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As your English gets better and you begin to speak more confidently, you can choose new language goals.
A good goal for intermediate and upper-intermediate speakers of English is to become more expressive (use more precise and complex language to explain things). But how?
To see one method, compare Marco and Pierre in these two exchanges.
Gordon: How is my chicken soup? Do you like it?
Marco: It’s nice.
Gordon: How is my chicken soup? Do you like it?
Pierre: Without a doubt, it’s the best chicken soup I’ve ever had.
We can see that Pierre is more expressive. Let’s analyse how he expressed himself:
Weak statement: It’s nice.
Stronger statement: It’s the best.
Even stronger statement: It’s the best chicken soup I’ve ever had.
Even stronger statement: Without a doubt, it’s the best chicken soup I’ve ever had.
We can make a statement stronger by using stronger words, such as best instead of nice. We can also make a statement stronger by adding blocks of language to the beginning or end of a sentence.
Here, we will look at adding blocks of language to the beginning of a sentence. We will call these sentence starters.
What are the benefits of sentence starters?
Sentence starters can make your English more expressive. However, this is not the only benefit.
When you speak, a sentence starter indicates what you are going to say next. It prepares the listener to understand better.
For example, if you begin a sentence with “for example”, it clearly signals to the listener that you are going to explain an example.
This is a key skill in giving presentations, where it is sometimes called signposting.
Another benefit of using sentence starters is that it will make your English more natural. Native speakers use sentence starters all the time.
Are sentence starters only for spoken English?
Sentence starters are NOT only for spoken English. When writing an essay, for instance, we often use words such as first, second, third and finally.
These simple sentence starters help the reader to better understand the structure of your writing.
If you are taking an exam, such as the IELTS, sentence starters show the examiner that you are able to structure your ideas in writing.
Ten sentence starters that you can use right now
Without further ado, let’s see ten sentence starters that you can use right away.
Every example shown here is suitable for both spoken or written English.
1 Adverbs of viewpoint
An adverb of viewpoint is simply an adverb that we place at the beginning of a sentence. It shows how we feel or explains our viewpoint about something.
Some examples are honestly, fortunately, unfortunately, basically, personally, obviously and clearly.
Example: Fortunately, the King didn’t eat the poisoned soup.
The word fortunately shows that we think it is a good thing that the King was not poisoned. On the other hand, imagine that we hate the King. We could say:
Unfortunately, the King didn’t eat the poisoned soup.
Notice how easy it is to use these adverbs of viewpoint. You simply add them to the beginning of a sentence.
2 With and without
A nice way to begin a sentence is using with or without:
Example 1: Without you, my life is meaningless!
Example 2: With the help of my friends, I was able to complete the project.
Many English learners use with and without at the end of a sentence. Why not change things up and use these words as sentence starters?
3 After/before + ING
Many English learners don’t realise that you can shorten a clause with after or before, like this:
Original sentence: After I ate, I washed the dishes.
Shortened sentence: After eating, I washed the dishes.
Original sentence: Before she left, Laura locked the door.
Shortened sentence: Before leaving, Laura locked the door.
When used in this way, it becomes a sentence starter.
4 Like and unlike
We can show similarity or dissimilarity by starting a sentence with like or unlike:
Example 1: Like me, George grew up in a poor family.
Example 2: Unlike me, Jacob was born into a rich family.
Again, note how easy it is to use these words.
Despite is used to show a surprising outcome:
Example 1: Despite winning the lottery, George was unhappy.
Example 2: Despite her good looks, she never got married.
There are two possible sentence structures. We can use an -ING verb (example 1) or we can use a noun/noun phrase (example 2).
Let’s see another example of each sentence type:
Example 3: Despite having four wives, Ahmad had no children.
Example 4: Despite his wealth, Charles lived in a small house.
6 According to
According to is a useful way to reference where we got our information:
Example 1: According to my aunt, chocolate can be poisonous to dogs.
Example 2: According to government statistics, 10% of people under 25 are unemployed.
By the way, did you notice that we always use a comma after a sentence starter? If so, well done! You have an eagle eye.
(If you have an eagle eye, you will also have noticed the sentence starters ‘by the way’ and ‘if so’.)
7 For instance
Every English learner knows to say ‘for example’ when you wish to explain an example. Why not be a little different and show off your vocabulary at the same time?
For instance means exactly the same thing as for example and we use it in the same way:
Example: There are many activities you can do at the Sunnyview Resort. For instance, you can go hiking in the mountains.
8 As a result
In writing, we often need to explain cause and effect relationships. As a result is a great sentence starter for these kinds of sentences:
Example: The government raised the speed limit on the main highway. As a result, the number of accidents increased.
This sentence starter clearly defines the relationship between the two sentences. This makes it easier for the reader/listener to understand..
9 Every once in a while
Many sentence starters describe time and frequency.
Most English learners are familiar with usually, occasionally, sometimes, often and always. But what about every once in a while, every now and then and once in a blue moon?
These are all more expressive ways to say ‘occasionally’:
Example 1: Every once in a while, I go surfing.
Example 2: Every now and then, Sandra bakes cookies for everyone.
Example 3: Once in a blue moon, George actually tells a funny joke.
10 Without a doubt
The first example we covered was without a doubt. It shows certainty and makes a statement stronger:
Example: Without a doubt, this is a very dangerous road.
We can also use undoubtedly, unquestionably or undeniably:
Example: Undoubtedly, Cambridge is a prestigious university.
A little language hack
Before we continue, here is a little language ‘hack’ for you: most of these sentence starters can also go at the end of a sentence!
Here are some examples:
This is a very dangerous road, without a doubt.
10% of people under 25 are unemployed, according to government statistics.
George was unhappy despite winning the lottery.
Jacob was born into a rich family, unlike me.
Although these phrases can go at either the start or end of a sentence, it is often better to put them at the start. This is because you give the listener or reader information about your statement before you say it.
Strategies for using sentence starters
We have seen how sentence starters can:
- Help express opinions
- Make statements stronger
- Better structure writing and presentations
- Show relationships between sentences
- Show time relationships
- Express a point of view about a statement
They do all of these things and more. This is why it is so important to know and use a collection of sentence starters. But how can you do this?
First of all, get a notebook and reserve a page for writing down sentence starters (as you would do with new vocabulary).
Next, build your list by watching out for sentence starters when you read and when you listen. (You can start your list with the sentence starters in this article.)
Finally, try out your new sentence starters in your own spoken and written English.
What are good sources to find sentence starters?
Really…anywhere. Sentence starters are very common.
If you love reading, you can find them in both fiction and non-fiction.
As for spoken English. Look for listening activities where a transcript is available. These include podcasts, including English Learning for Curious Minds, TED talks, and YouTube videos.
I recommend learning sentence starters from podcasts and TED talks. You will be able to both read and hear sentence starters used in context and you will feel more confident to use them yourself.