basic questions & answers

some of the relevant vocabulary is listed here but more words you will find useful are on the vocabulary page.

we have already looked at a few basic questions used when greeting someone but now we will expand on that knowledge. the most common greeting questions, to review, are about what is happening in your life (and, if you’ve just met, your name). here are some useful, frequently-asked greeting questions and typical answers.

  • how are you [doing]? (i’m ok.)
  • what’s up? (nothing.)
  • how’s life? (life’s great!)
  • what’s new? (not much.)

there’s another type of simple question in english – questions with answers of yes or no.

  • do you want to go shopping?
  • is it time for bed?
  • can i talk to you about something?
  • are you busy?

these questions probably make up half or more questions in english and they only need you to be able to answer yes or no. the important part about them is to understand the vocabulary in the question but creating your response is easy. what we’ll focus on today, though, is a different set of questions so you can practice building your answers. this section focuses on personal questions. section 3 looks at questions about what you like and section 8 focuses on questions about descriptions. english is a language where questions are extremely common in conversation so they are a large part of learning how native-speakers use it. of course, being personal questions, some of these might sound rude if you ask people you don’t know well.

something important to note about english questions is that, even in most formal settings, the answer rarely repeats the question. when asked “when were you born?”, a highly-formal answer looks like “i was born september 1, 1998″ but the ‘i was born” part is usually assumed instead of being said or written. the introduction part of the answer is listed between [square-brackets].

english names are always spoken or written as given name first, family name last. as a result, the given name is also called the “first name” and the family name is called the “last name”. names from other languages are usually changed to this order in english, too. an outdated word sometimes used for “last name” is “surname” and you may see that on paperwork or hear elderly people use it. many english native-speakers have one or more “middle names”. these are all given names like the first and are typically used to show respect for ancestors or significant people in their parents’ lives (family members, friends, etc).

  • what’s your name?
  • where were you born? / where do you live?
  • what’s your address? / what’s your email address? / what’s your phone number?
  • where do you work? / where do you study?
  • what kind of work do you do? / what are you studying?
  • how old are you? / when’s your birthday? / do you have children?

before we look at the answers, it’s important to have some vocabulary about numbers, work, school, countries and people.

when english-speakers talk about age, they use normal counting numbers (one, two, three) but dates use ordered numbers (first, second, third).

how old are you?
i’m twenty-five.
when’s your birthday?
it’s april ninth.

you can represent these with words or numbers but in these examples they’re always written as words to make them easier to read. these are the numbers you need for dates. the other numbers (22, 25, 31) all follow the same pattern.

one / first (1)
two / second (2)
three / third (3)
four / fourth (4)
five / fifth (5)
six / sixth (6)
seven / seventh (7)
eight / eighth (8)
nine / ninth (9)
ten / tenth (10)
eleven / eleventh (11)
twelve / twelfth (12)
twenty / twentieth (20)
twenty-one / twenty-first (21)
thirty / thirtieth (30)
forty (40), fifty (50), sixty (60), seventy (70), eighty (80), ninety (90), hundred (100)

modern english-speakers rarely use “years old” when talking about age. it is far more common to hear or see “i’m eighteen” than “i’m eighteen years old”, which sounds both formal and old-fashioned. while asking when someone’s birthday is, it’s rare to ask what year they were born. this is common in many cultures because years have special significance but english cultures don’t attribute any meaning to the year so most english-speakers may know their friends’ ages but rarely know what year they were born except when they calculate it from the age.

when talking about work and jobs, english-speakers almost always use the job title, not the action, if it’s their job and the action if it’s what they do for fun. for example, “i’m a baker” usually means the person works in a bakery to make bread and cake but “i bake” probably means the person likes to bake at home as a hobby.

in old books, you will see gendered versions of some job titles but these are rarely used in modern english. you might see the word “actress”, for example, but this is outdated and professionals are usually called “actors” regardless of gender. words like “policeman” are also sometimes found in older literature but the more modern “officer” or even “police officer” are the preferred alternative.

here are some common jobs. for more, look at this section on the vocabulary page.

