6 Good English-Language Habits to Pick Up Early

English Language for Business Summer School - tutor in discussion with student

Learning English can be tricky, and it doesn’t help that a lot of the advice you’re given seems contradictory.

On the one hand, when you’re first learning a language – especially if you’re young – it’s best not to worry about getting everything absolutely right. You’ll learn a lot faster if you have the confidence to try to speak and write as much as possible, even if that means getting irregular verbs in a twist or having a guess at some vocabulary. It also helps you see the usefulness of learning a language; the person who can produce just a handful of grammatically flawless sentences will be able to communicate much less effectively than the person who tries to say whatever they want even if it sometimes results in errors.
On the other hand, you might also have heard that it’s best to pick on errors and correct them early on, so that a particular mistake doesn’t become a habit that you’ll struggle to lose later on. But you can’t speak confidently if you’re constantly thinking about errors to avoid!
Our suggestion is that you focus on gaining one good habit – or to put it another way, eliminating one error – at a time. One week could be your ‘enunciating the letter t’ week (for instance) and if you feel you’ve cracked that by the end of the week, you can switch to something else – or carry on with the same habit for longer if it’s taking time to stick. So which habits should you try to pick up now rather than waiting until later to correct them? Your priorities will depend on the mistakes you make, which in turn will depend on your native language, the style of teaching you’re used to, and other similar factors. But if you’re not sure where to begin, here’s our list.

1. Pronounce “can’t” with care

We’ve discussed this issue before but it’s worth raising again because it’s a very easy mistake to correct that will save your listeners a lot of confusion in future. The pronunciation of the word “can’t” – abbreviated from “cannot” – varies depending on the dialect of English you speak. In most English accents, it’s “cahn’t” (to rhyme with “barn”, but with a ‘t’ on the end), whereas in US accents, it’s more like “cayn’t”. In Scotland, “cannot” is sometimes abbreviated to “cannae” instead (like the name “Danny”).

People learning English often see “can” and “can’t” written down, and think, quite logically, that the only difference in pronunciation is the ‘t’ at the end. But that’s only the case in certain US dialects (often the ones on TV or in films, which helps perpetuate the error). In fact, in some US dialects it’s not unusual to semi-drop the ‘t’, so a sentence might become, “I just cayn’ do it – don’ make me”, and the first negative has to be inferred from context.
As a learner of English, this is a dialect to avoid replicating, even if it’s what you’re used to hearing. If your speech isn’t always easy to understand, the person listening might not be able to work out from context whether the statement was negative or positive. Choose the dialect you’re learning (it’s probably best to go with whatever one your teacher speaks) and make sure you pronounce “can’t” clearly within it. This is easier in non-US dialects as the ‘a’ is pronounced differently, but if you are learning US English, then at least be sure not to drop the ‘t’.

2. Don’t say “one”

Lots of languages have a really handy pronoun, something gender-neutral and indefinite, meaning, more-or-less, “a person”. In French, this is on; in German, it’s man. And in English, it seems like it could be one.
What should you say if you’re trying to tell someone about your hometown, where they will probably never go? You might say – for instance – “at weekends, one can go shopping, or one can visit the art gallery” and think you were saying something perfectly reasonable and normal. Unfortunately, that’s not really the case. Equivalents to “one” in most other languages are informal and chatty, but using the word “one” in English makes you sound like the Queen. Even in the most formal parts of Britain, no one under the age of about seventy will say this unless they are being deliberately pretentious or, much more likely, making fun of pretentious people. Don’t conclude that this is hyperbole, or that there must be exceptions. The quality of your English will be improved significantly if you excise this usage completely.

So what should you say instead? It will probably sound odd if you’re used to “one”, but most English speakers will say “you” instead, even if there’s no way the sentence could possibly apply to the listener. An astronaut, when asked “How do you brush your teeth in space?”, wouldn’t say “I do this…” as that implies other astronauts might have a different method. He or she would say, “you do the same thing as on the ground, only with less water, and you can’t spit out the toothpaste.” This sounds much more natural to native English speakers than “one can’t spit out the toothpaste” ever would.

3. Use synonyms

While the previous two points were about avoiding mistakes, this one can lead you make mistakes – but only in the interests of learning more. When you’re learning a language, it’s easy to fall into a rut of using the same basic vocabulary over and over again. Why learn a synonym for “big” when “big” already covers it? Why stumble over the tricky pronunciation of “delicious” when “tasty” will do? But being able to speak a language in a more nuanced and sophisticated way depends on being able to use a variety of words depending on tone and context. With your friends, you might say, “oh wow, this burger is so tasty!” But with older relatives, you’d probably want to say, “thank you, this steak is delicious.”

