Use these articles to improve your English communication skills (as well as to practice reading in English and build your vocabulary!)
I chose these articles (originally for the English Detective newsletter) because they're not too complex, but they share useful skills and hints.
One or two a week can help you speak and write more effectively in English. As you put them into practice, they can make a real difference!
I’m excited to share a new page on EnglishHints—one I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s on why word choice matters and how word connotations affect meaning.
It’s important for anyone who writes. (It’s important for anyone who speaks publicly, too, especially if you’re arguing for an urgent policy matter such as climate change.)
That page links to a number of others on EnglishHints. They each consider words on specific subjects and discuss which are appropriate for different uses.
I’d like to mention two related articles. The first discusses how small changes in word choice “frame” a subject and completely change the way people look at an idea or proposal. The writer explains the political consequences of framing and suggests ways to reword arguments so your audience will be more willing to consider them.
The second is a TED article and talk on communication. It notes that sometimes a change in word choice can make the difference between success and failure. Specifically, it tells how a group encouraging dispute mediation can get much more cooperation by asking “are you willing” rather than simply explaining the value of mediation.
Often people do not want mediation and insist that their spouse (or other opponent) will refuse to talk. They want to think of themselves as the cooperative one, so they feel they should agree that they would be willing to talk if the mediators can convince the other party. There are many other useful insights about communication—it’s well worth reading and watching!
A related page is How to Change Someone’s Mind. It looks at the techniques and psychology of persuasion.
There are three articles mentioned on that page that I found valuable for understanding persuasion. The first, from Forbes, is linked from the start of the section on Learning How to Change Someone’s Mind.
The other two are in the next section. They look at new neuroscience explaining how the brain uses “frames” to understand—and how reframing can help you persuade someone. I felt the Vox article was important to include, but it’s very long. If you have limited time, try the Fast Company article. It’s well worth reading! (The Forbes article is too, if you have more time later.)
There’s also a vocabulary workbook you can access from on that page. It's about Persuasion at Work. It has phrases that can help you to win over your boss or colleagues to an idea. It also suggests ways to discuss the pros and cons of different proposals. (I’m actually very proud of it. It’s the result of a lot of sorting and trying to decide the most important vocabulary to teach for the workplace.)
I’ve talked to several professionals lately who are looking for the best way to increase their English vocabulary. Two were especially concerned with answering questions after they gave presentations. They wanted the most precise words to explain their thoughts to an audience of native English speakers.
I often mention the basics for increased vocabulary. You need to read a lot and learn about the roots and prefixes that are the key to so many English words. This time I needed something more. These people already read English well and know thousands of words. They still need the right word at the right time.
So, I did some research on English vocabulary size. What I learned was fascinating. (See especially this page from Test Your Vocabulary.)
I re-worked my lessons on roots and affixes to emphasize higher-level vocabulary. I’m now offering two levels of free lessons for that purpose. Each level will have five free email lessons on increasing vocabulary using roots and affixes. If you try them, please let me know if they help!
For those who are tired of my emphasis on vocabulary, here’s a short, powerful article on word choice and how it affects other people’s opinions of you. The way you express yourself matters!
I’ve read a lot recently about “power words.” They usually refer to positive words to make a person’s resume seem more impressive, or to psychological trigger words that a sales team hopes will make their product “irresistible.” (The last link below discusses that kind of power words, if you’re interested in how they can ‘hook’ people.)
But today I especially want to also share two short, surprising articles and a talk about very common words that can have unexpected power: ‘the,’ ‘but,’ and ‘because.’
“Is this the most powerful word in the English Language?” uses Shakespeare as an example to show the power of the word ‘the.’ The writer admits that knowing when to use ‘the’ causes difficulties for people whose first languages don’t have a similar word.
However, native speakers can use it to imply negative things about a group of people simply by grouping them (“the Americans”, etc.), rather than recognizing individual differences. You may need to read this article twice—but you’ll end up with more respect for this apparently insignificant word.
An unlikely villain among ‘power words’ is the conjunction ‘but.’ This Fast Company article points out that it so often seems necessary, but (!) it expresses opposition or foot-dragging that could be avoided. Instead of meeting someone’s proposal with a negative “That’s an interesting idea, but…” try “yes, and.” For example, “That’s an interesting idea. I wonder if we could also…”
The author has several other ideas for more positive responses. (This is an idea I need to remember when talking to my family! It’s so easy for me to react quickly and “pour cold water” on ideas that could work with just a few changes.)
Janine Driver’s TEDx talk describes ”how five simple words can get you what you want.” She describes situations when someone is telling you ‘no’ but uses words that leave the door open for you to get what you need if you push. Which words? “Decided, typically, normally, or usually” you have to… (But decisions can be changed, and you’re not in a normal or usual situation…)
Then she brings out what she calls “the most influential word in the English language”: ‘because.’ Her story is so appealing because she demonstrates how an ordinary person with a big problem is able to defeat a stubborn bureaucracy with the power of words.
Finally, if you’re interested in marketing—or just want to understand it to avoid being manipulated, check out this longer article on traditional power words.
So, do you see a few plain, ordinary words in a new light now? Let me know what you think (in the comments below!)
I’ve wanted to write about metaphors for a long time, but I haven’t known how to approach them. These articles explain and show the value of metaphors so well that I don’t need to add much.
I will say this: Metaphors aren’t just for literature and language nerds. Using them can add power to a business argument or a scientific journal article as well as to a novel or student essay. Metaphors are basic to thinking and communication. They help us make sense of the world.
You probably don’t even notice most of the time when you use metaphors or similar comparisons. (I don’t!) So many proverbs and idioms use them: “You hit a home run with your presentation.” “Give me a ballpark figure.” “One more strike and you’re out.”
(All of these baseball idioms are commonly used as metaphors for business in the U.S. The first compliments someone on his or her successful presentation; the second requests a cost estimate, and the third threatens an employee who has made a couple of mistakes. One more and he may be fired!)
I’m tempted to go on and on! We have proverbs like “a stitch in time saves nine” (using mending as a way of showing the importance of acting early, before a situation gets worse. A very similar metaphor is talk of a relationship ‘unraveling.’ It’s coming apart the way an old sweater does if you pull on a loose piece of yarn.)
This brilliant BBC essay gives even better examples of metaphors.
It quotes James Geary: “The only way we have of learning something new is by comparing it to something we already know.” The article points out that metaphors can also make us look again at familiar objects we hardly notice. They can also be used by politicians and others to shape our reactions. “For example, a war metaphor immediately presupposes a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side.”
There are some nearly universal metaphors (like describing understanding something as ‘seeing’ it) and others that are specific to a particular culture. (The American baseball metaphors would be examples, as well as the French food metaphors mentioned in the article.)
I also wanted to share a shorter second article that describes how to use metaphors to add “clarity, connection, and persuasion” to presentations—since so many scientists (and other professionals) need to give presentations frequently. It gives some very practical tips for how metaphors can help you explain something that’s giving you trouble, establish a better connection with your audience, and maybe even persuade them by “putting an issue in a new light.”