student, teacher, scientist, doctor, dentist, nurse, programmer, architect, journalist, pilot, trucker, salesperson, hairdresser, cook, lawyer, [police-]officer, firefighter, waiter, secretary, cleaner, salesperson, artist

questions like where were you born? and where do you live? are vague but the kind of answer that’s expected is usually obvious. if the speaker and listener are both from the same area, the question is usually about a very specific place like a town or city. if they are from different areas, a country may be a better way to answer. when answering these questions, it’s typical to request the same information in return but there’s no reason to repeat the question. you can duplicate a question by adding you? or what about you? after your answer in almost all cases. sometimes people add in before the answer but this is unnecessary and usually sounds artificially-formal.

where were you born?
san francisco. you?
madrid. where do you live now?
boston. what about you?

when giving email addresses, it is important to speak letters clearly. so many english letters sound similar – b, c, d, t, v, etc. the alternative to this is that many english-speakers use military names for those letters when spelling. you will hear these and probably find them useful when you are spelling things like email addresses or even your name on the phone.

alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, echo, foxtrot, golf, hotel, india, juliet, kilo, lima, mike, november, oscar, papa, quebec, romeo, sierra, tango, uniform, victor, whiskey, xray, yankee, zulu

all email addresses include two special symbols with simplified names in english. the period (.) is called dot and the at-symbol (@) is called at. so “” may be read as mike echo at yankee oscar uniform dot com or, more simply, m e at y o u dot com. the same way to read letters is sometimes used for unusual words in addresses but this is typically unnecessary in english-speaking locations where street and city names are almost always familiar to native-speakers.

the questions where do you work? and where do you study? sound specific but are somewhat contextual, too. they can be looking for an answer of country or city or the specific company or school, even which department or division, where you spend your days. again, the situation usually provides a good answer and it’s best to answer what you think the question is probably asking rather than assuming it always has the same response.

where do you study?
university of california. what about you?
michigan state. what are you studying?
biochemistry. you?

where do you work?
bank of america. you?
coast community college. what kind of work do you do?
i’m an accountant. what about you?
i’m a teacher.

when an english-speaker asks about children, the answer usually includes their ages and often their names. child and kid are interchangeable but kid is less formal. numbers are assumed to be years so for very young children you need to give their ages in months. almost all english-speaking cultures assume parents keep photographs of their children with them all the time and asking to see them is polite, especially for young children.

do you have children?
yes! chloe is six and mary is nine. you?
yes. david is five and emily is seven-months.
do you have photographs of them?
sure. here. take a look.

english-speaking people tend to choose names that are easy to pronounce in english. these are also typically short, no more than three syllables, and they often come from traditional english-speaking culture. if your name is difficult to pronounce in english or from another culture, it will often be necessary to spell it for english-speakers to understand. unfortunately, most english-speakers don’t speak any other languages and have limited cultural familiarity outside the western world. if it is a non-english name, you will likely have to teach the listener to pronounce it properly. thankfully, most english-speakers are used to this and will ask if they’re pronouncing or spelling your name correctly. it is also common to ask where a name comes from – which country or culture. this isn’t usually considered rude like it might sound outside english-speaking culture.

i’m ari. nice to meet you.
how do you spell ari?
a r i.
ok. am i saying that right?
yes. that’s great.
where does that come from?
it’s a hebrew name. what about you?
i’m geneviève.
where does that come from?
it’s french.

many people answer questions about their country using a descriptive adjective instead of the name of the country. i’m from the united states. can become i’m american. the vast majority of countries have an adjective for their people related to its noun but they are sometimes unpredictable. it’s also common for people with multiple national connections to combine two of these descriptions like japanese-canadian or mexican-american. here are some examples.

american, canadian, mexican, irish, scottish, french, spanish, german, portuguese, russian, chinese, korean, japanese, indian, south-african, moroccan, algerian, israeli, jordanian, omani, pakistani, afghan, turkish, malaysian, indonesian, vietnamese, australian

there are many slang terms for people from various countries and they are usually not seen as derogatory when used by those people to describe themselves but can be very hurtful when used by outsiders. even if someone introduces themself as “kiwi” or “yankee”, it is usually best to avoid using that word to describe them to others, choosing the more neutral country description instead.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.