Useful English tips
This page provides some basic information and vocabulary to help you navigate University and city interactions in English.
Talking to a professor
When addressing a professor or an esteemed colleague, it is important to show your respect through language. Unfortunately there is no formal pronoun in English; so, much of the formality in greetings comes from intonation, pronunciation and choice of appropriate expressions. Attentiveness, sincerity and a smile can also imply that you have respect for someone.
It is common to address any of your professors as “Professor (last name)” or just as “Professor.” Many students also use the expression “Sir,” especially when speaking out in class. However, it would be inappropriate to say “Ma’am” to a female professor.
“Excuse me,” or “Do you have time for a question?” are good ways of addressing your professor for a question after class or on break. Also, you can just say “Hi” and ask your question if you line up at break to speak to your professor. It is normal to follow your professor out and talk during a break, but after class you should ask your professor if it is a convenient time to ask her/him a question. She/he may be on the way to another class or appointment. If it’s not convenient for your professor to talk after the class, make an appointment or go to her/his office during the posted office hours.
Expressions that are appropriate in a formal greeting are not very different from informal greetings. In a formal situation, however, it is important to fully pronounce all of the letters in a word. For example, use “Hello, how are you doing today?” rather than the informal, “Hey, how are ya doin’?”
The pronoun “you” cannot be pluralized in English, so if you are addressing several people with respect, you can say, “How are you?” but look at everyone. You can also say “How are you all doing today?” or “How is everyone doing today?”
Examples of formal greetings:
Hello, how are you doing?
How are you today?
How is everything today?
I'm fine thank you, and yourself?
I am doing well, how are you?
Emailing a professor
- Address an email to a professor with the heading, “Dear Professor (last name)” or simply "Dear Professor."
- Be sure to get right to the point of the email within the first sentence. For example: “Dear Professor (last name), I was wondering when the first essay is due.”
- To end an email to a professor, “Sincerely, (your name)” is appropriate.
- Never use short forms for words in an email that you might use in text messaging or instant messages (e.g., plz, ur, etc.)
Note: If you do not know the identity or gender of the person you are writing to, use the salutation “To whom it may concern.” Never make an assumption about the person’s gender (i.e., don't assume that if you are writing to a professor it’s a man, or if you are writing to a secretary it’s a woman). It would be inappropriate to send an email to an unknown person starting with “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam.”
More formal greetings:
Goodbye: Nice to see you again.
Response: Thank you, it was nice to see you too.
Goodbye: Thank you for your time
Response: You're welcome, have a nice day.
Response: You too.
Introduction: Mr. Smith, this is my colleague…
Response: Very nice to meet you, Mr. Smith…
Talking to a teaching assistant (TA)
Typically, TAs are addressed by their first name. It is polite to raise your hand in tutorial to speak, but many people will just speak out. You do not need to speak as formally to a TA as you would to a professor, but this varies from person to person.
Emailing a TA
- When addressing a TA in an email, it is fine to use their first name, e.g., “Dear (TA’s name).”
- To close the email, “Thank you, (your name)” is appropriate.
- Many TAs end their emails with “Cheers” or “Best”, followed by their name. Cheers can mean "bye" or, in Britain, "thanks." "Best" is short for the good wish “All the best” or “I wish you all the best.”
Talking to other students
When people sit down in lecture they will often ask, “Is this seat taken?” meaning that they would like to sit there. It is not necessary to ask this, but it is courteous. It is normal not to speak to your neighbour during lecture; however, people often ask lecture-related questions during the break or before/after class. Most people will not share notes unless they are relatively familiar with you (e.g., if you sit beside each other every lecture). A good way to ask to borrow notes is to suggest photocopying them: “Do you mind if I photocopy your notes from the last lecture?"
Students are much more informal when greeting their friends, classmates or anyone that they know very well over time. Sometimes greetings are said with more relaxed pronunciation, such as dropping off letters from the end words. There are also expressions that you would only use in informal settings, where tone and body language are also more relaxed.
Examples of Informal Greetings
Greeting: Hey, what’s up?
Response: Not much/ Nothing/ Nothin’ much.
Greeting: Hi! What are you doing? (Sounds like "Whatcha doin’?" or "Whatcha sayin’?")
Response: Not much/ or, you can tell them what you actually are doing: e.g., “I’m going to the library.”
Greeting: Hi! How ya doin’? or, How are you?
Responses: I’m good thanks, you?
I’m alright, what about you?
