California last year.

If I stress “cousin,” it sounds like I’m clarifying.

My COUsin moved to California last year.

Maybe the other person thought my brother moved there instead.

What happens if I stress “California”?

My cousin moved to CaliFORnia last year.

I might stress “California” if I’m answering a question, like “Where did your cousin move to?”

My cousin moved to CaliFORnia last year.

How does the meaning change when I stress “last”?

My cousin moved to California LAST year.

Perhaps the other person got confused and thought it was several years ago, or more recently.

My cousin moved to California LAST year.

Or I might be drawing attention to the fact that last year was a particularly interesting time to move across the country.


Change the Word You Stress for Emphasis and Effect

Let’s look at a few more examples of how you can change the word you stress for emphasis and effect.

As you listen to the video, think about which word stands out the most.

The ONly way to change how you sound is through practice.

In this case, you can hear that I’m stressing “only” the most in order to emphasize that practice is the singular most important way to improve.

The ONly way to change how you sound is through practice.

Here’s another example. Which word is stressed the most?

That’s my FAVorite movie.

In this example, I’m underlining the word “favorite” so that there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind how I feel about the movie.

That’s my FAVorite movie.

How does changing the focus word change the meaning in this question?

WHAT are you eating?

If you were simply curious about the food on someone’s plate, you would stress “eating” the most.

By shifting the stress to “what,” you’re expressing shock, surprise, or even disgust.

WHAT are you eating?

Notice how I stress this sentence:

We could ask for an exTENsion.

When I say this as a declaration of fact, it’s going to sound like this:

We could ask for an exTENsion.

Stressing a different word can also soften your language or help you sound a little more tactful.

For example:

We COULD ask for an extension.

By stressing the modal verb “could,” I’m presenting it as an option and showing that I’m open to discussion.

We COULD ask for an extension.

If I shift the stress to the word “ask,” how does it change the meaning?

We could ASK for an extension.

In this case, we’re stressing “ask” to underline that it’s a request, rather than a demand.

We could ASK for an extension.

One more example:

They’re going to try to finish on TIME.

In this case, I’m stressing “time” the most.

They’re going to try to finish on TIME.

Now listen to how this version is different:

They’re going to TRY to finish on time.

How does the meaning change by shifting the stress to the word “try”?

They’re going to TRY to finish on time.

In this case, we’re emphasizing that there’s going to be an attempt to finish on time.

This subtle difference suggests that finishing on time is not guaranteed.

As you can hear, shifting stress is a powerful way to communicate your meaning.

Listen to which words people stress the most and notice how that affects their meaning.

Experiment with stressing, emphasizing, or underlining different words with your voice.

See how that can make your meaning more clear, or your ideas more compelling and interesting.


Change Your Meaning By Changing Your Intonation

Besides moving stress around, you can also change your meaning by changing your intonation.

When you use a different intonation pattern than expected, people are going to be listening for the deeper meaning behind your words.

If you’re simply stating a fact, you’ll use falling intonation.

They’re not here yet. ↘️ They’re not here yet. ↘️

If you fall consistently throughout the sentence, it sounds annoyed.

They’re not ↘️ here ↘️ yet. ↘️ They’re not ↘️ here ↘️ yet. ↘️

If you use rising intonation on this statement, it turns it into a question.

They’re not here yet? ↗️ They’re not here yet? ↗️

If you use an even higher rise at the end, it can sound shocked or surprised.

They’re not here yet?! ↗️ ↗️ They’re not here yet?! ↗️↗️

If you’re asking a straightforward yes or no question, it may sound like this.

Are you sure? ↗️ Are you sure? ↗️

If you use falling intonation instead, it signals doubt or disappointment.

Are you sure? ↘️ Are you sure? ↘️

To sound tentative or uncertain, you can use “wavier” intonation with a slight rise at the end.

Are you sure? 〰️ ↗️ Are you sure? 〰️ ↗️

As you can hear, there’s a lot you can do with your voice to express a totally different meaning.

When we change stress and intonation to express meaning it’s often called inflection.

In other words, you’re adding extra information and nuance with your voice.


Change Your Meaning By Changing Your Overall Pitch Levels

Last but not least, let’s talk about how your overall pitch levels can affect your meaning.

As you’ve often heard me say, pitch is relative to you and your own voice.

When people are listening to you, they’re listening to your words, and they’re also gathering meaning from your voice.

In other words, they’re seeing how your words compare to your tone of voice to decide how you really feel about what you say.

Your voice often reflects how you truly feel, intentionally or not.

When we’re speaking naturally, we generally move between four pitch levels, which I explain in this video on pitch and intonation when speaking.

Consider this sentence:

It’s so nice to finally meet you. It’s so nice to finally meet you. (normal pitch levels)

If you’re expressing stronger, positive emotions, such as excitement and enthusiasm, you may use an even wider pitch range:

It’s so nice to finally meet you. It’s so nice to finally meet you. (wider pitch range)

If you’re showing somewhat negative emotions like disinterest or boredom, your pitch range will be more narrow.

It’s so nice to finally meet you. It’s so nice to finally meet you. (narrower pitch range)

You can also use a wide pitch range with steep drops in pitch to sound sarcastic or annoyed.

It’s so nice to finally meet you. It’s so nice to finally meet you. (wide pitch range with steep drops in pitch)

In the video, you can compare these versions back to back:

  • It’s so nice to finally meet you. (normal pitch levels)
  • It’s so nice to finally meet you. (wider pitch range)
  • It’s so nice to finally meet you. (narrower pitch range)
  • It’s so nice to finally meet you. (wide pitch range with steep drops in pitch)

Big difference, right?

