There I was, minding my own business… (The language of anecdotes)

by Kate Woodford​​
We all like to tell anecdotes – to share with our friends short, funny stories about things that we have done or seen. Of course, the subject matter of our stories varies hugely, from chance meetings with unusual characters to disasters in the kitchen. However, the phrases that we use to tell these stories are often quite similar. This week we’re looking at anecdote phrases and seeing how they are used in the telling of tales.

Of course, to start with, we need to introduce our anecdote, (which often relates to a topic that is already being discussed). To do this, we often use phrases such as these:

Did I ever tell you about the time I invited Al’s boss round for dinner?

I’ll never forget the time I got locked in a public toilet in Portland.

That reminds me of the time I gave a talk to some children at my daughter’s school.

To start telling the anecdote, we often ‘set the scene’ (describe the situation where something is about to happen). A very common way of doing this is to use the past continuous tense:

So anyway, Sam and I were strolling through the park, chatting away as usual, when suddenly…

A phrase that you often hear at this ‘scene-setting’ point is There I was…/There we were…:

Anyway, there we were sitting in the bar, wondering what to do with ourselves when…

Of course, bad things often happen to someone, (often the speaker), during the course of the anecdote. Sometimes, several bad things happen, one after another. If you want to add a detail which made a difficult situation even more difficult, you can say to make matters worse:

So there we were, completely lost, unable to speak the language and, to make matters worse, my phone had stopped working.

To introduce the worst thing that happened after a series of other bad things, you can use to top it all:

The apartment was tiny and dirty, the weather was foul and to top it all, on day three Dan went down with a sickness bug!

If something happens in the story that the speaker was unaware of at the time, they may use the phrase unbeknown to me (‘without me knowing’):

Unbeknown to me, Maria had already checked out.

In order to keep an audience’s attention, the anecdote-teller often shortens the story, telling only the fun or relevant details. They may explain that they are doing this by first saying to cut a long story short, or (US) long story short:

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I managed to get a flight and it was all okay.

Finally, people often reflect on an anecdote after they have told it, highlighting the funniest or most interesting part of it:

The funniest/worst thing was I didn’t even know any of this was happening at the time!

21 thoughts on “There I was, minding my own business… (The language of anecdotes)

  1. Jim Bertram

    When (and for Gawd’s sake why) did “went down” replace “happened” also…”no problem” replace “your welcome”…

  2. Blanca margarita Tobias Delgado.

    This information is very useful for me, it´ll help me to do it better next time. I love telling anecdotes. thanks a lot.

  3. paris

    well, we leave and learn, life too short to stress about things that some time we can’t explain , but honey boy/girl give me smile 🙂

  4. i don’t always find anecdotes intriguing but with the information gotten, i will be using it cause it’s of vital importance when it comes to narrative essay. Thanks for elucidating it to the power of my comprehension.

  5. Sunny

    A million dollar blog post on anecdote phrases! Very informative and straight to the point! Not too wordy ! Enjoyed reading every bit of it.

  6. Ahmed Basha

    Really like this blog.A lot of the phrases I have used on different occasions never appreciated their importance.Thank you

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