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English verbs that are often confused

There are a lot of English verbs that look or sound alike but have very different meanings.   Take, for example, the verbs pour and pore.  The pronunciation is identical, the spelling similar.  One of the three sentences following contains an error.  Do you know which one it is?

  1. Shake the sauce vigorously to mix it, then pour over the salad just before serving.
  2. We spent a long time poring over the map to try and work out the shortest route.
  3. As the accountant poured over the financial data he realised the company was in serious trouble.

Did you get it?  Yes it was the last one.  « Pour » means to flow or cause to flow; « pore » means to study closely, like the man in the picture above who is poring over some documents.

We call these word pairs homophones: words that have the same pronunciation, but with different spelling, and with a different meaning.  It’s easy to get them confused and most electronic spellcheckers aren’t much help in this type of situation: they can tell you if a word has been spelled wrongly but they can’t generally identify the misuse of a correctly spelled word.

Check your knowledge of  easily confused English verbs

Here’s a quick quiz on pairs of similar English verbs that are regularly confused.  Note that they are not all exact homophones.  In some cases there is a small difference in pronunciation.

You can check the word pairs with distinct pronunciation here:

lose / loose

raise / rise

Do you have any questions about homophones?  Are there other verbs that you are confused about?  Leave a comment below.

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American or British? Divided by a common language

That’s what Winston Churchill said about the Americans and the British.  George Bernard Shaw referred to American English as a « foreign language », and Oscar Wilde quipped:

We and the Americans have much in common, but there is always the language barrier.

I am often asked if it’s better to use American or British English.  I remember being surprised when I first came to France that people routinely refer to them as two different languages, as in : « Are you learning American or English? » This is reinforced by language schools offering courses in « American English ».

Just how different are they? I was watching a quebecois film the other day, and although after 14 years in France I am very comfortable understanding spoken French, I probably only caught one word in two of the broad Canadian French accent. Surely English on the two sides of the Atlantic can’t be as different as French?

Well, it all depends where you go. The term « American English » is deceptive – which « American English » are we referring to?  You put a Minnesotan and a New Yorker in the same room and you may wonder if they are speaking the same language.  Well, slight exaggeration, but accents and vocabulary vary widely.

And then there’s « British English » – in some parts of England you only need to drive a few miles to hear accents change dramatically, and even such basic language building blocks as personal pronouns aren’t always consistent.  Go to Yorkshire where you can still hear people use « thou » instead of « you« .

As a New Zealander I generally say I speak « British English » when asked, but then hear myself saying « sidewalk » instead of « pavement » (or the more kiwi « footpath« ) and there is often a conspicuous /k/ in my pronunciation of « schedule« . I guess I’m just linguistically confused…

The fact of the matter is that in our day of globalisation you can get away with a variety of different ways of speaking English.  In France I tend to teach sentences like: « Have you been to the doctor yet?« , knowing full well that one day my student will be in the US and hear someone say « Did you go to the doctor yet?« , and will at that point have to decide whether his teacher really knew what he was talking about, or whether Americans have just got it wrong.  The truth is that both forms are completely correct, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on, whether you’re American or British.  I have to admit I still balk when an American friend assures me that « If I’d have known you were coming, I’d have baked a cake » (I’m tempted to do my teacher thing and say, « If I KNEW you were coming!« ), but even there, that « mistake » is so widespread – who am I to say that this is not « standard » English, as it certainly is standard in parts of the world.

Choosing American or British?  My advice for learners:

1. Be consistent. Adopt the grammatical habits and vocabulary of one region and stick to them as much as possible.

2. Learn regional varieties. Not that you have to use the different forms yourself, but it’s useful to recognise them so as not to be completely lost when faced with someone who has a different variety of English.

3. Don’t stress about it! The differences are fairly superficial, and any misunderstandings are quickly straightened out.

4. If you are a foreigner living in an English speaking country, why not adopt the local speech patterns?  Regional variations make a language rich – it’s boring if everyone speaks the same way.  I recently met a German living in South Africa, and it was wonderful to hear her say things like « all raht » (for « all right« ), « is it? », « hectic« , and « pshaw » – made a nice change from the standard German English accent!

So aside from the obvious accent and vocabulary differences, here are a few lesser known British-American equivalents to add to your list:

British American
bedsitter studio appartment
beetroot beet
bumf paperwork
capsicum green pepper
codswallop nonsense
crisps chips
drawing pin thumbtack
flannel washcloth
fish slice spatula
grotty shabby
jacket potato baked potato
motorway freeway / turnpike
nappy diaper
outgoings expenses
pillar box mailbox
surgery doctor’s office

If you have any more to add to the list, write them in the comments.

Photo Credit: Chris Turner Photography cc

How to avoid errors with adverbs #1

targetWhat do the following sentences have in common?