That’s why people often say, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”


Pay Attention to How People Communicate Meaning and Experiment with Your Voice

At the beginning of this video, I reminded you that your voice is a powerful tool.

Now you want to tune in to the additional meaning that we’re communicating through stress and intonation.

Stay curious when listening to other people:

  • Can you hear which words are most important?
  • Are they always the words you expect?
  • Do you notice how the rises and falls change based on what’s happening in the conversation?
  • How does their pitch express how they feel about what they’re saying?

To feel more confident expressing your meaning through your voice, you have to experiment.

Change things up, and pay attention to how people respond to you.

If you need to review how we use stress, pitch, and intonation, check out these videos:

Remember, once you’re consistently speaking with stress and intonation, you have so much more control over your meaning and your message.

For more guidance and practice as you explore how to use your voice to communicate your meaning, consider joining the Intonation Clinic. Step-by-step, you’ll discover how to use pitch and intonation to communicate your meaning.
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10 Transition Phrases and Expressions for Conversations in American English

Ever wanted to acknowledge something that’s happening during a conversation, or describe a specific moment during a discussion?

Then this video will help!

In this video, you’re going to learn 10 expressions that we use to describe what’s going on, or what happened, during a conversation, discussion or interaction.

These phrases will help you transition or explain what’s coming next.

Or they’ll help you describe what happened during the conversation.

Let’s get started!


Having a Conversation About Conversations is Meta

First things first, I want to share a word that’s helpful to describe something that refers back to or references itself.

Because these are conversational expressions about conversations, they’re meta.

We use the word meta or the expression “That’s so meta” when something is about itself.

For example: a book about writing books, a movie about making movies, a song about singing songs or a conversation about having conversations.

When you’re talking about having a conversation about conversations, that’s very meta.

Here are some examples:

He wrote a book about the process of writing a book – that’s so meta! The reboot of that nineties TV show was really meta; the characters were trying to create a reboot of their original TV show.


Transition Phrases and Expressions About Conversations

Now let’s segue into even more expressions about conversations.

segue

When we transition smoothly between topics, we call this a segue.

The term comes from a smooth, easy transition in music, but we also use it for conversations and discussions.

You can use the word segue to describe the transition itself, or to point out that you’re about to transition between topics.

Let’s look at the examples:

  • Let’s segue into the next part of the presentation.
  • Your question is a perfect segue into my next point.

side note

Another expression that we use to transition into a topic is side note.

We start with “side note” when we’re intentionally going off-topic to make an observation or ask a question.

For whatever reason, you want to bring it up right then.

Here are some examples:

  • Side note – did you see who won last night? It was shocking!
  • Side note – I absolutely love your jacket. Where did you get it?

Usually something inspired you to share this, such as important news, something you remembered that you want to talk about, or something you’re observing.


(lose your) train of thought

And if an idea pops into your head that distracts you, you might lose your train of thought.

When you lose your train of thought, you forget the line of reasoning that you were following to get to your conclusion or main point.

In other words, you forgot how the ideas were connected to get to the point that you were trying to make.

We often admit that we lost our train of thought so that the other person gives us time to think, or reminds us of what we were saying.

Here are some examples:

  • Sorry, I lost my train of thought. What was I saying?
  • Just give me a moment; I lost my train of thought.

You can also say, “Sorry, I’m having trouble following your train of thought” to encourage them to explain better.


lull in conversation

Moving on, we have the phrase “lull in conversation.”

At times, even if you have a lot to say to someone, there will be a lull in conversation.

A lull in conversation is when everyone’s quiet because the topic has come to its natural conclusion.

If there’s a lull in conversation, you may decide to change topics, or the conversation will end (which is why some people worry when it happens.)

But as long as you’re all interested in continuing to talk, then the lull will naturally end.

It gives people time to think about what to say next.

Let’s look at the examples:

  • There was a lull in conversation, so I decided to change the subject.
  • We ran out of things to talk about, so there was a lull in conversation.

awkward silence

A related expression is awkward silence.

While a lull in conversation is natural, an awkward silence can feel uncomfortable.

An awkward silence may happen after someone makes a bad or even offensive joke, if people don’t understand what someone is saying, if one person isn’t interested in talking, or if someone makes a suggestion no one likes.

Sometimes we’ll acknowledge this quiet response, and we’ll simply say “Awkward silence!”

This usually gets people to laugh and move on to something else.

Here are some more examples:

  • After he made yet another bad joke, there was an awkward silence.
  • After the manager suggested budget cuts, an awkward silence filled the room.

moving on

An expression that can be super handy after an awkward silence is “moving on.”

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve used that phrase a few times during this video! It’s a really great transition expression.

If there’s been an awkward silence, or someone says something offensive, we will sometimes simply respond. “Moving on!” and change the subject.

By starting with the phrase “Moving on!”, it tells everyone that you’re not going to talk about what just happened; you’re going to move on to the next topic.

This expression can be helpful in the middle of an argument, if something unexpected happens, such as a distraction or someone drops something, and it breaks everywhere, and you just want to get back to what you were talking about.

You simply say “Moving on!” and you keep going.

For example:

  • Moving on – has anyone seen that movie that they’ve been advertising for months?
  • Moving on – what would you like for dinner?

You can also use “moving on” to simply transition into the next topic.

It helps suggest that you want to keep the conversation moving.

(That’s why you’ve probably heard me say it when moving on to another point in my videos.)


Expressions About Things We Do During Conversations

The last few expressions are about things that you may do during a conversation.

share / tell an anecdote

First, we have share or tell an anecdote.

When you’re trying to illustrate a point about someone’s personality, skills, or behavior, you may share an anecdote.

An anecdote is a short story that supports what you’re trying to say.

