According to one source, “thing” is among the ten most commonly used nouns in English. It’s so common that if you are able to read this blog post, you probably already know what it means. Or do you?
Certainly you know that “thing” can refer to just about any inanimate (not living) object, such as a cup, a car, or a coin.
You can also use “thing” when you’re not sure if the object you’re referring to is living or not. For example, you might say to a waiter in a restaurant, “What’s that thing in my soup?” (Hint: If you have to ask this question, you might not want to eat at that restaurant again.)
“Thing” can also refer to a topic of conversation, as in “I have three things I want to talk to you about today.” Notice that “thing” can be singular or plural when used in these ways.
More recently in U.S. English, “a thing” (always singular) has taken on a new meaning, referring to a newly popular topic, trend, or activity.
Saying that you will move to Canada if _________ wins the presidency in November is also a thing among celebrities (fill in the blank with the candidate you hate the most here (Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Attila the Hun, etc.)).
Sometimes the trend is so crazy, you may ask someone, “Is that really a thing?” For example, I might ask my friend, “Are adult coloring books really a thing now?”
The answer to that last question is yes, they are: people are actually spending time coloring paper books like children. Sadly, it is a thing.
Most words come into English – and other languages – rather quietly. One person uses a new word, then two, then a few. And when a large enough number of people use a word often enough in the same way, dictionary makers notice, and add it to their dictionaries. Early in 2015 one dictionary, the Merriam-Webster dictionary published a list of “Words We’re Watching.” One of the words on that list was “athleisure” – casual clothing, like hoodies and yoga pants, for exercising and for doing almost everything else. Athleisure didn’t get into (wasn’t part of) the Merriam-Webster in 2015, but it did in 2016.
You will find many new words labeled (described) as “informal” English or “slang.” Informal English is used in relaxed, friendly situations – like speaking, texting, and writing emails. Athleisure is an informal word.
Slang usually comes and goes. It begins with a particular group of people – like teenagers or surfers – as a kind of “inside” language for the group. Other people may pick up a few slang words and use them, but it is mostly what we might call “group-talk.”
Some informal words eventually (after a period of time) become part of standardEnglish. Standard English is the “main” part of the language, in the sense that it’s understood and used in the same way by most people when speaking and writing. It is used in both formal and informal situations and is acceptable wherever English is used.
Some slang becomes part of informal English. “Grass,” used for marijuana, began as slang with marijuana users and is now used informally by many people. So is “bro,” used for brother or friend. But we probably wouldn’t use either grass or bro in a formal situation.
While some words come into English, others go out. They don’t actually disappear. But when enough people stop using a word very often, or if they stop using a particular meaning of a word, dictionaries label it as “outdated” or “archaic” – meaning old or old-fashioned.
A good example of an outdated word is “buck.” Buck used to refer to a fashionable and daring (new or unusual in a way that might shock people) young man. Today we’d probably call him a hipster. An example of an everyday word with an outdated meaning is “gentle.” It used to mean someone who was a member of the highest social class – the original idea of “gentleman.” Today we use gentle – and gentleman – to describe someone who is kind and careful how they do things and treat people.
The U.S. Congress recently found a new way to get rid of a group of words: it voted them out, or said they couldn’t be used in future government documents. These words, used to identify groups of people that live in the U.S., are considered offensive (insulting, upsetting) and filled with negative feelings or memories for the people they refer to. Many of these words are already labeled both “outdated” and “offensive” in dictionaries.
In the future, federal government documents must use the term African Americans instead of “Negroes,” Asian Americans instead of “Orientals,” Hispanics instead of “Spanish-speakers,” Native Americans instead of “Indians,” and Alaska Natives instead of “Eskimos” or “Aleuts.” They will also use Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
Many – perhaps most – Americans had already been using the new words as a way to show respect for these groups of people. And I know that many government documents have already been changed. But now it’s official (the government says it must be done).
