Saturday, September 3, 2011

Articles in English - Part 3

Articles are so important that I know of a University in Eastern Europe that requires students to study article usage in English in a separate course.  The course lasts an entire semester.  It is one course that concentrates on article usage ONLY.

I'm going to talk about articles again in this post. 

As I said in that previous post, even if you have articles in your native language, you need to learn how to use them in English.  I've noted that in Spanish the usage is slightly different for certain situations.

However, if your native language doesn't have articles, then you must learn them, if you want to communicate without any confusion.

As you read any correctly written English, concentrate on the usage of articles.  Think about how the article defines the noun that it is referring to.

In particular you should pay complete attention to each of my examples and explanations.

Here is a paragraph that talks about buying fruit.  Concentrate, read it a few times, and read the explanation.

Today I went to the fruit and vegetable store.  I bought apples, peaches, and bananas.  The apples at the store were expensive, so I only bought the best ones.  Most of the peaches were a little soft, so I really had to search and touch each peach that I bought.  The bananas at the store were pretty good.  So I'm confident that the bananas that I bought will last a few days.


"Today I went to THE fruit and vegetable store."  "the" defines "store".  In this case, it defines "store" as a store that the reader either knows about, or as a store that is the only one in my neighborhood.  There are other cases, but they don't need to be discussed right now.

"I bought apples, peaches, and bananas." What?  No articles?  That's right, because I'm saying that I didn't really know what they would have.  If I say "the apples, the peaches, and the bananas...", I'm saying that I knew they would have those items.  Sometimes I go to that store and they don't have apples, or peaches, or bananas.

"The apples at the store were expensive, so I only bought the best ones." The first "The" defines all of the apples at the store as a single group.  The third "the" defines a subset of those apples; the BEST apples (or "ones").

Notice in the last sentence: "...a few days."  "a" is used even though the author is talking about plural days, because in this sentence, the author is talking about a group of days.  “a” is used  to make it known that the few days that they will last are not really clearly defined.

The use of few is something that you'll need to get used to.  The proper way to use articles with "few" are not always clear to those who don't have a native feel for the language.

Remember, the only way to get a native feel for any language is to speak it and to somehow surround yourself with it.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

How to use articles in English - Part 2

Get ready because this will just knock your socks off.  If your socks weren't knocked off already by the last post.

Today I'm going to discuss and define two of the most commonly used articles in the English language.  Keep in mind that there are many other words that can serve as articles, but today we're only going to talk about "a" "an" and "the".

Hey wait, that's three articles.  Well, almost.  "a" and "an" are really the same thing, except "an" was designed to make transitions more pleasing and easy to execute.  So, actually I'm really talking about "a/an" and "the"...two.

First, you need to know that "a/an" means one; one thing, one group from many.  Meaning it has not been mentioned, or is in no way special...yet.  Later it might be.  In fact, when you mention something (usually an object, or unknown person) for the first time, you might use "a/an".

Below is a paragraph that examines examples of how these articles can be, and should be used.

"I walked into the kitchen.  There was a small glass on the table.  In the glass, there was a mouse.  The mouse was wearing a red sweatshirt, and an orange beret on his head.  The beret was one of those berets you might see in Paris, near the Eiffel tower."

First, in front of the word "kitchen" is "the".  What that is communicating is that in this house there is only one kitchen, or (if the house has more than one kitchen) that we all know which kitchen is being talked about.

Second, "a small glass on the table" means we haven't yet spoken of this glass, it's not the only glass in the house or kitchen, and the word after "a" starts with a "consonant sound".  Further it means that there is one table in the kitchen, or one main table.  if the writer were referring to another table, he would mention it by writing "on one of the tables".

The other sentences you could probably analyze in a similar way.

Notice that in the third sentence the glass that was introduced with "a" is now preceded by "the".  That's because the glass is now known to be the one that the author is referring to.  Also, "mouse" is introduced with "a".  That's because this particular mouse has not been seen/mentioned before this.