We often tell funny anecdotes about family members or friends in order to show aspects of their personality that everyone likes (or everyone’s amused by).

Anecdotes can be powerful examples in job interviews, or when you’re trying to describe a shared experience.

Anecdotes may also be short stories that are inspirational, or even hard to believe.

Here are some examples:

  • At my sister’s wedding, my mom shared funny anecdotes about when she got in trouble as a kid.
  • His grandfather loved to tell anecdotes about growing up on the farm.

inside joke

Related to anecdote, we have inside joke.

When you know people really well, you often have private jokes that make no sense to anyone else.

(It may not even sound funny to anyone else!)

This is called an inside joke.

If you feel left out because you don’t understand why everyone is laughing, someone may explain and say, “Sorry, that’s an inside joke from college.”

They may or may not try to explain the point of the joke.

We often use this phrase in the expression “get an inside joke.” If you don’t understand, you didn’t get the inside joke.

On the other hand, when you understand an inside joke, you’ll feel included and part of the group.

Here are some examples:

  • I didn’t understand why everyone was laughing, until he explained that it was an inside joke.
  • My college friends and I have a bunch of inside jokes from dorm life.

give [someone] a pep talk

Now let’s talk about giving someone a pep talk.

When you need to encourage someone, you may choose to give them a pep talk.

A pep talk is a short, emotional, encouraging, inspirational speech that helps people feel more confident.

We often give people pep talks before a big performance or a game.

Or we may give someone a pep talk when they’re about to take a risk, and they need to believe in themselves.

Let’s look at the examples:

  • A few days before the deadline, the boss gave us a pep talk saying that he believed in us.
  • Before the piano recital, her mom gave her a pep talk, and reminded her that she was prepared and ready to perform.

deep dive

Last but not least, let’s talk about the expression deep dive.

A deep dive is an in-depth analysis of a topic.

A deep dive is often especially interesting to a smaller group of people.

At work, you may do a deep dive into your market or competitors to really understand them.

If you’re obsessed with a certain topic, you may do a deep dive into it.

Here are a few more examples:

  • During the meeting, we’ll do a deep dive into the sales figures from last year.
  • I’m fascinated by a certain director, so I did a deep dive into his early work.

Your Turn

Now that you have all of these expressions about interesting moments during conversations, be sure to try them out!

You’ll also start noticing when people use them in conversations, and now you understand exactly what they mean.

You can also check out this video with 11 super common conversation expressions that I personally use on a regular basis.

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Find Your Flow When Speaking English – Stress, Rhythm, Melody, Contrast and Thought Groups

Ever noticed how native English speakers use their voices to emphasize important words and help you follow what they’re saying?

The rise and fall of their pitch, and the contrast between the words that matter, and those that don’t, create the natural rhythm and melody of American English.

If you’re wondering how to find your own flow when speaking English, then this video is for you.

In this video, you’ll learn how to use stress, rhythm, and melody to communicate clearly and confidently in American English.

You’ll find out how to speak with word and sentence stress, contrast, and thought groups so that your ideas have that natural flow you’re looking for.

Let’s get started!


Understanding Word Stress in American English

We’re going to start off by looking at word stress.

Word stress is when we emphasize one syllable more than the rest, making it longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement on the vowel sound.

We relax and do less work on the rest of the syllables.

Here are some examples of word stress:

  • mind: MIND – /maɪnd/
  • now: NOW – /naʊ/
  • bring: BRING – /brɪŋ/
  • ready: READy – /ˈrɛdi/
  • around: aROUND – /əˈraʊnd/
  • forecast: FOREcast – /ˈfɔrˌkæst/
  • challenge: CHALlenge – /ˈtʃæləndʒ/
  • engineer: engiNEER – /ˌɛndʒəˈnɪr/
  • umbrella: umBRELla – /ʌmˈbrɛlə/
  • neighborhood: NEIGHborhood – /ˈneɪbərˌhʊd/

Could you hear how one syllable of each word stood out more than the rest?

The stressed syllable was longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement, even on those one syllable words.

If you’re having trouble pronouncing a word, figure out which syllable is stressed and focus attention on that syllable using your voice.

If you’re starting to feel like stressing a syllable is a lot of work for our mouths, remember that we actually relax and even reduce the rest of the syllables.

Let’s hear them again:

  • mind: MIND – /maɪnd/
  • now: NOW – /naʊ/
  • bring: BRING – /brɪŋ/
  • ready: READy – /ˈrɛdi/
  • around: aROUND – /əˈraʊnd/
  • forecast: FOREcast – /ˈfɔrˌkæst/
  • challenge: CHALlenge – /ˈtʃæləndʒ/
  • engineer: engiNEER – /ˌɛndʒəˈnɪr/
  • umbrella: umBRELla – /ʌmˈbrɛlə/
  • neighborhood: NEIGHborhood – /ˈneɪbərˌhʊd/

Did you notice how the rest of the syllables were more relaxed?

They were shorter, quieter, lower in pitch, with less effort on those vowel sounds.

A lot of languages give equal weight and importance to each and every syllable.

You might use volume to emphasize a syllable, but you won’t significantly change your pitch, lengthen one syllable more than the rest, or move your mouth more on one vowel sound, while relaxing or reducing the rest.

(In other words, many languages are syllable-timed languages, whereas English is a stress-timed language. Learn more here.)

Because you’re so used to producing syllables the way you do in your native language, it can take time, patience, and practice to create this contrast.

Let’s move on to sentence stress so that you can see what I mean.


Understanding Sentence Stress in American English

In order to speak English more efficiently, we don’t give every syllable of every word equal emphasis.

Instead, we highlight the most important words by stressing these key syllables.

The words that express your meaning are called content words.