We recently received a question from Victoria living here in the U.S., in New Jersey, who wants to know how to tell a man to stop bothering (annoying; troubling) her. She wants to know what she can say to him to make him stop or go away.
I’m not sure what kind of unwanted attention Victoria is getting, so I’ll try to cover (address; discuss) a few different scenarios (situations).
A common type of unwanted attention that people get, especially women, is verbal (spoken). For example, sometimes women are shouted at or called out to (spoken to in order to get one’s attention) by groups of men, something called a catcall. Several websites giving women advice on how to deal with this situation give common sense (general understanding that most people have) suggestions: avoid eye contact (looking into another person’s eyes); walk with purpose (quickly and with a clear destination (place to go)); and ignore (don’t show awareness of) these shouted comments. One site suggested shutting down (ending an interaction or conversation) someone by not laughing at his jokes, responding in any way, or showing annoyance or anger. So in these cases, not saying anything in any language is probably the best move (action).
Another type of unwanted attention women get is physical (involving the body). For example, if you’re on a crowded (with many people close together) train or bus, you may have someone stand too close to you or touch a part of your body. If that person is actually holding on to you, the most common thing to say to make them stop is, “Let go (of me).” If that person is simply too close to you, but not actually touching you, use the phrase, “Back off,” which means “Move away so you’re not so close.”
We use “back off” in other circumstances, too, that don’t involve physical closeness. For example, if you think a coworker is involving himself or herself in your work in a way that is not acceptable, you might tell them to “back off“: “I told James to back off when he tried to talk to my clients.” Or, “Anna’s father tries to make her decisions for her and she is trying to find a way to tell him to back off without hurting their relationship.”
Finally, if the unwanted attention is someone hitting on you (showing you in a obvious or direct way that he or she is attracted to you romantically or sexually), you can be very direct (clear and frank) by saying, “I’m not interested.” But more commonly, women simply say, “I have a boyfriend” or “I’m in a relationship,” although not everyone agrees that this is the best strategy (plan). However, this usually gets the message across (communicates) that you are not available (not single).
Well, Victoria, I hope I’ve given you a few ways to deal with the unwanted attention you’ve been getting. If any of you reading this have more suggestions that don’t involve causing physical injury (hurting someone), please add them in the comments below.
P.S. My sincere thanks to those who sent me birthday wishes here and on email. I appreciate the kind thoughts!
You may not have heard the term “pleonasm” before, but we’ve all encountered (seen or heard) many pleonasms in our lives.
Pleonasms — pronounced “PLEE – e – naz – ums” — are terms that use more words than are necessary to convey or give a clear meaning. They are sometimes used for emphasis, or to give more or extra attention to something, but more often than not (usually), they are not needed and serve no purpose (have no reason for being there).
People who teach writing often say that to improve a piece of writing, it’s a good idea to remove redundancies (two or more things that have the same function), including pleonasms.
Here are a few examples of commonly-used pleonasms. They aren’t incorrect, but just unnecessary.
– “I asked Jeff what his future plans are for his neighbor’s cats.” Explanation: “Plans” are decisions we make about what to do in the future, so including “future” in this sentence is redundant.
– “The little girl’s father told her not to speak to complete strangers.” Explanation: “Strangers” are people we do not know, so “complete” here — meaning absolute or total — is not necessary. Someone you know even a little would not be called a stranger, but most likely an “acquaintance.”
– “If current trends continue, we will get more snow this year than any other year in history.” Explanation: A “trend” describes the general direction that something is occurring or developing right now, so “current” — meaning what exists now — is superfluous (unnecessary).
It may be easy for us to spot (identify) pleonasms in the sentences above, but Americans use them all the time in speech and in writing. It probably isn’t possible to eliminate them all in American English even if we wanted to, since they are so common that many have become a part of how we naturally communicate.
However, a comedian (person who tells jokes to make people laugh) named George Carlin wrote a 2004 book based on his funny observations (things he noticed) about his fellow Americans (Americans like him). Carlin was famous for pointing out (giving attention to) funny things American say, and in this book, he talked about the many pleonasms found in everyday English.