In the next sentence it's now: "The mouse...."  This is because the author wants us to know that he is talking about the same mouse.

Analyze the rest of the paragraph...when you finish analyzing, continue reading.

Done?  Make sure you do it.  Even if you think that you haven't learned something, each step in this process will make an impression.  I'll also continue with more examples in future posts.

Okay, so in the last sentence we also have "the" in front of "Eiffel Tower".  That's because there is only one Eiffel Tower in Paris.  If there were many Eiffel Towers in Paris, the author might say "The Eiffel Tower near the Seine (River)."

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"a" or "an"...?

Let's take a look at another concept.  When do you use "a" and when do you use "an"?

This is based on one thing: the sound of the letter that starts the next word.  Again...the sound... the letter.  It is NOT based on the letter ITSELF.

If the sound is a consonant sound, use "a".

If the sound is a VOWEL SOUND, use "an".

"a house" is correct.

"a happy man" is correct.

"a hunter" is correct.

"a honest man" is INCORRECT.  "honest" begins with a silent (non-aspirated) letter "h".  Therefore, the word actually starts with the "o" sound.  That means "an honest man" is correct.

Many times I see "an house", "an hippy", "an happy" in Internet posts where the author thinks that he is being very correct by using the "an" form.

However, "an house", "an hippy", "an happy" are all INCORRECT.

The following are CORRECT: "an honest man", "an honor". 


1. Use "an" for words that start with vowel sounds.

2. Use "a" for words that start with a consonant sound.

3. "a" and "an" mean exactly the same thing.  Basically, one thing/group that has not been previously mentioned, or is not the only one in the world.

4. If something has been previously mentioned, use an article that is definite.

5. A definite article is one that defines something.  In "the table", "the" defines "table" as the only one, or the main one, or one that has been mentioned.


You need to be careful in English.  If a word is the name of something, but not an actual noun itself, you GENERALLY do not use an article.


I do not say:

"The London" when talking about the city of London.  I simply say "London".

I do say:

"The London Bridge" because I am defining "Bridge", not London.

If someone asks me, "Where are you going?" I do not say:

"Eiffel Tower"

I do say:

"The Eiffel Tower."  Again, because "The" is defining "tower", not "Eiffel".

If someone does say "The Eiffel", it is because they are really saying "the Eiffel Tower," and simply leaving "tower" silent, which is not correct, but native speakers will say such things...just to be cool.

Here's a sample conversation to help get the idea of articles more.

Me: What's that?

You: It is bird.  ("It's a bird" is correct, unless you are talking about a person named "Bird".  Which we know is not the case, because the question was "what".  If I were asking about a person, I would say "Who is that?"

The answer also cannot be "it's the bird", unless we have spoken about that specific bird already.

Here's a great conversation for understanding just how important articles are in English.

Me: What are you eating?

You: Apple. (the correct answer is "An apple."

Saying "Apple" sounds to me like you are eating something with the proper name of "Apple".  In this case the only thing with a proper name of "Apple" is Apple Computer Corporation.

Do you really want to tell people you are eating Apple Computer Corporation?  Do you want to risk such misunderstandings?

Keep following along with my series on using English articles, and avoid such silliness.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Article usage in English - Part 1

This, my dear readers, promises to be perhaps the most useful series of posts that you will ever come across regarding the English language.

The first thing you must understand is that articles, though usually small words, can change the entire meaning of sentences and thus your message.

For instance, if you were talking about a particular software, and you wrote:

"Software is very easy to use." what you've just written sounds to a native speaker like "all software (in the entire universe) is easy to use."  And we all know that is pure nonsense.

This particular example was taken from a Russian shareware developer website.

What should have been written is, "The software is easy to use."

The use of "the" indicates that you are talking about that particular software that is being discussed.

The best thing about articles and article-usage is that once you start to see the huge difference they can make in the meanings of your sentences, you'll start to love them.