If you only say these content words, people will still understand what you mean.

The other words are called function words, and they’re only there so that you have a grammatically correct sentence.

If you drop these words entirely, your meaning will still be clear.

Let’s look at some examples. See if you can tell which words express the meaning:

  • I’ve been working as an engineer for over ten years, but I’m ready for a new challenge.
  • When you feel frustrated, it helps to take a walk around the neighborhood to clear your mind.
  • Even though it’s sunny out right now, the forecast calls for rain, so remember to bring an umbrella.

Now let’s look at how to stress these examples:

  • I’ve been WORKing as an engiNEER for over TEN YEARS, but I’m READy for a NEW CHALLENGE.
  • When you FEEL FRUStrated, it HELPS to TAKE a WALK around the NEIGHborhood to CLEAR your MIND.
  • Even though it’s SUNny OUT RIGHT NOW, the FOREcast CALLS for RAIN, so reMEMber to BRING an umBRELla.

Can you hear how the stressed syllables are lengthened and the rest seem to hide or fade into the background?

This contrast in syllable length creates the natural rhythm of English.

Can you hear how my pitch goes up and down between stressed and unstressed or reduced syllables?

This contrast in pitch creates the natural melody of English.

Can you see how my mouth moves more on stressed syllables, and does less work on the rest?

This helps us speak more quickly and efficiently.

If you just focus on highlighting these key words with your voice, native English speakers will understand you so much better.

Because we’re so used to hearing people emphasize these key syllables, we’re listening for them in order to identify which words you’re saying.

If no syllable stands out, native speakers have to listen extra carefully to decipher what you’re saying.

To make sure your message and your meaning are clear, stress the right syllables of your most important words.


Find Your Flow in English with Thought Groups

Now that you understand how stress, rhythm, and melody work, it’s time to help you find your flow in English.

To help people follow what we’re saying, we break longer sentences into thought groups.

Thought groups are chunks of words that go together.

Packaging words together helps people follow your ideas and keeps people listening when you’re speaking at length.

Of course, it also gives you a little time to breathe.

Using thought groups is another way for you to highlight the most important words and ideas with your voice.

Let’s return to our examples:

  • I’ve been WORKing as an engiNEER for over TEN YEARS, but I’m READy for a NEW CHALLENGE.
  • When you FEEL FRUStrated, it HELPS to TAKE a WALK around the NEIGHborhood to CLEAR your MIND.
  • Even though it’s SUNny OUT RIGHT NOW, the FOREcast CALLS for RAIN, so reMEMber to BRING an umBRELla.

Can you hear which words stand out the most?

Do you hear any short pauses or changes in pitch mid-sentence?

Here’s how these sentences sound with thought groups:

  • I’ve been WORKing / as an engiNEER / for over TEN YEARS, / but I’m READy / for a NEW CHALLENGE.
  • When you FEEL FRUStrated, / it HELPS to TAKE a WALK / around the NEIGHborhood / to CLEAR your MIND.
  • Even though it’s SUNny OUT / RIGHT NOW, / the FOREcast / CALLS for RAIN, / so reMEMber / to BRING an umBRELla.

As you can hear, every thought group has one word that’s stressed the most.

We often call this a focus word.

This is why you can hear different levels of stress when people are speaking.

As I often tell people, trust your ear.

If you really linger on the focus word of each thought group, it creates a nice flow between ideas that keeps people listening, interested, and engaged.

Let’s try it:

  • I’ve been WORKing / as an engiNEER / for over TEN YEARS, / but I’m READy / for a NEW CHALLENGE.
  • When you FEEL FRUStrated, / it HELPS to TAKE a WALK / around the NEIGHborhood / to CLEAR your MIND.
  • Even though it’s SUNny OUT / RIGHT NOW, / the FOREcast / CALLS for RAIN, / so reMEMber / to BRING an umBRELla.

Practice Stress and Thought Groups

Now that you understand stress and thought groups and how to create English and melody through contrast, it’s time to practice.

You need to train your ear and your mouth.

Start listening closely to native speakers and noticing which syllables of which words are stressed the most.

Pay attention to how they break their ideas into smaller pieces, and how they pause or change their pitch between thought groups.

And, of course, start experimenting with this yourself!

The only way to get better at stressing words, breaking your ideas into thought groups, and creating contrast is through practice.

Remember, your voice doesn’t have to be perfect to be powerful.

Make sure people understand your meaning and your message by emphasizing your most important words.

Want more guidance and practice to help you find your flow when speaking English? These courses will help you get started.
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11 Super Common Conversation Expressions in American English

Chances are you’ve been in a conversation with a native English speaker when they used a few expressions that were pretty new to you.

You probably got the gist of what they were saying, but you still wanted to make sure that both of you were on the same page.

In fact, we use a lot of expressions to transition between ideas, move on to another point or change the subject, or even to refer to a specific moment in the conversation.

In this video, you’ll learn 11 expressions that we use to talk about talking, to talk about speaking well, and talk about connecting during conversations.

These are expressions that I personally use on a regular basis, and that’s why I feel they’re so important to share with you today.

Let’s get started!


Expressions About Connecting During Conversations

Let’s start off by looking at a couple of expressions that we use to talk about connecting during conversations.

After all, that is one of my favorite topics!

on the same page

If you were listening carefully at the beginning of this video, you probably noticed that I already used one of these expressions: on the same page.

When you’re on the same page with someone, you agree with them, or you share the same understanding.

You may have a different approach or perspective, but, ultimately, you agree.

If you don’t yet agree, you may need to get on the same page.

We also use this expression to talk about everyone having the same information.

For example, you may share the latest updates with your whole team to make sure that everyone’s on the same page.