Here’s a short excerpt (section taken from a longer text) from his book. See if you can spot the pleonasms. I’ve included the same paragraph at the bottom of this blog post with the pleonasms in red, but try to find them yourself before looking.
“I needed a new beginning, so I decided to pay a social visit to a personal friend with whom I share the same mutual objectives…The end result was an unexpected surprise. When I reiterated again to her the fact that I needed a fresh start, she said I was exactly right; and, as an added plus, she came up with a final solution that was absolutely perfect.”
[Answers below. Try not to peek (look before you’re finished).]
“I needed a (new beginning)*, so I decided to pay a (social) visit to a (personal) friend with whom I share the same (mutual) objectives…The (end) result was (an unexpected) a surprise. When I reiterated (again) to her the fact that I needed a fresh start, she said I was (exactly) right; and, as (an added) a plus, she came up with a (final) solution that was (absolutely) perfect.”
* “new beginning”: All “beginnings” are “new,” so it’s better to say “new job, life, goal, focus,” or something else specific, although “new beginning” is commonly used.
The paragraph above would be simpler and clearer if we eliminated the words in parentheses ( ). Are any of them unclear or confusing? Did you find them all? You get bonus (extra) points for finding the ones in the title of this post.
“I need to take the TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language). Can you help me?”
I get a lot of emails like that every year, often just before TOEFL scores are due (need to be sent to universities). I frequently have to say “No” because the student has waited too long to do what they need most – to improve their English. That’s why I’m writing this early in the year, hoping that students will read it and begin now to prepare for the TOEFL.
To do well on the TOEFL, nothing is more important than good, strong English. Many students spend a lot of time and money on cram (trying to do a lot in a short time) courses and other questionable activities, hoping they will prepare them for the TOEFL. Unfortunately, most of those activities do very little to improve their English.
The TOEFL is a test of how well you can use English in a classroom – to read and listen, to write and speak. The TOEFL score you need to be accepted by a school is the score they think you need to succeed in their classes. Each school is different. One school I know requires a score of only 62. Another says, “Don’t apply (ask to come) unless your score is more than 109.”
If good, strong English is so important, you may ask, “How good is good enough?” Here’s a little experiment you can try. Read part of this article by Sherry Turkle. And listen to some of this lecture from Dr. Paul Bloom’s Introduction to Psychology, a first-year class. Now think how you would answer these questions:
If you walked into class the first day and heard Bloom’s lecture or had to read Turkle’s article, how would you feel? Would you understand them well enough to take notes you could use to study later?
Would you be able to easily identify what they were talking about – the subject of the lecture or article – and what some of the main points (ideas) were?
What if I asked you to answer my questions in writing? Or by speaking? How well would you do?
If you’re comfortable with the questions I’ve asked, you’re probably ready to begin working on the academic skills – like essay writing – and test-taking skills that you’ll need for the TOEFL. If not, you need to forget about them for a while and spend time working on your English.
There’s only one way to strengthen your English, and that’s by doing a large amount of reading and listening. It’s not difficult:
Find something easy enough to read or listen to without stopping. And so interesting that you don’t want to stop. You may not know all the words, but you will know enough to enjoy the story or learn from the article.
Read and listen as much as possible. One hour a day, more if you can. Every day if possible. In other words, make English a part of your life.
As your English grows, you’ll be able to read and listen to increasingly difficult material. After a while you’ll be able to comfortably read and listen to material similar to Turkle and Bloom and feel that you’re ready.
Here’s a short quiz for you: Which pronouns would you use to complete these sentences?
1. Someone left _____ lunch in the office. Would _____ please come get it?
2. When a student wants to study, _____ should try to find a quiet place.
There’s been a lot of discussion and debate (argument) about what to do when the subject of a sentence like “someone” is indefinite (not masculine/male or feminine/female), or when a subject like “students” could be masculine, feminine, or both.