However, you may initially find them slightly difficult to understand.  Don't give in.  Keep pursuing their meaning and usage in English. You'll be very happy you did!

By the way, other language also have articles (obviously) but the usage is different.  Don't think that because your native language has articles that you shouldn't learn the proper usage in English.  You definitely should.

So, in the next few days I will start outlining how to properly use articles.  Starting with definitions.

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To contract or not to contract...that is the quandary.

In  most countries there is a distinct difference between formal and informal language.  In English there is a difference, but it's not as clear nor is it always observed.

For instance in corporate America I would probably not greet my potential boss (at the interview, for example) with a simple, curt, "How's it going?"

However, I might say, "How's it going, Bill?  It's good to meet you."  This would be considered warm, yet respectful.  In fact, if I were taking a new job at this time, I would feel that this might be the most welcome greeting to someone who works all day in corporate America.

Another thing that many people learn while learning English in foreign countries is that contractions (the practice of shortening words and putting them together (or concatenating)) are not for use in business communications.  To that I can only say, "au contraire!!"

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I worked for ten years in consulting around and in NYC with firms such as Goldman Sachs, GE Capital, IBM, AT&T, and more.  In fact, my job at several firms was to offer advice to people who were considered poor communicators, or who were "habitually" poorly understood.  I must say that everyone...and I mean EVERYONE used contractions.  Not using contractions can actually change the tone of writing.

For instance, saying "I did not" instead of "I didn't" makes the writer seem as if they are slightly emphasizing "did not".  The reader then thinks, "why is he emphasizing those two words?"  No matter how briefly, any distractions from the tone or message of a communication can doom it.

To be more clear on this point, consider that often I would go for one-on-one's in my client's office.  At the beginning of which I'd say "How's it going?"

The answer was usually something about the astronomical amount (that means "extremely high number of") unread emails in his inbox.  The numbers were incredible...20, 50, 70...try 700!!!

Therefore, the last thing you want to do is to create moments of confusion.  Be respectful of the number of emails people have to read.  The less thinking about extraneous matters that they have to do, the better.

So, if you want to sound more like a native speaker, learn contractions and use them.  They add a level of warmth to your communications, and that is probably a good thing in most cases.

English plurals?

In English, you almost always make plurals with the letter "s".

Add it to the end of the word.

airplane = airplanes

lamp = lamps

toilet = toilets

beer = beers

Almost any word in English becomes plural with the simple addition of the letter "s" to the end of the word.

However, if a word ends with an "s", usually you need to do something different.

kiss = kisses

bus = buses

If it ends with a ch, or sh you do the same.

bush = bushes

wish = wishes

witch = witches

Words that end with "y" are usually done like this:

bunny = bunnies

mummy = mummies

If the "y" has a vowel in front of it:

monkey = monkeys

boy = boys

Now here are a few unusual plurals.

goose  = geese

mouse = mice

deer = deer

sheep = sheep

moose = moose

There are more unusual plurals.  IN GENERAL, you will form plurals by adding "s" or an "s" sound to the end of a noun.

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However, the secret to plurals in spoken language is the sound of the "s".

If the word ends with a consonant like "t", "p", "k" (or a "c" with a "k" sound), "f"; you will pronounce the plural, like "s".

If the word ends with letters other than those mentioned above, in most cases, you don't want to pronounce a really sharp "s" sound.  Instead you make it almost a "z" sound.

If you pronounce words like these with an "s" sound, you might actually be saying a different word.

The word "eyes" can sound like "ice".

eyes = eye(z)

So, in general it's pretty simple to form plurals in English, and when in doubt just placing an "s" sound at the end of the word indicates that you are speaking in the plural to most speakers of English.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Is i a word?

If you are learning English, take a look at this as an example of how NEVER to write anything!

I repeat: DO NOT write like this.

to-ing and fro-ing

Correct past tense and past tense negation in English...

This post is about simple past tense (sometimes referred to as the preterite tense), and negation.

Here are some examples of past tense in English using regular verbs.

