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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Building vocabulary through spaced repetition.  The advantage to learning vocabulary through spaced repetition is that memory loss slows down considerably when an item is reviewed at appropriate intervals

photo credit: stevegarfield cc

Finding the right words for your writing

Do you write in English?  Do you get tired of using the same old phrases and vocabulary?  Are you looking for a way to spice up your writing style?  Do you agonise over choosing the right word or combinations of words?

JustTheWord is just the tool you need.

There is a ton of online dictionaries and thesauruses out there, but sometimes time doesn’t allow an extensive search for the correct word combination.  JustTheWord combines the usefulness of both dictionaries and thesauruses in one place.  Its database is the 80,000,000 words of the British National Corpus, and it has a powerful and simple search function which produces a list of word clusters for you to choose from.

How can JustTheWord improve your writing?

Writing with JustTheWord 1Say you are writing a description of a new product for a catalogue.  You want to say that the product is « very useful », but on the page that combination looks a bit boring.  To find out what other adverbs you can use with « useful », type the word in the search bar and hit combinations.  You will receive a page with a long list of word clusters. To narrow your search, click on « ADV *useful* » at the top right of the screen, which will lead you to a manageable list of about a dozen examples of adverbs that are used to modify the word « useful ».

You like the feel of « extremely useful » and insert it in your writing.  But later as you are rereading your work, you decide that « useful » doesn’t really do the product justice. What alternatives might there be to this word?  Back to JTW for a second look.  Enter your original phrase « very useful » in the search bar, and this time select alternatives.  This will produce two lists: the list of alternatives to « very » that you have already seen, and a list of adjectives with a similar meaning to « useful » that partner with « very ».  The number beside the word combination indicates the number of times it is found in the corpus, which is also represented visually with a green bar.

Writing with JustTheWord 2The blue bar under each alternative indicates the similarity in meaning between your original phrase and the different combinations.

You decide you like the look of « very beneficial » as an alternative, but to make absolutely sure you’d like to check how the expression is used in actual written text.  Simply click on the expression, and you will see a list of excerpts from actual texts in the corpus where « very » is used with « beneficial ».  This also gives you other useful information, such as the fact that « very beneficial » can be followed by FOR or TO.Writing with JustTheWord 4

Writing with JustTheWord 3Another way that JTW helps you is that it indicates word partnerships that are either rare or simply not used in English writing.  For example, keeping with the « useful » example, you may have heard some English speakers talk about something being « real useful ».  Perhaps you are wondering if this is appropriate in written English, so you enter the phrase into the search bar and select « alternatives ».  It will return a short list of word clusters that indicate with a red bar that the combination « real useful » isn’t found anywhere in the corpus, and is therefore a bad word combination in written English (although we know from your list of « useful » combinations that « really useful » is possible).

Other ways that JTW can be used for better writing by both learners and teachers.

As a learner, if you keep a vocabulary notebook (which you should!), rather than just writing lists of words, you will retain new vocabulary better if you also write a definition and an example sentence.  JustTheWord is great for finding authentic example sentences.  Furthermore, we often remember new words better in word partnerships.

An example:

Imagine you have just learnt the word « confidence ».  JTW can show you other nouns that are regularly used in partnership with this word, thanks to the number showing the frequency of use.  If your focus is business English, you can record the following in your vocabulary notebook: « business confidence » and « consumer confidence ». You will see that « no confidence » and « self confidence » are also common.

As a teacher, you may be preparing a lesson on collocations or word partnerships, but don’t have time to dig through a dictionary or thesaurus.  Simply enter your key words into JTW, and you have a ready made list of collocations to choose from.

I’m sure you’ll agree that JTW is a very useful, extremely helpful, really beneficial, particularly valuable and especially practical tool!

Can you think of other ways to use it? Why don’t you share your ideas in the comments?

photo credit: eyesore9 cc

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 improve your reading skills with Google News

Some people are addicted to news and current affairs.  If you are a language learner who is also a « news junky » – who enjoys following the latest news, here’s a great idea for improving your reading skills and increasing your vocabulary.

It is true that the language of newspapers is often very complex.  It is estimated that to read an English language newspaper fluently you need about 4,000 words.  This can be overwhelming for some learners.  And then there’s the question, with so many newspapers, where do I start?  Few of us have the time in a day to search the Internet for the articles that we find interesting.