If you look in a grammar book, you’ll find suggestions like these:
1. Someone left [“his or her” or “his/her”] lunch in the office. Would [“he or she”, “he/she”, or “s/he”] please come get it?
2. When a student wants to study, [“he or she”, “he/she”, or “s/he] should try to find a quiet place.
Many famous writers – Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Jane Austen, and others – often ignored (didn’t do) what the grammar books said to do. They used different forms of what we call the “singular they.” If we use the singular they in our two sentences, they look like this:
1. Someone left their lunch in the office. Would they please come get it?
2. When a student wants to study, they should try to find a quiet place.
The singular they has been discussed and debated for a long time. But in 2015, organizations like the Associated Press (a news organization) and the Washington Post newspaper added the singular they to their style guides, books that tell their writers what is okay and what is not. Many dictionaries – including my two favorites for English learners, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and the New Oxford American English Dictionary – have added the singular they. And just a few days ago, the American Dialect Society (a dialect is the form of a language used in a particular place or by a particular group of people) voted the singular they as their Word of the Year.
The Longman Dictionary says this about the singular they: “You can use they, them, and their to refer to a single person when you do not want to show that the person is male or female [or, I would add, when it’s not important to know whether the person is male or female].”
Let’s look at another example to see how the singular they makes the writer’s and reader’s work easier. First, here is a sentence that uses personal pronouns in two different ways:
1. Everyone agreed that he or she would bring his or her lunch with him or her.
2. Everyone agreed that (s)he would bring his/her lunch with him/her.
Now, here is the same sentence using the singular they:
3. Everyone agreed that they would bring their lunch with them.
I think you’ll agree that the singular they makes both writing and reading easier.
The story of the singular they reminds of us that language changes as people use it in new and different ways. Dictionaries, which describe how a language is being used, will add those changes at some point (time). However, the best way to keep up with changes is to do the same thing you do to improve your fluency (ability to use a language): do a lot of reading. You will acquire (pick up) most new uses automatically, without trying.
Every year a group of professors and staff members at a small public university in Michigan (Lake Superior State University) publishes a list of banished words. To banish usually means to force someone to leave his or her home city or country, but here it just means to prohibit or not to allow something to happen. The words and expressions on the “banished” list are ones that have been misused (used incorrectly) or overused (used too much) in the past year, and that you should try to avoid using this year.
Anyone can suggest a word or phrase that should be banished. In 2015, Lake Superior State received more than 800 suggestions. They selected 13 of those suggestions for this year’s list.
Here are five that I think are particularly good ones for you to avoid in your writing and speaking in 2016:
So – I’ve written about the misuse of the word “so” before, and even made a video about it that was published originally last year in ESLPod.com’s magazine, Learn English Magazine. Rather than explain again how people misuse this word, you can watch the video (and subscribe to our magazine for free for more cool videos!).
Problematic – This is just another way of saying “It is a problem,” as in this example: “His arriving late to work everyday is problematic.” Some have referred to this term as a “weasel word,” meaning something you say when you don’t have the courage to say what you really mean, perhaps because you don’t want the other person to get angry at you. If someone says to you, “Well, I think your solution to this particular issue here is somewhat problematic,” what he really means is, “Your idea is terrible.”
Price point – A price point is, well, a price! It is often used when people are talking about the cost or price of something very expensive, such as a car or a house. If you are looking for a new house, you could say that your “price point” is $350,000, meaning that you are looking for a house that costs no more than that amount. This expression really bothers me when I hear people using it. In my opinion, there is never a good reason to use “price point.” If you mean “price,” say “price.”
Secret sauce – A sauce is a liquid that is put on or mixed with some food. For example, I eat spaghetti with a tomato and meat sauce. A secret is something that no one else knows, that only you or a small group of people know. The term “secret sauce” was probably first used by a popular restaurant to refer the sauce it puts on its hamburgers. But the term has come to refer to some special factor or reason that makes an organization or a business successful. You could talk about the “secret sauce” of Apple’s success being its cool designs or easy-to-use software. But the expression doesn’t really make any sense, since the “sauce” (reason for success) isn’t “secret” anymore if you are able to talk about it in public.
