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.