  1. Walk:   I walked to the store in my **birthday suit.

  2. Skid/Stop:   The car skidded and stopped at every green light.

  3. Pee:   He peed in the cup.

  4. Pull:   He pulled his pants down at the dentist's office.

  5. Dance:  They danced at Mark's funeral.

  6. Half-ass:  He half-assed his way through four years of undergrad and a year of post-grad, before realizing he was not cut out to be a proctologist.

** "in [my/your/his/her] birthday suit" means naked.


In English, in order to do simple past negation, you need to know one irregular verb: do.

Since you are talking about the past, you use the past tense form of "do", which is "did".

You then add the word "not" to it, which creates "did not" or "didn't".

About contractions

I know that in places where English is not the native language there's a perception that contractions can't be used in formal written communications.  That is absolutely untrue.  In English, people use contractions in spoken language as well as written.  I worked many years in several corporations, and saw contractions used everyday for all kinds of communications, including mission critical.

Examples of negations in the past tense:

  1. Walk:   I did not (didn't) walk to the store naked yesterday.

  2. Stop/skid:   The car did not (didn't) stop at the front door of the hospital, but skidded through it.

  3. Pee:   She made him nervous and he didn't pee in the cup.

  4. Pull:   He didn't pull his pants down to pee in church.

  5. Dance:   They didn't dance at Ben's funeral, but they wanted to.

  6. Half-ass:   In *college, the only thing he didn't half-ass were the massive parties that he threw.

*In the United States, when someone says "college", it refers to University.

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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Your or you're?

I know you are all thinking, "Are you kidding?"

I wish that I were...but..., I'm not.  I see this one too often to remain silent.

Often the people using it incorrectly are native speakers. 

Why?  I guess this happens in school. 

People think I'm talking about Americans when I talk about "phenomena" like this.  To some extent, yes.  But Americans do not have a monopoly on grammatical errors.  In fact, it's more likely the British do.

So, which one should you use?

If you are talking about ownership, you use "your".

ex.: That is your car.

INCORRECT ex.: Your funny! <<<INCORRECT

If you are talking about the current state of a person in the second person, you use "you are" or "you're"

ex.: You're (you are) a real teacher.

INCORRECT ex.: You're mother is beautiful. <<INCORRECT

This is like saying "they're car," and it's ridiculous.

Some grammatical errors can be forgiven, but not this.

Remember, when you write on the internet, thousand or millions of people may see it.  It is your responsibility to set the proper example.

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"im" is not a word...

Though at the rate we're going, we'll probably soon see it in a dictionary.  In which case it would then start to make sense to basically include all random two letter combinations as possibly meaning something.

If you've ever spent any time looking around at blogs, blog comments, YouTube or YouTube comments, you've seen this one a million times by now.  It has made you either confused (if English isn't your first language), slightly distressed (if it is, and you give a damn), or nonplussed (because you grew up with a cell/mobile phone, or with the mistaken perception that e.e. cummings had a right to determine the case of his initials). 

Funny (no, I don't mean humorous) thing is, 15 years ago this was not a problem.  For those of you who don't know, 15 years is not a long time.  Particularly in terms of social change.  As with everything that means something, the creators and controllers of the internet have found a way to make inaccuracies mainstream.  So it goes with the English language and the use of "im".

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What is "im" and what is correct?

I'll make this completely simple.

"im" is short for "instant message" which is either a noun (in the case of "send me an im"), or a verb ("im me").  Both of these are actually also incorrectly used at best.

The "abbreviation" "im" is also what people are writing instead of "I am".  Some are also writing "i'm" uggh.

"I am" is the main expression of expressing the present or constant state of being in the first person in "(yo) soy/estoy" in Spanish, "je suis" in French, and so on.

Notice that "I" is always capitalized (that means not "i").

An example of the correct usage of "I": I am (I'm) so hungry that I could eat a horse.

Notice that both instances of "I" are capitalized!!

