Stiff Language

Hi everyone!

Unfortunately, there’s not enough material this week to post anything useful from our discussion lessons.  On the bright side, this is a great opportunity to do something I haven’t done in a while: post something more personal about English or learning that might be helpful!

Today I’d like to talk a bit stiff language.  What is stiff language?  It’s words or expressions that are used correct, but sound overly formal or even cold.  In that sense, they are unnatural.  A really simple, really common example of this is:

“I beg your pardon?”

I often hear this expression from students when they didn’t hear or didn’t catch what I said.  Sure, this expression is correct, but it’s way too formal to use with me, so it doesn’t sound very natural.  So what is a better expression?

“Excuse me?”

“What did you say?”

Both of these questions are still polite, but not so polite that they sound stiff.

So remember:

“I beg your pardon?” X (too formal!)

“Excuse me?” O (just formal enough)

Here are some others that I hear very often:

1. Many/much

Many and much are very common words and we do use them quite often.  However, in affirmative sentences, they sound quite stiff.  A couple examples:

“There are many AKB48 fans in Kansai.”

“Oh, you have been to many places!”

“I need much money for that.”

So what is a more natural (and easier!) alternative?

“A lot (of)”

A lot of can be used naturally with both affirmative and negative sentences, as well as with both count and non-count nouns, making it a lot more natural and a lot easier to use.

So, let’s revise those sentences:

“There are many AKB48 fans in Kansai.” X

“There are a lot of AKB48 fans in Kansai.” O

“Oh, you have been to many places!” X

“Oh, you have been to a lot of places!” O

“I need much money for that.” X

“I need a lot of money for that.” O

2. Be (un)necessary

Another stiff word I hear overly used is “necessary” as well as its negative form “unnecessary”.  The pattern is usually “It is (un)necessary to”.  This is usually a direct translation from [不]必要.  Unfortunately, like many direct translations, it winds up sounding strange in English.  In this case, it is unnecessarily stiff, since we already have the verb “need”.  Here are some examples:

“There is no necessary.” (this sentence is incorrect anyway, since the wrong part of speech is being used)

“It is unnecessary to wear glasses.”

“It is necessary you bring your passport.”

Let’s try these with the verb “need” instead:

“There is no necessary.” X

“[SUBJECT] doesn’t/don’t need to do that.” O (I don’t need to do that; you don’t need to do that, etc.)

“It is unnecessary to wear glasses.” X

“You don’t need to wear glasses.” O

“It is necessary to bring your passport.” X

“You need to bring your passport.” O

3. Various

Another word I hear overused is “various”, meant to express that there is more than one or more than one kind.  Some examples of this are:

“I do various things at my job.”

“I listen to various music.”

“There are various flavors.”

However, native English speakers rarely use this word, and when we do it’s usually in a very formal context, like in a brochure or catalogue or manual.  This, again, is a translation problem.  When you look up the word 色々 in Japanese, the first translation that usually pops up is “various”.  The problem is, 色々 is a much more common word in Japanese than “various” in English.  Instead, we usually use the word “different.”

“I do various things at my job.” X

“I do different things at work.” O

“I listen to various (kinds of) music.” X

“I listen to different (kinds of) music.” O

“There are various flavors.” X

“There are different flavors.” O

If you would really like to emphasizes that there are a lot of different types of something, you can also use the slang expression “all kinds of”:

“I do all kinds of things at work.”

“I listen to all kinds of music.”

“There are all kinds of flavors.”

And there are tons of other examples like this, and related to this.  If you know of any, or have any further questions regarding these or are wondering if a word or expression that you use is stiff or misused, let me know in the comments or send me a message on twitter!

In the mean time, try using the expressions “a lot of”, “need to”, “different” and “all kinds of” next time you have the opportunity to speak or write in English!

Take care!


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