Because it’s so important to understand one another, this expression is a great way to check in with someone.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Now that we’re all on the same page, we can start to plan the conference.
  • We’re totally on the same page – I agree 100%.

on the same wavelength

A similar expression is on the same wavelength.

While this can also be used to say that you agree with someone, it’s more often used to say that two people deeply understand one another.

They probably share similar attitudes, perspectives, feelings, thoughts, and opinions, or they may share the same interests or hobbies.

Here are some examples:

  • As soon as we met, we realized that we’re on the same wavelength; it feels like we’ve known each other forever.
  • When I travel, I always seem to meet people who are on the same wavelength with me.

resonate with [someone]

Another expression we use to talk about connecting is resonate with [someone].

When an idea resonates with you or other people, it connects with your feelings and opinions.

The word resonate used to be used with sound or music, but over the past few decades, it started to be used with ideas as well.

(According to the New York Times, some people don’t appreciate this usage, but I personally resonate with this new meaning. 😉 )

Writers, artists, even video creators want their work to resonate with you, or their audience.

Businesses want their products or their marketing to resonate with their customers.

Here are some examples with the word “resonate”:

  • I like watching her videos because her approach resonates with me.
  • That book wasn’t a best seller, but it resonated with the right audience.

Expressions That Describe Speaking Well

Let’s move on to a few expressions that we use to describe speaking well.

to be / sound articulate

Let’s take a look at to be or to sound articulate.

When someone’s articulate, they express their thoughts and ideas clearly and easily.

Their ideas are well-organized and well-presented, and they express themselves easily, in a way that often resonates with the right people.

I find that when people say that they want to sound more intelligent, what they actually mean is that they want to sound more articulate.

They’re not that concerned with coming across as super smart, but they want their ideas to sound good, and they want to express themselves clearly and easily.

Here are some examples:

  • I love listening to her explain her research; she’s so articulate and interesting.
  • The professor’s ideas are always so clear and easy to follow, which makes him sound really articulate.

well said

Next up, we have the expression “Well said.”

When you’re listening to someone’s ideas and opinions, and you like the way that they express themselves, you can respond by saying, “Well said!”

We usually use the expression “well said” when we agree with the other person.

The phrase “well said” emphasizes that the other person has expressed themselves in an articulate way, that they’ve clearly explained their ideas, and that they’ve spoken convincingly.

What I like about the expression is that you say it when there’s no need to add anything more to the person’s ideas.

For example:

  • Well said! You convinced us.
  • Well said. I couldn’t have explained it better.

Expressions for Talking About Talking a Lot

Now let’s look at some expressions we use when talking about talking a lot.

ramble

First up, we have “ramble.”

When someone rambles, they talk for longer than expected.

Someone can ramble without making a point or without connecting their ideas together.

We may also ramble when we’re talking passionately about a subject, or when we’re sharing lots of extra details when telling a story.

You may ramble about your favorite movies, or ramble on and on.

If you realize that you’ve talked for longer than expected, you can say something like, “Oops! I’m rambling,” or, “Sorry for rambling. You can tell I love talking about this.”

It’s a good way to acknowledge that you’ve talked at length before giving the other person a chance to respond.

Here are some examples:

  • He started rambling about all of the changes he thinks we should make.
  • When I talk about plants, I always end up rambling.

to go off on a tangent

Next, let’s look at the expression “to go off on a tangent.”

Sometimes we’re talking about one topic, and then we switch over to another that isn’t that related.

This is called going off on a tangent.

When you go off on a tangent, it may be hard for other people to understand how the ideas are connected.

At some point, you may realize that you’ve taken the conversation in another direction, so you can use this expression to acknowledge that:

  • Wow, I went off on a tangent.
  • That was quite a tangent, but hopefully it was interesting.

Here are some more examples:

  • He went off on a tangent, but shared some interesting ideas.
  • She went off on a tangent about her favorite vacation when we were just talking about the weather.

long-winded / long-winded version of the story

Next up, we have long-winded, which is often used in the expression “the long-winded version of the story.”

Some people tend to provide a lot of details when telling stories or sharing opinions.

A long-winded person provides a lot of extra information.

Some people like hearing all the details, while others don’t. It really depends on the situation.

When we give someone the full explanation with all of the details, we may call it “the long-winded version of the story.”

We often summarize the main point and then say something like, “Let me know if you want to hear the long-winded version of the story.”

Here are some examples:

  • That professor tends to be long-winded. His lectures can be a little boring.
  • I don’t have time to tell you the long-winded version of the story, but the good news is it all worked out.

long story short

A related expression is long story short.

If you realize that you’ve been rambling, or telling a long-winded version of the story, you may need to summarize so that your main point is clear.

You can say something like, “Long story short, she got the job. Or, “Long story short, we got the contract.”

You may also use this expression when you don’t want to share all the details.

You’re basically highlighting the end result.

Let’s look at the examples:

  • Long story short, he got fired.
  • Long story short, we need more time to finish the project.

Cliffs Notes version

Another similar expression is the Cliffs Notes version.

Cliffs Notes are a brand of books or study aids with notes summarizing longer, more complex books.

High school and college students often use Cliffs Notes in order to help them remember details, or remember the main ideas.

When we give the Cliffs Notes version of a story, we’re summarizing the most important points and leaving out all the extra details.

You may ask someone to give you the Cliffs Notes version if they tend to be long-winded, or you don’t have time to hear the whole story right now.

(You may hear people say “Cliff Notes,” because that’s easier for our mouths to say, but since it is a brand name, you should say Cliffs Notes with the “s” in the middle.)