So the next time you see "im sure that i have to...[bla-bla-bla]."  Give that person a little something to think about.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Internet and English: Tower of Babel?

In many countries if you learn English, entire worlds of opportunities open up to you.  English is, after all, spoken all over the world.  It's the language of international business, the official language of the European Union, and all sorts of other boring stuff.

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People in many countries are taught that English is easy to learn.  What that means exactly, I am still trying to understand.  I say this, because I teach English.  And I've taught English on and off for nigh on about 20 years.

Is it really simple?  In some ways.  Conjugating verbs is pretty straightforward compared to many other languages.  I don't even ever remember dealing with conjugation in school English classes.  But I don't think that conjugation of verbs is a full and true measure of difficulty.

What I do think adds greatly to the difficulty in learning English is misinformation.  In this case, the internet.  Supposedly the greatest medium for communication ever developed by freedom loving people (ehem).

I read somewhere (in a book about the different regional variations of English in England, actually) that there are something like 32 different ways to indicate the concept "throw" (propel something through the air, with the hand presumably) in English.  I have only actually gotten to about 7 (throw, toss, chuck, heave, hurl, pitch, whip, sling, let fly, flip).  How many's that?

The difference in any of those can only be defined with a demonstration.

Those of us who speak this language natively, have been largely trained to think that we'd never need another one.  Which is true most of the time, if you live in the USA. 

Since 90 percent of American don't really leave the country, why should they speak anything else?

Also in the USA, if you drive in one direction for eight hours, you will probably end up in a place where you'll encounter only a slightly different version of the language.  In fact, we once drove two weeks in one direction (New York to Seattle) and spoke the same English at the end of the trip as at the beginning...with a few exceptions; pop (for soda), sack (for bag), and the accent (whereby the word "deal" sounds like "dill") being the most notable.

What seems so disturbing to the rest of the world about Americans is that they seem to think that everyone else actually DOES speak English, but that those other people don't want to do so.

So let me set the record straight.  For anyone who thinks that everyone speaks some English, I'm here to tell you that's not the case.  I live in Barcelona, Spain and most people know a word or two.  Some people actually speak quite well.  However, these people are the exceptions.  By the way, Barcelona is a major city in Europe.  I've also been to France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany in major cities, smaller cities, and in towns.  I can say confidently that only in Belgium was the level of English actually really good, very consistently.  That doesn't mean that all Belgians speak English.  Even in the Netherlands, in small-ish cities people did not speak English.

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So, to get to the point of this post, let me just say that since English is supposed to be the language of the world, let's help make it that way.

The internet with it's massive reach is now serving to pull the level of English down around the world.  Yes, more people than ever are speaking some English, and more people than ever are speaking it incorrectly, per capita, because of poor information found on the internet, and also because of poor (one might even say "crappy") examples of English from so-called reputable sources.

If we are all going to speak the same language, we need to do it with consistency.  Meaning we, who are native speakers, need to help others express their ideas with accuracy and correctness.  Correctness does not just mean that it is pleasing.  Not at all, what it means is that the expressed thought can be understood by anyone.

(Native) English speakers unite and help!

The next time you (a native speaker) see someone on the internet not using English properly; articles, for instance, let them know how to do so.   Thoughtfully would be best.  But do it.  It is NOT polite to let people make mistakes in a language and say nothing, just because you "understand".  Give them examples of correct usage, and help them improve.

In particular when you are reading something written by a Russian you need to do this.   Russians and most other Eastern Europeans are not trained in how to use articles in English.  They are actually taught that articles are of little value.  So little value that in many places the top schools don't mark down for lack of articles in essays.

As an example, if you say "software is easy to use" any native English speaker will tell you that that means that ALL software is easy to use.  However, I took this example from a review of a shareware program on CNET. 

In this case the correct version would be: "The software is easy to use".

What does that mean?  It means the software that is being reviewed is easy to use! 

A huge difference in meaning...all created with the addition of one word: THE

Now, how do you pronounce that word?