Enter Google News.  When I first looked at Google News, the thing I liked about it was that it brings all the breaking news from a variety of the world’s newspapers and puts them all together in one place.  But I didn’t realise that it can do a lot more.

google-news-1-2One of the best motivations for improving reading skills is reading things we are interested in.  This sounds so basic, but perhaps you remember doing reading comprehension exercises in school which you found really difficult, mainly because the subject matter was so boring!  What do you like to read about?

First select the country of your choice for your Google News page.  The default setting is for the US (why am I not surprised?)  This will give you a standard layout like this:
You might decide that you are interested in sport, but not interested in entertainment.  You can move the sports section up the page, and delete the entertainment section.  You can also easily add news headlines from several different countries by selecting « Add a standard section« .  Let’s say you are studying French.  It is possible to add news from France, French-speaking Canada and Belgium to give you a more international perspective.

google-news-4Let’s say you are particularly interested in Finance, or perhaps you are learning English vocabulary for an exam like the TOEIC, and you need to work on your financial words.  Google News allows you to create your own personalised content.  You select « Add a custom section« , and then « advanced options« .   Let’s say the words you are revising are banking, finance, interest, loan and credit.  Type in these key words, then give the section a label, « Finance » for example.  Once you have saved these options you will see that a selection of Finance articles, each containing your chosen key words, is waiting for you.  You can move it up or down the page to suit you.
You can change your content as often as you like.  The best way to revise vocabulary is according to theme.  This week it might be finance, next week transportation.  You could create a new section for transportation with related key words to replace the one on finance.  The point is that the best way for revising vocabulary you know, and for learning vocabulary that is new, is in the context of real everyday language.  Memorising lists of words is not usually an effective way of increasing your vocabulary.

Google News is a great addition to your language learning toolbox.  Do you use it already?  Have you found it useful?  How do you like to use Google News?  Join the conversation in the comments.

Trick yourself into learning with online flash cards

cards« Learning without studying » is the strapline of a new language learning application called Popling.  I think the idea that you can learn anything without working for it is a bit unrealistic, but I do think that the creators of Popling are on to a good thing.

The idea is to help you by « tricking » your brain into learning while you are doing other things.  It works on a classic pedagogical tool which every language learner has used at some time or other: the flashcard.

popling-2So what’s new?  Flashcards have been around forever.  Popling is flashcard software which works especially well for second language learners who spend a big part of their day in front of a computer.  Every few minutes as you work, Popling will display a question or a prompt in a small online flash card window.  It is very easily configurable for vocabulary in the language you are learning, so that if you are trying to learn French kitchen vocabulary for example, you might get the prompt « dishwasher ».  If you have learnt the word, you will type in « lave-vaisselle ».  If you haven’t learnt it, you can take a peek at the word and try to memorise it for next time.

You also have the choice of ignoring the flashcard if it arrives at a bad moment, and it will just go away.  Apparently it’s « learning with no motivation required ».  I doubt that it is really possible to learn anything without motivation, but in spite of the blah blah, it is a very good tool.

You can either subscribe to an existing set of flashcards in the language you are learning, or create your own.  It takes a bit of work writing your own flashcards, but it’s part of the learning process and that way you can be sure to learn the vocabulary you need.

It requires the installation of a lightweight Adobe Air desktop application.  Have you tried it?  Found any other interesting uses for it?  Have your say in the comments.

For more information on online flash card systems, see Building vocabulary through spaced repetition.

An ESL lesson plan from « History of the Internet »

One of the obscure but interesting things I came across this week was PICOL – Pictorial Communication Language.  You probably haven’t heard of it yet – it’s a fascinating project by some German graphic designers developing  » a standard and reduced sign system for electronic communication. »

So what’s a language teacher doing writing about graphic design?  Well, using these PICOL icons they’ve made an interesting short documentary entitled History of the Internet – very engaging.  I thought it would make a good English lesson for Upper Intermediate to Advanced students (that’s level B2 for CEF fans), or an ESP class related to computer science.  Here’s the online video.  There is also a YouTube version.

History of the Internet from PICOL on Vimeo.

Here are a few ideas I might use to craft an esl lesson plan out of this video.  You can download a transcript of the video here: pdf-iconhistory-of-the-internet-transcript

Lead-in (10 minutes).  What do your learners know about the history of the Internet?  Brainstorm and mindmap a few elements of Internet history.  Depending on how geeky your group is you may wish to set them homework the night before to do some very basic research (using Wikipedia, for example) so they have something to bring to the discussion.