Here are some examples of how we use this expression:

  • I can’t wait for you to tell me the whole story, but give me the Cliffs Notes version right now.
  • Let me give you the Cliffs Notes version of what happened.

get the gist

One more related expression is get the gist.

When you get the gist of something, you understand the central idea, even if you don’t understand all the details.

You can get the gist of an idea, concept, opinion, hypothesis, movie, book, and so on.

We often use this expression when letting someone know that we understand the general idea, especially if they’re concerned that their explanation was too technical, complicated, or detailed.

Or we can use it if we didn’t fully understand a book, movie, or even a discussion, but we did understand the most important points.

Here are some examples:

  • Don’t worry, I got the gist.
  • I didn’t understand the whole book, but I feel like I got the gist of the main argument.

Your Turn

Now that you’ve learned quite a few expressions that we often use in conversations in American English, remember to practice.

Try using one of these expressions in your next conversation.

And be sure to notice when you hear other people using these expressions.

You’ll probably notice that they’re quite common when people are having interesting conversations in English!

Leave a comment with any other conversation expressions that you’ve heard that you’re curious about.

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Indirect Questions – Make Requests and Offer Subtle Suggestions

Do you happen to know what time it is?

I was wondering if you’d help me move next week.

Could you tell me where the nearest station is?

Notice anything interesting about these sentences?

That’s right – they’re questions hiding within other questions or statements.

If you’ve ever missed answering a question because the question was actually hidden within a statement or another question, then this video will help.

In this video, you’ll learn how to ask indirect questions, which we also call embedded questions.

Learning to ask indirect questions will help you make requests and offer subtle suggestions in a tactful, diplomatic way, while still sounding completely natural.

Let’s get started!


Why We Ask Indirect Questions

First things first, let’s talk about why we ask indirect questions.

Let me ask you this:

How do you feel when you have to ask someone for a favor, check on the status of a project that’s overdue, or make a somewhat critical observation?

If you’re like most people, including me, you probably feel a little uncomfortable.

You may be worried about hearing “no,” or getting a negative reaction, or even having your idea be rejected.

Or you might feel like you’re inconveniencing the other person.

Indirect questions create a little distance from what you want or need from the other person.

This makes requests more polite, observations less confrontational, and suggestions more of a strong nudge rather than overt criticism.


Situations When We Use Indirect Questions

Let’s talk about some situations where it’s common to use indirect questions.

Besides sounding more polite, indirect questions help the other person excuse any interruption or inconvenience.

That’s why we often use indirect questions when asking a stranger for information like directions or the time, or when we request something from a server or bartender in a busy restaurant, or when we talk to a receptionist, secretary, or customer service representative.

We also use them when asking a friend or colleague for a favor that requires extra effort or a time commitment.

Let’s return to the questions we started out with:

  • Do you happen to know what time it is?
  • I was wondering if you’d help me move next week.
  • Could you tell me where the nearest station is?

These indirect questions show you understand what you’re asking for and that you appreciate their time.

Similarly, you can make more subtle suggestions using indirect questions.

If you’re talking to someone who has yet to complete a report, you can ask something like, “I was wondering if the report was ready yet,” instead of asking, “Is the report ready yet?”

Of course, you will find yourself in situations where you need to be more direct.

But in many cases, these indirect questions get your point across while still sounding tactful and diplomatic.


How to Create Indirect Questions

Now let’s talk about how to create these indirect questions.

Even though we’re calling them indirect questions, it’s important to remember that they may also take the form of indirect statements.

(You’ll get to practice both with these examples.)

Indirect questions have two parts:

  • The first is the polite question or indirect statement used to introduce your question.
  • The second is your actual question, hidden or embedded inside.

Let’s look at these parts in more detail.

As you’ve learned from your experience, or this video on how to sound more polite, we often use modal verbs like “can,” “could,” and “would” when making requests.

For this reason, we often use them when asking indirect questions.

It’s a way of asking permission to continue your request.

In addition, we use verbs like “know” and “remember” to start requests where we’re not sure the other person will be able to help us.

It’s a way to show them that it’s okay to tell us that they can’t help.


Questions That Introduce Indirect Questions

Here are some common questions used to introduce indirect questions:

  • Could I ask…?
  • Can you check…?
  • Could you tell me…?
  • Can you tell me…?
  • Would you mind explaining…?
  • Would you mind repeating…?
  • Would you mind clarifying…?
  • Do you know…?
  • Can you remember…?
  • Do you remember…?
  • Do you have any idea…?
  • Do you happen to know…?
  • Would you happen to know…?

Did you hear anything interesting about my intonation when I was asking those questions?

Don’t worry – we’ll talk more about intonation in indirect questions in just a moment.


Statements That Introduce Indirect Questions

Let’s move on to statements that we use to introduce indirect questions.

Besides these polite leading questions, you can also use common expressions that show hesitation and uncertainty about the question that follows.

As you notice, we often add additional language or change the verb to the past tense or even the past continuous in order to show even more hesitation about the request that follows.

In a way, this helps us distance ourselves from the uncomfortable or inconvenient request.

Here are common statements that introduce indirect questions:

  • I want to know….
  • I wanted to know….
  • I was asking myself….
  • I was asking [a friend/colleague/family member]….
  • I wonder….
  • I was wondering….
  • We were wondering…
  • I want to find out….
  • We need to find out….
  • I’d like to find out….
  • I don’t know….
  • I’m not sure….
  • Let’s ask….
  • Let me know….
  • I’d like to ask….
  • I’d like to check….

Once again, did you notice anything special about my intonation in these statements?

This questioning intonation helps emphasize the uncertainty that I’m not sure how the person will respond to my request.


How to Structure Indirect Questions

Finally, we can talk about the grammar structure for these indirect questions.