This is particularly the case with English, because English has an abundance of synonyms. Or you could say it has a lot of synonyms. Or many synonyms. Or a plethora of synonyms. Or a multitude of synonyms. Or a profusion of synonyms. Or copious synonyms. Each of these carries slightly different connotations – “an abundance” sounds like it’s a good thing, whereas “copious”, less so. Using more of them enables you to be more specific about your meaning, as well as tailoring your language to the appropriate level of formality.
Trying out new synonyms inevitably means you’ll make mistakes, for instance by choosing a word that carries implications that you didn’t intend, or that isn’t in common usage. Google will tell you that “titanic” is a synonym for “huge” but no one ever said “you must be busy – that textbook is titanic.” A good rule of thumb is that less formal words derive from Old English roots, whereas more formal words derive from Latin roots, but unless you carry any etymological dictionary with you at all times, this won’t be much use to you in conversation – so it’s probably best to give it a shot, risk making mistakes and learn from them as you go along.

4. Mind your answers to negative questions

This is something that catches native English speakers out all the time, so it’s unsurprising that English language learners struggle with it too. But unfairly, if native English speakers get this wrong, they’ll assume it’s because the question was unclear; if non-native English speakers do the same, it might be assumed that it’s a failure of understanding on their part.
The problem is this: lots of questions in English are phrased in a negative way. “Do you mind if I borrow this chair?” is politer than “can I borrow this chair?” so it’s likely to be used more often. But the correct answer to “do you mind if…?” is “no”, whereas for “can I borrow…”, it’s “yes”. Bear this in mind when you’re answering or you’ll risk tripping up.

Similarly, if you’re replying to a negative statement, your reply should also be negative. For instance, if someone says, “I don’t like studying History”, the correct way to agree is not “me too” but “me neither” or “nor do I.” But if they say “I hate studying History” – not phrased as a negative – you agree by saying, “me too” or “so do I.” To make things a layer more confusing, in answer to “I don’t like studying History”, you could say, “no, me neither”, “neither do I” or “I don’t either” – but not “I don’t neither” as that’s a double negative; acceptable in some dialects of English, but not in standard English.
This isn’t as easy a tip to follow as the others on this list, but it is a very worthwhile habit to get into, as it does start to make logical sense with practice and you’ll want to get it right early in order not to be tripping up over it forever.

5. Avoid typical “false friends” and other common mistakes

Your English will sound better if you avoid making the same mistakes as everyone else – yes, even if that means you make a whole new set of mistakes instead. After all, native English speakers make their own set of mistakes that crop up less often in the speech and writing of EFL learners but it doesn’t make people think that they aren’t fluent in their own language (examples of these include confusion with tenses in verbs like “to drink” – native English speakers are more likely to get drank and drunk confused than non-native speakers).

Languages closely related to English will have a lot of words that can trip you up because they sound like an English word but they don’t mean the same thing, or because there are two words in English with distinct meanings that map on to the same word in your native language. Or sometimes it’s simply that two English words sound quite similar and it’s easy to get them confused. One example is “fun” and “funny” – two common words that no native English speaker would trip up over, because the meanings seem quite distinct, but that learners struggle with all the time. Another example is “efficient” and “effective” – if you are efficient then you do things quickly, but if you are effective then you do them well. So an author who writes ten books a year, all of which are dreadful and make no money, is very efficient but not very effective. But French uses the word “efficace” to cover things that are efficient and effective, and so native French speakers tend to forget that English makes a distinction.

6. Keep an eye on “one” versus “a”

Another instance where English makes distinctions that other languages don’t, this mistake is worth fixing simply because it has the potential to occur a lot. English determiners – a, the, some etc. – are mightily confusing. We go to the supermarket (even if there are several supermarkets in the vicinity and we could be going to any one of them) to buy some milk and get annoyed if we can’t find a shopping trolley. The issue over “some” is particularly tricky as it involves the grammatical peculiarity of uncountable nouns: nouns that can’t be used with a quantity, such as rice, butter, money or music. Remembering which nouns are countable and uncountable is definitely worth doing, but this point focuses on an easier and more fundamental issue.

One determiner to focus on in particular is “one” versus “a”. All you need to remember is that the default is “a”. If you say, “I’d like a donut”, your friends will think that you’re in the mood for a sugary treat and not much else. But if you say, “I’d like one donut”, that sounds oddly specific to English-speaking ears; that you would like one donut, not half a donut, not two donuts, definitely not three donuts, but one donut precisely. Your friends may conclude you are on some form of diet that is very specific about acceptable levels of donut-eating. So remember only to say “one” when the number is important, such as “I’d like one ticket to see Star Wars, please” – and even then, you would say “a ticket” unless you were surrounded by friends and the number of people you were buying for needed specifying.