Pre-teaching vocabulary (10-15 minutes).  Assuming this is an ESP class you could focus on the general theme of language to talk about NETWORKS.  Here’s a brief summary of useful material that comes up in the video:

remote connection, time-sharing, large-scale computer network, knowledge transfer, mainframe, interface, interconnected, TCP – Transmission Control Protocol, file transfer, packet switching, centralised/decentralised network architecture, node, compatibility

In ESP classes I love the way that students are usually the experts, and one of the most valuable language-learning experiences you can create is to have them explain their field to you using the language you are focusing on.  Being a complete dummy in this area I will have a great time asking my B2 IT expert to explain to me what ‘TCP’ is, the difference between a mainframe and an interface, how ‘packet switching’ works for example.

You could also design a matching activity with a jumbled list of the words to be matched to definitions.  A good online dictionary for computer and Internet technology terms is Webopedia.

Viewing (30 minutes). The clip is about 9 minutes long, the speech is very clear but quite fast, and the language quite challenging so even for higher-level students it should probably be viewed in three chunks.  Why not design a different viewing activity for each chunk?

  • Gap fill.  Very easy to prepare by cutting and pasting the text from the transcript into a Word document and creating gaps at meaningful points for learners to fill in.
  • Transcription.  Practising similar skills to gap fill but a lot more challenging.  It can be a very rewarding activity too.  Set a limited number of sentences to be transcribed depending on the level.
  • Viewing without sound.  View a brief section with the audio switched off and have learners discuss in pairs what they think the section is talking about.
  • Comprehension questions.   Best for the teacher to invent his own questions, particularly if you’re not familiar with the subject matter.  Your learners don’t need to know you’re a dummy!  There are two ways I like to attack comprehension questions: the traditional way (question + multi-choice or short answer) OR the back-to-front way.  In other words, I give the learners the answer, and then they have to produce the question.  In view of the difficulty even advanced students have formulating questions, this is always a meaningful activity (see Can you answer questions correctly?).

Follow-up.  Lots of scope here.  The documentary finishes with the real launch of the Internet in 1990.  What I would probably do is to set a research activity where pairs have to imagine the script for a follow-on documentary concerning the main events in Internet development say from 1990-2000.  This could either be structured for an oral presentation, or a piece of writing.  I think this kind of activity is more meaningful when learners can do the preparation between class sessions, and can email their work for comment and correction before actually giving the presentation.

So those are some of the ingredients I would probably throw together.  How would you use a video clip like this in a lesson?  Share some ideas in a comment.

News words: « break »

Every week we will focus on a key word in the news. The best way to learn new vocabulary is in context, so we will look at how each word is used in the world’s newspapers.

The word from this weeks world news is

break / broke / broken

Todays quotes are all taken fromguardian-logo Click on the links in the quotes to open the original article.

The Russia-Ukraine gas crisis

But analysts point out that, since the last serious crisis broke out in 2006, Europe has done very little to avert shortages

If something dangerous or unpleasant breaks out (phrasal verb), it suddenly starts.

The dispute, viewed by the EU as a purely commercial one until recently, threatens a fresh breakdown in relations between Brussels and Moscow.

A breakdown is a failure to work or be successful.

The crisis in Gaza

Even if the Israeli forces break (verb) Hamas’s grip on power, officials admit any such « victory » may be temporary and will bring more difficulties in its wake.

(verb) To cause something to divide into two or more parts our groups (to weaken something)

Khalid Mish’al (This brutality will never break our will to be free, 6 January)

(verb) To cause something to stop working by being damaged

The president-elect, Barack Obama, broke his silence by saying he was « deeply concerned » about civilian casualties on both sides.

(verb) To interrupt or stop something

Ideas for a weekend holiday


A break (noun) is a short rest.

The costs of environmental measures to the automotive industry

EU schemes for improving consumption and safety and reducing emissions would add « billions of euros of cost to the industry at a time when revenues are below break-even for most companies ».

To break even is to have no profit or loss at the end of a business activity. If revenues are below break-even (used as a noun), this means the business has made a loss;

Notice that newspapers like The Guardian often talk about « breaking news« , which is news about events that have only just happened. The « breaking news » about something is probably the first time the event has been reported.