After you’ve introduced your actual question with a leading question or indirect statement, you can finally ask what you’ve been wanting to ask.

If your indirect question is an information question or “wh-” question, then you’ll simply start with the question word: who, what, where, when, why, how, or any of the variations.

If you’re asking a yes/no question as your indirect question, then you’ll start with the words “if,” “whether,” or “whether or not.” All of them are equally fine.

The most important thing to remember with indirect questions is the word order after the question word.

Since the indirect question is actually a noun clause, you’ll need to put the subject first, followed by the verb.

Remember, you’ve already asked your question in the first part of the sentence, so you don’t need to use question order again.


Intonation in Indirect Questions

When asking indirect questions, pay attention to your intonation.

If the first part of your question is a yes/no question, like, “Could you tell me…?”, “Do you happen to know….?”, you want to use rising intonation, just like we do on normal yes/no questions.

This can feel a little strange if you’re asking an information question afterwards.

For example: Could you tell me where the nearest station is?

It seems like you should be using falling intonation, like we would use for information questions.

However, the entire question is technically a yes/no question: Could you tell me where the nearest station is?

When we lead into an indirect question with a statement, we often use what I call wavy intonation or questioning intonation.

This intonation pattern shows that you’re hesitating to make this request.

Watch the video to see how it sounds on this example: I was wondering if you’d help me move next week.

As you can hear, I’m maintaining this uncertain intonation throughout the entire sentence.

This shows that I’m not really sure how the other person would respond.

We often choose to end these requests with a slight rise at the end, instead of a steep fall, in order to emphasize that uncertainty.

Listen again: I was wondering if you’d help me move next week.

Using a slight rise at the end of these statements helps emphasize that it’s a question.

Listen to how this question sounds: Do you happen to know what time it is?

Using tentative intonation on these indirect questions signals that you understand that you’re asking for a favor, or you’re interrupting them from what they’re doing.

We use more tentative intonation to help the other person stay open and receptive to hearing our request.

Depending on the context, falling intonation or flat intonation on these indirect questions can make them sound more like a criticism than a request.


Practice Indirect Questions

Now that you have the language, the grammar structure, and the intonation for indirect questions, let’s practice with some examples.

(To repeat along with me, head to minute 8:26 on the video above.)

Let’s practice:

  • Could you tell me when the last train is?
  • Do you have any idea where I can buy a monthly bus pass?
  • I wanted to know if the apartment is still available.
  • I was wondering whether a deposit is required.
  • I’d like to check if the doctor has any availability this week.
  • I was wondering if the meeting could be rescheduled.
  • I’d like to ask if you could drive me to the airport.
  • I’m not sure if you have time to help me with this project.
  • I was wondering if you fixed the leak yet.

As I mentioned, you can share indirect observations or give subtle suggestions using the same structure:

  • I don’t know if they met the deadline.
  • Let me know when you’re ready to go.

Your Turn

As you can see, indirect questions are super useful in everyday conversations, whether that’s with strangers, with friends, or with coworkers.

It’s definitely worth your effort to learn how to make clear requests while still sounding tactful, polite, and diplomatic.

Indirect questions are super handy in a lot of different types of situations, so you will definitely have opportunities to practice.

If you’d like to practice right now, leave a comment with an indirect question with a suggestion or request for me.

For example, what would you like to hear me talk about in a future video?

Want to give clear, strong suggestions that still sound polite and tactful? Learn how here.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN AUGUST 2016, AND WAS UPDATED IN DECEMBER 2020.
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How to Give Clear Suggestions and Strong Recommendations Using Polite Language

Have you ever wanted to give a clear, strong suggestion to a friend, relative, or coworker, while still sounding tactful and polite?

At times, we need to encourage or even urge other people to take action, but we don’t want to sound bossy, demanding, or like we’re ordering people around.

I recommend that you keep watching to find out how to offer clear suggestions and make strong recommendations in American English.

In this video, you’ll learn how to change super direct commands into polite, but clear, suggestions and recommendations.

By intentionally choosing this language and maintaining calm, measured intonation, you emphasize the importance of your ideas, while ensuring that the other person stays open to hearing what you have to say.

Let’s get started!


Understanding Direct Commands and When to Use Them

When you first learn how to tell someone what to do, you find out how to give direct commands, such as:

  • Write this report by Friday.
  • Wait your turn.
  • Finish the project immediately.
  • Respond to my email as soon as possible.
  • Head to the emergency exit.

Of course, there are several situations where it sounds natural to give these direct commands.

For example, when there’s an urgent situation, we may need to say “Head to the emergency exit immediately.”

By using this direct command, the other person is very clear that this is an important action to take. Y

ou may also hear people give direct commands in certain relationships, such as when a parent is telling a child what to do: Put away your toys.

We may also choose to use this direct language in more casual, relaxed situations, when we feel more comfortable with the other person, and we trust that they understand that we’re not bossing them around.

For example, you may say something like “Pass the salt” at a family dinner.

In other types of situations, direct commands can feel forceful, bossy, or demanding (not ideal!).

For example, when you’re talking to strangers, or you’re interacting with coworkers, or chatting with your friends, using direct commands can feel like you’re telling them what to do.

Rather than getting into a long discussion of power dynamics here, let me just remind you that not everyone responds well to being told what to do.

To help us navigate situations where we want people to listen to our suggestions and take action, we use special grammar structures, and, of course, intonation.


Use Verbs of Suggestion and Adjectives of Importance Instead

Because we’re talking about how to give strong suggestions and recommendations, we’re going to focus on verbs of suggestion and adjectives of importance.

For example, suggest, recommend, ask, insist. These words have urgency built right into them.