I’m good, how ‘bout you?
People also add slang terms to greetings that replace saying a person’s name. They can be used for both women and men, but only in the most informal circumstances.
- “What’s up man?” — In general, this is used very informally for a man. Sometimes you will hear a woman called "man", but this is quite slangy.
- “Hey dude!”/ “Hey guys!” — "Dude" is used to be used to address men informally but now it's a cross-gender term. It is a very casual term, and should only be used among friends. If you are romantically interested in an individual, avoid calling them "dude". "Guys" is used casually to address a group of men, women, or a mixed group of both.
- Brainstorm: to collectively or individually think of as many ideas about a certain topic as possible — e.g., “If we all brainstorm, I’m sure that we can think of something.”
- Back out of: to decide not to do something that was originally arranged — e.g., “I’m going to have to back out of it tonight, I have too much homework.”
- Carry on with: to continue to do something — e.g., “We should carry on with our readings.”
- Catch up: to work harder in order to make up lost time and be at the same place as another person — e.g., “I will have to read all night to catch up to the rest of the class.”
- Come up with: to create an idea — e.g., “I came up with the idea for the essay while on the subway.”
- Cram: to study last minute, almost desperately; often done the night before a test — e.g., "I've been focusing so much on my other exams that I'll have to cram for my last one."
- Fail: to flunk; to not receive at least 50% as a grade on an assignment or class; to not meet expectations — e.g., “I think I’m going to fail the mid-term test.”
- Pop Quiz: a surprise test, often only a small percentage of your grade — e.g., "When the prof said 'Clear off your desk and take out a blank piece of paper', I knew we were having a pop quiz."
- To skip (1): to leave out or omit something — e.g., “Let’s skip this chapter.”
- To skip (2): deliberately not going to class — e.g., “Let’s not go today, let’s skip.” (Skipping is bad. You should never do it.)
- Study group: a group of people that work together on a project or for the purpose of helping each other prepare for a test — e.g., "Would you like to be part of a study group I've formed to prepare for the final exam?"
- “May I have a transfer, please?”: this is how to ask the driver for a transfer. Alternatively, extend your hand and the driver will give one to you.
- To commute (v); the commute (n): to travel (v) or the trip (n) between your home and your destination — e.g., “I have only a 30-minute commute each way.”
- Rush hour: the periods between 6:30 am and 9:30 am, and again from 3:30 pm until 6:30 pm, when the TTC is packed with commuters.
- “Mind the gap”: a warning to be careful of the space between the subway and the platform.
- “Stand clear of the doors”: the warning that is sounded when the doors are about to close (meaning ‘get out of the way of the doors’).
- “This train is out of service”: an announcement, usually heard at the end of the subway line, telling commuters not to board that particular train.
When you enter a restaurant, the host may ask: “How many are you?” or "How Many?" He or she is asking you how many people will be at your table. If a waiter or waitress has come to take your order, but you are not ready yet, a good expression to use is, “We would like a little longer please." or "Sorry, we still haven't decided."
- À la Carte: to order “à la carte” is to order from a large choice of items on the menu, instead of choosing a “set menu”. Most restaurants require you to order à la carte.
- [Dish] of the day: what the restaurant is featuring that day; this is also sometimes called the special.
- Cut back on: to eat less of a certain food. For example, “I am cutting back on my carbs,” means that I am trying to eat fewer carbohydrates and most likely indicates an effort to lose weight
- Hot: this word has two possible meanings: 1) It may refer to the temperature of the food; e.g., “The soup was so hot that I burned my tongue.” 2) It may mean that the food is spicy, as opposed to mild or medium; e.g., “The burritos were very hot; they must have had a lot of chili peppers in them.”
- Knock back: to drink something quickly; often used in reference to alcohol.
- Pig out/ pig out on: this is very informal English. It means to eat a huge amount of something, to overeat or to eat too much. It usually has a negative connotation; e.g., “We pigged out at the all-you-can-eat buffet last night.”
- Pick at [some food]: to take tiny bites or not really eat what is on your plate; e.g., "She only picked at the pasta; I don't think she liked it."
- Set menu: usually a three-course meal, in which the restaurant has chosen a starter (appetizer), main course (entrée) and a dessert for a set price. This is also sometimes called a "fixed price" or "prix fixe" menu.
- Tangy: having a strong or sharp, but pleasant flavour (citrus or other acidic foods like vinegar, can make food tangy, but so can spices).