*She speaks very well English.
*I go often to the theatre
*We’re tomorrow leaving for Belgium
*I think we should go early to bed.

Each of the sentences contains an adverb. An adverb is a word that usually answers questions like ‘how?’, ‘when?’, ‘where?’ or ‘why?’.

In each of the sentences above, although the sentences are quite understandable, the word order is incorrect.  The position of adverbs can be quite a confusing area of English grammar, for a variety of reasons.  Many English teachers are influenced by a false idea about adverbs that they probably learnt at school, namely that adverbs are ‘words that modify verbs’. This is only a small part of what the versatile adverb can do. It can also modify adjectives, numbers, clauses, whole sentences and other adverbs. The only thing that an adverb can’t modify, in fact, is a noun. This makes the adverb a kind of ‘catch-all’ category of words that don’t fit in any other category.

Another false idea that you might have learnt: ‘adverbs are words that end in -ly’. It is true that many adverbs do end in -ly, but friendly, lovely, lonely, likely, ugly, deadly, cowardly and silly are all adjectives, and cannot be used as adverbs.

There are also some adjectives in -ly that can be used as adverbs, such as daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, early. For example:

I have to wake up early to catch the early train.

The other confusing thing is that there are three possible positions for an adverb in a sentence:

1. initial position – before subject and verb (Frankly, I think she’s lying.)
2. mid position – between subject and verb (John definitely saw a lion behind that tree.)
3. end position – after subject and verb (As a child I used to be punished daily)

Some kinds of adverbs can only go in one position:

I have to say Fortunately Peter sold his house before the prices went down. It would be unusual to say *Peter fortunately sold… and impossible to say *Peter sold fortunately…

Other kinds of adverbs can go in two of the positions:

Yesterday we took the children to the zoo and We took the children to the zoo yesterday are both possible, but not *We yesterday took…

And still other adverbs can go in all three positions:

Occasionally we go to the cinema, We occasionally go… and We go occasionally are all possible.

Another thing to realise is that sometimes errors of adverb position are serious enough to cause misunderstanding:

Naturally, she gave birth and She gave birth naturally do not mean the same thing.

But in other situations errors are not serious, just a bit odd.

The problem with lumping all of these very diverse words into one category is that it can make learning the rules about how to use them seem complicated. This post is the first in a series where we will look at some of the different kinds of adverbs and how they behave.

Did you manage to correct the problems in the sentences at the beginning of the post?

She speaks English very well.

I often go to the theatre.

We’re leaving for Belgium tomorrow.

I think we should go to bed early.

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Golden rules for English articles

Should I use the, a/an or no article? How can I know for sure? Are there any rules? It’s so complicated!

If you find it difficult to use the three English articles, you are not alone. It is one of the most difficult areas of English grammar. I have two pieces of good news for you if you are a learner having difficulty with English articles.

1. When you make mistakes it’s not usually serious. Most native speakers are used to « international English » and can usually understand what you mean.

2. If you can remember 3 simple rules, you will avoid the mistakes that are the most common and the most obvious. Here they are:

  • Don’t use singular countable nouns without articles.

Have you seen the car key? I don’t know; there is a car key on the table. Is it yours? (not *Have you seen car key? etc.)

  • Don’t use the with plural and uncountable nouns to talk about things in general.

Politics is boring. (not *The politics is boring)
Apples are good for your health (not *The apples … )

  • Use a/an to say what people’s professions or jobs are.

Peter was a salesman, but he is now training to become an architect. (not *Peter was salesman etc.)

Just remembering these three rules will fix most of your article errors.  Do you have questions about using articles? Ask your question in a comment.

photo credit: mikecogh cc

Can you ask questions correctly?

« English grammar is easy!  »  « The reason English is a world language is that it is so easy to learn. »

I have often heard comments like these, and there’s probably some truth in it.  Perhaps it seems easy because there are so few verb forms, nouns don’t change except for making them plural, but perhaps the simplicity of elementary English grammar causes other problems.  It seems simple, so learners who want to go on to more exciting language fail to lay good foundations.

This is especially true in the area of forming questions.

Out of these questions, only one is correct.  Do you know which one?  Can you correct the others?

1. Did you went climbing last weekend?

2. Do you can tell me the time?

3. What does ‘periphrastic’ mean?

4. Is coming your mother tomorrow?

5. How much the room costs?

6. Like you Mozart?

7. You have received my letter?

These are all mistakes that I hear learners make often, even advanced students.  Did you get the correct question?  It was number 3.  All the others contain mistakes.

There are only four basic rules for forming questions in English.  If you can remember to use them, you will avoid the most common mistakes and speak English like a pro!  Download a free cheat sheet here:

 Question forms basic rules

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