By starting a suggestion with one of these phrases, you create a little distance that helps the other person stay open and receptive to what you have to say.

It’s important that you learn how to use them correctly so that you can express power and urgency in a diplomatic way.

(Did you see what I did there? I used an adjective of importance with the subjunctive!)

Let’s look at some examples so you can see how they work:

  • I ask that you listen carefully to what I’m about to say.
  • She recommends that we call our client immediately.
  • We insist that you arrive to work on time.
  • It’s crucial that we be informed as soon as the project is complete.
  • I suggest that you practice stress and intonation.
  • It’s essential that you give him the medicine tonight.

Did you notice anything interesting about the grammar in these examples?

You probably saw that the word “that” follows the verbs of suggestion and the adjectives of importance.

Anything else?

The verb in the second part of the sentence is actually the base form.

The base form signals the subjunctive mood, which we use for suggestions and desires.

If you speak a Romance language, then you’re used to using this type of verb, but in English, it’s less common.

The base form is exactly what it sounds like: the verb without anything else.

No “to,” no “-ing,” no conjugated form.

The base form doesn’t change based on the verb tense in the first part of the sentence, either.

Here’s what the grammar structure looks like:

suggestion verb (or adjective of importance) + that + noun + base form of the verb

(You will hear some people drop “that” between the two clauses, but I tend to use it for emphasis.)

Let’s take a closer look at these examples.


Practice Verbs of Suggestion and Adjectives of Importance

When you say these sentences, remember to keep your intonation calm, even, and measured.

You’re clearly and confidently offering a strong suggestion or recommendation.

I ask that you listen carefully to what I’m about to say.

As you notice, we’re using the base form of the verb “listen”: I ask that you listen carefully to what I’m about to say.

Can you hear which words I’m emphasizing most with my voice?

In this case, I’m emphasizing the verb “ask,” and I’m also drawing attention to the adverb “carefully.”

By emphasizing the word “ask,” I’m focusing attention on the request.

By stressing “carefully,” I’m reminding the person what I want them to do.

I ask that you listen carefully to what I’m about to say.

Now you try it: I ask that you listen carefully to what I’m about to say.


Let’s look at another one.

She recommends that we call our client immediately.

Did you hear how we’re using the base form of the verb “call”?

She recommends that we call our client immediately.

As you can hear, I’m stressing the verb in the request.

And I’m also stressing the action that she wants us to take: She recommends that we call our client immediately.

Now you try it: She recommends that we call our client immediately.


Here’s another one.

We insist that you arrive to work on time.

Once again, you can hear that we’re using the base form of the verb “arrive.”

We insist that you arrive to work on time.

If you listen carefully, you can hear that I’m stressing the verb of suggestion, as well as the action in the second part of the sentence: We insist that you arrive to work on time.

Try it with me: We insist that you arrive to work on time.


Now let’s look at an example that has an adjective of importance.

It’s crucial that we be informed as soon as the project is complete.

Do you notice anything special that’s happening in the second part of the sentence?

That’s right – we’re using the passive voice, but we’re still using the base form of the verb “be”: It’s crucial that we be informed as soon as the project is complete.

You can hear that I’m emphasizing the adjective of importance, “crucial,” as well as the action that I want the other person to take, “informed.”

It’s crucial that we be informed as soon as the project is complete.

Let’s try it: It’s crucial that we be informed as soon as the project is complete.


Here’s another example.

I suggest that you practice stress and intonation.

Once again, you notice I’m using the base form of the verb “practice”: I suggest that you practice stress and intonation.

I’m also emphasizing the verb of suggestion, as well as the action I want you to take: I suggest that you practice stress and intonation.

Try it with me: I suggest that you practice stress and intonation.


One more example.

It’s essential that you give him the medicine tonight.

As you notice, we’re using an adjective of importance at the beginning of the sentence, the word “essential.”

We’re also using the base form of the verb “give”: It’s essential that you give him the medicine tonight.

You can hear that I’m stressing the adjective “essential” as well as the verb “give” in order to focus attention on this strong recommendation.

It’s essential that you give him the medicine tonight.

Now you try it: It’s essential that you give him the medicine tonight.


Express Urgency and Importance Tactfully and Politely

As you can hear in these examples, combining a verb of suggestion or adjective of importance with the action you want the other person to take makes the suggestion even stronger.

You’re underlining the importance of your suggestion or recommendation, rather than giving the person a command.

You’re encouraging them to take action with your words and your intonation.

Verbs of Suggestion and Recommendation

Here are the most common verbs of suggestion and recommendation in American English:

  • to advise (that)
  • to ask (that)
  • to demand (that)
  • to forbid (that)
  • to insist (that)
  • to propose (that)
  • to recommend (that)
  • to request (that)
  • to require (that)
  • to suggest (that)

(There are others, but they are not commonly used in American English.)


Adjectives of Importance

Here are the adjectives of importance:

  • it is best (that)
  • it is critical (that)
  • it is crucial (that)
  • it is desirable (that)
  • it is essential (that)
  • it is imperative (that)
  • it is important (that)
  • it is necessary (that)
  • it is vital (that)

As you can see, the words themselves communicate the importance and urgency of the suggestions or recommendations.

Remember, this type of language is used for strong suggestions and important recommendations.

This language helps you assert authority while still sounding tactful.

There are many other ways to offer softer suggestions in friendly, lighter situations, including the ones I discuss in this video on sounding more polite.

As always, you want to choose the right language to suit the situation.

Now you know how to be more intentional with your word choice and your intonation.

Ready to communicate more effectively in conversations? Learn communication skills that enable you to connect with other people and engage in natural conversations and professional discussions. Get started here.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN JUNE 2016, AND WAS UPDATED IN November 2020.
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