- Warm [something] up: to reheat food, often in the microwave.
- Rich [food]: full of butter, eggs, cream or oil/fat, or full of strong but delicious flavour.
- Savoury: 1) very tasty 2) having a salty or piquant flavour instead of a sweet one; a food item that is flavoured with salt or spices, but not sugar
While shopping, there are many times when you might have to interact with a sales person. If a salesperson asks you if you need help with anything, and you don’t want her/his help, you may decline politely by saying, “No thanks, I’m just looking” or “I’m just browsing.” Browsing means that you are looking at the items, but are not necessarily going to buy anything.
If you would like to try something on, ask the sales person where the change room or fitting room is. You can also ask the sales person for a different size or ask if they have a size smaller or a size bigger. The sales person may say, “That’s all that we have left” or “That’s all that we have in stock,” which means that they do not have any more of the product you are interested in.
When paying for something, you may be asked for your phone number or postal code — you are not obligated to give this information if you do not want to.
It is good practice to know what the store's return policy is before you buy something, in case you decide later that it wasn't really the right thing. You can ask the sales clerk for this information; it is also sometimes posted on the sales desk. An item may or may not be returnable. If the item is returnable, this may be for a refund, exchange or credit note — there is usually a time limit on returns and the item must be in "as new" condition, usually with the tags still on. If the item is refundable, this means you can get your money back. Sometimes things are returnable only for exchange or store credit — this means that you may return the item, but you may only exchange it for another equally priced item or receive a credit note to put towards something else at a future time. Items that are on sale (being sold for a reduced price) are often not returnable. If you are told “all sales are final”, that means you may not return the item.
A guarantee means that a product can be returned and fixed free of charge if it stops working. Usually there is a limit on how long this service will be offered.
Payment options refers to the method payment you will use to buy the item. Usually, you have a choice of paying by credit card, debit/ Interac or cash.
- Balance: the difference between credits and debits in an account.
- Branch: local office of a bank.
- Chequebook: book containing detachable cheques.
- Cheque: written order to a bank to pay the stated sum from one’s account.
- Credit: money in a bank account; the sum added to an account; money lent by a bank.
- Debit: a sum deducted from a bank account, as for a cheque.
- Interest: money charged for the use of money lent.
- Loan: money lent by a bank/ borrowed from a bank; a bank loan must be repaid with interest
- Withdraw: to take money out of a bank account.
Laundry machine cycles are often labelled by the type of clothes you put in. Here is a list of some terms for types of clothing that are separated into different loads of laundry (a load is one cycle of clothing that is put into the machine). They are separated based on colour and the temperature level of the machine.
- Whites: these are your plain white clothing and linens, including basic t-shirts, socks, underwear, sheets and pillowcases. Whites require a “hot” cycle in which there is vigorous agitation and a hot water rinse.
- Permanent Press: this is a warm setting which has a milder agitation cycle and adds an extra cool water rinse. The cool water protects the colours. This setting is used for lights and darks.
- Lights: pastel, striped, or patterned white garments
- Darks: includes dark socks, underwear, shirts, and jeans and dark-coloured pants.
- Delicates: may be wool garments, sweaters, satin (or any luxurious fabrics) or nice underwear. It is usually best to hand wash your delicates, but some machines have a delicate setting. Never use hot water for delicates — it may shrink the fabric or set stains.
- Barcode Number: the 14-digit number appearing beneath the barcode found on the beginning or end papers of a book.
- Circulation Desk: a service desk where books and other materials are loaned or charged out to library users. Library materials which do not circulate (e.g., reference books and some periodicals) can be used within the library.
- Hold: a library user may place a hold on a book charged out to another person; this ensures that the person placing the hold will be next in line to receive the book when the book is returned.
- Interlibrary Loan Services: interlibrary lending and borrowing services provide access to materials that cannot be found in the U of T library system. To borrow such materials, check with a reference librarian.
- Renewal: an extension of the loan period for charged library materials.
If you are not sure where to go when you are sick, or what your first option for care should be, call Telehealth Ontario at 1-866-797-0000 to speak with a registered nurse. This service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is free, confidential and you do not need health insurance to use it. You may also visit the Ministry of Heath website for more information.
If you have an emergency, visit the emergency ward of the closest hospital or dial 911 for ambulance, fire or police services.
- Fight off: to try to prevent a flu or cold from getting worse — “I’m trying to fight off this cold.”
