When Should You Copy Native English Speakers?

How do you prefer to learn English? Do you like learning from a textbook, or do you prefer to read / listen to native English speakers and then copy them?

Some sources of English are very helpful (for example, the BBC or English-learning websites), but it isn’t always the best idea to copy everything that native English speakers say or do!

Read on to find out when you should – and shouldn’t – copy native English speakers!

Incorrect / Non-standard Grammar

There are three types of “native” English grammar, it seems. We have standard grammar (the type you find in coursebooks, which is fine to copy!), “spoken” grammar (great for sounding natural in conversations) and then incorrect or non-standard grammar.

But how do you know which is correct and which isn’t? Here are a few examples of (British English) incorrect or non-standard grammar for you:

Double negatives (very common, but mostly always incorrect)
“He didn’t have no dessert” – instead of the standard “He didn’t have any dessert”.
“I ain’t done nothing wrong” – instead of the standard “I didn’t do anything wrong”.

Incorrect past participle
“This is the letter I’ve wrote” – instead of the standard “This is the letter I’ve written / This is the letter I wrote”.
“I never done it” – instead of the standard “I didn’t do it”.

Incorrect uncountable noun
I’ve spent hours telling my students that “advice” is an uncountable noun, so I was amazed to read this (in a letter from my bank):
“There’s been a technical issue with our paperless pre-notification of charges, which means we’ve had to switch on paper advices for a while.”

It should, of course, be “advice” or “notifications”.


My view is this: clarity is important – accent isn’t.

In conversations, the most important thing is that people can understand each other. The accent you have in English doesn’t matter – as long as it’s clear. In fact, some native English accents are really difficult to understand, which makes them a bad choice for copying.

For this reason, if you want a native speaker pronunciation model, choose a standard or neutral accent. You can find these in most online dictionaries.

Everyday Phrases

YES – you should most definitely copy these! Fluency phrases (such as collocations and automatic phrases) help you sound more natural. Also, some common words are used in many different contexts, so you don’t need to keep learning new vocabulary.

For example, the word “far” can be used with a comparison:
“She’s far better at English than Maths.” (= much better)

Or in the phrase “As far as I know”:
“The new cafe has vegan cakes, as far as I know.” (= as I understand)

Or in the phrase “So far”:
“He’s raised £100,000 for charity so far.” (= up to now)

You’ll hear everyday phrases in interviews, news reports, TV series and everyday conversations. My tip is to make a note when you hear something interesting, check the meaning, then write your own examples with the phrases.

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