Writing Hacks: Make Your Language Strange

Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.

Imagine you’re learning American English. You know the meanings of about 100 English words, you’ve got a decent sense of sentence structure, and you’re feeling pretty good.

You sign up on italki to practice with a native American English speaker, fire up a video chat, and they say:

“What’s up?”

What in the world does that mean? Why are they asking what “up” is? Surely they know what “up” means. Are they quizzing you on the meaning of “up”? Or is their idea of conversation asking about what’s above your head?

Language is strange. Colloquialisms are strange. And if you can get a strong sense of just how strange your language is, it will help your writing.

From an article on greetings in English from native Columbian Spanish speaker and founder of Medellin Buzz Andrew Macia:

What’s up?, What’s new?, or What’s going on?

These are some other informal ways of asking “how are you?” which are typically used to casually greet someone you have met before. Most people answer with “nothing” or “not much”. Or, if it feels right to make small talk, you could also briefly describe anything new or interesting that’s going on in your life, before asking “what about you?” to continue the conversation.


Andrew: Hey man, what’s up?

Joel: Hey, not much.  What’s new with you?

Andrew: Oh you know, same old, same old. 

*Same old, same old is an expression used when one wants to say that everything is the same.

“What’s up” might be odd, but phrases that seem completely transparent to native speakers sometimes still need to be contextualized for someone learning the language:

How’s everything ?, How are things?, or How’s life?

These are some other common ways of asking “how are you?” They can be used to casually greet anyone, but most often they’re used to greet someone you already know. To these, you can answer “good” or “not bad”. Again, if small talk feels appropriate, you could also briefly share any interesting news about your life, and then ask the person “what about you?” or another greeting question.

Your language is strange. All language it strange. Let’s keep it that way. If you ever forget, read some articles by folks wrestling with your native tongue. Helps keep things in perspective.

10 Greetings in English

See previous writing hacks here!

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