- Flu: short form of influenza; a common virus that is easily passed from person to person — Note: it is common to use the term flu to refer to any kind of influenza-like illness resulting in a fever, sore throat, etc.; however, influenza proper can be quite severe.
- Infection: any condition that results from too great a growth of micro-organisms in/ on one’s body (i.e., bacteria, viruses, fungus)
- Injection: a needle that puts medicine or a vaccine into your blood stream
- Keep [food] down: when you are sick, to manage to eat without vomiting/ throwing up
- Pass out: to become unconscious (this is also sometimes used to describe what happens when a person drinks too much alcohol and falls asleep)
- Prescription: the piece of paper, written by your doctor, which instructs the pharmacist as to which medicine to prepare for you — e.g., “I need to fill my prescription”, meaning to get your medicine from the pharmacist
- Referral: the act of being ‘referred’ or sent by one doctor to another; one is usually referred to a specialist
- Specialist: a specialist is a doctor who focuses (or specializes) in a particular type of medicine; as opposed to a general practitioner/ family doctor; a referral is usually required to see a specialist — e.g., “You will need to see a specialist for your asthma.”
- Stethoscope: the instrument doctors use to listen to your heart and lungs; it is often worn around a doctor’s neck
- Swell up: to become inflamed; this happens when your body or some part of it gets bigger because of damage to your body’s tissue — e.g., "My hand is swelling up from the fall I had earlier."
- Take your pulse: to measure your heart rate.
- Throw up: to vomit; to eject stomach contents through your mouth (colloquial and slang: puke, barf or hurl).
- Anaesthetic: a drug that causes you to become insensible to pain during a surgical procedure; anaesthetic can be "local" (where it just numbs the immediate area being worked on) or "general" (where your whole body is affected, usually causing you to go to sleep); being given a general anaesthetic is also referred to as “going under” — e.g., “My dentist gave me a local anaesthetic this morning; I still can't feel my lip!” or “I'll be going under when I have my wisdom teeth pulled.”
- Cavity: a hole in your tooth, usually caused by too much sugar degrading the enamel.
- Have a tooth pulled: to remove a tooth because it is unhealthy — e.g., “I have an appointment with the dentist today to have a tooth pulled.”
- Go for a check-up: go to the dentist (or doctor) to have one’s teeth (or body) examined; check-ups are for maintaining good health — e.g., “My dental insurance allows me to go for a dental check-up every six months to keep my teeth in good condition.”
- Filling: the metal or material that fills in a cavity — e.g., “I have three fillings in my mouth from cavities I got when I was a kid.”
- Plaque: a result of bacteria, plaque is a film that forms on your teeth and hardens; it can cause damage to your teeth — e.g., “Between cleanings at the dentist, I floss and brush my teeth to reduce plaque build-up.”
- Root canal: a root canal procedure removes the damaged core of a tooth, then fills and seals the remainder — e.g., “I have to have a root canal on Friday and I'm not looking forward to it!”
- Brush your teeth/ to brush: to scrub your teeth with a toothbrush and toothpaste in order to clean them
- Floss your teeth/ to floss: to remove plaque by pulling a string (called dental floss) back and forth between your teeth
- Mouthwash: a liquid that people sip, swirl around in their mouth and then spit out in order to freshen breath and/ or kill bacteria — e.g., "My mouth feels fresh after I gargle with mouthwash."
- Molars: the biggest teeth at the back of your mouth; the wide surface allows you to grind food.
- Canines/ Eye-teeth: the four sharp, pointed teeth near the front of your mouth; the top ones are also called eye-teeth.
- Dental hygienist: the dentist’s assistant, who is usually responsible for cleaning your teeth — e.g., “My mouth feels so good after the dental assistant cleans it!”
- Wisdom teeth: the third molars that appear (if they grow in at all) when one is 18-25; often they are removed to prevent overcrowding.
In very informal situations, people use many slang terms when they are interested in seeing you socially. An example of this is when someone asks you if you would like to “Hang out." This is a general phrase that means they would like to do something socially; often, it indicates a casual meeting. Hanging out can occur in any number of places, but a coffee shop or personal apartment are usual locations. If someone indicates they would like to hang out, it is ok for you to ask them what they would like to do and find out more specifically what they are interested in doing. If they want you to go to their place they may ask you to “come over” or “come over to hang out."
Another general phrase is “Do you want to do something?” This means almost exactly what it sounds like, but indicates that they would like to do something socially outside of your normal school relationship.