Break the Internet – To break something is to cause it to no longer function or work properly. You can break your watch if you drop it on the floor or break a coffee mug if you accidentally knock it off your desk (like I did last week). You can also “break your leg” or “break your arm,” meaning to cause one of your bones to crack or separate. However, we don’t usually use “to break” when talking about a complex system of machines and software such as the Internet. Nevertheless, people have started using the expression “break the Internet” to refer to what happens when one or more websites stop working due to a sudden surge (rapid increase) in use. For example, someone might post a video on a very popular website that generates (produces; causes) so much traffic (people going to that website) that the website stops working. You then might say this action “broke the Internet” because that website stopped working.
“Break the Internet” is a good example of hyperbole, when you exaggerate or make something seem more serious or extreme that it really is. In this case, the Internet isn’t actually “broken” when a few websites stop working, even if they are popular ones.
Are there words in your language that have become popular this past year that are misused or overused and that you would like people to stop using? Try to explain them to us (in English, of course!) below in the comments section.
“Hoard” is not an everyday word, but the idea of hoarding often appears even when the word isn’t used. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Some of my students have enjoyed The Hobbit and Treasure Island – two books that have been made into movies. In The Hobbit, Smaug is the dragon that kills most of the dwarves (imaginary creatures that look like small men), takes their gold and other treasures (something valuable), hides them deep inside Lonely Mountain, and uses them as a bed. Smaug is a hoarder.
In Treasure Island, Jim finds a map and, together with some others, follows it to an island where a very large treasure has been buried by a pirate (someone who robs or steals from ships at sea) named Flint. Flint is also a hoarder.
A hoard is a large collection of things that someone hides so no one else can find it. Sometimes people will hoard things like food to have it in an emergency, for example, during a war.
When we hear the word hoard or hoarder today, we often think about something a little different. We think about people who become so attached to things with little or no value that they find it difficult to throw them away.
Elizabeth is a good example. She is a writer. And she worries that she and her partner are hoarders because their small house is full of things they have collected but never use. She writes:
I’m pretty sure my partner and I are hoarders, or least well on our way. We have one entire room in our house that’s too full of clutter (a large number of things that are scattered around) to walk through — a library of junk (old unwanted objects)….
What’s in there? Comic books. Textbooks. A shoe collection. Costumes. Sewing notions (supplies). Slightly used wrapping paper. Old photos. Plastic bugs. Real dead bugs…. Pulp fiction (popular stories). Action figures. Notebooks. Items carelessly chewed by long-dead pets. Wine goblets (glasses)….
The junk room door is always closed. My daughter doesn’t even know we have a third bedroom.
The rest of the house isn’t much better.
For some people, hoarding is not just a bad habit (something you do automatically without thinking). It’s a serious problem. It’s irrational (it doesn’t make sense) and compulsive (they can’t stop). Their houses and apartments become so full of junk that they are no longer safe or healthy to live in. And they do everything they can to make sure that other people don’t find out what they are doing.
Elizabeth worries that they’re hoarders. But her partner thinks they’re just messy. And she says that he’s probably right for now. But she worries that they might become hoarders after her daughter leaves home.
One short note: there is another word – horde – that sounds the same as hoard. Horde refers to a large group of people – for example, “A horde of soccer fans ran onto the field after the soccer game.”
Good writers think of one thing: how to make what they want to say as clear as possible.
In Writing In English As A Second Language, I quoted (said what someone else said) William Zinsser, who wrote that “your best tools are short, plain…active verbs…. So fall in love with active verbs. They are your best friends.”
Mike Emrick is the play-by-play announcer (person who describes a game on radio or TV) for the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team. Many people believe he’s the best. The verbs he uses are one of the reasons why. The verbs he uses help his listeners see the action.
Recently someone made a list of verbs Emerick has used to describe Blackhawk games. I’ve chosen a few of them to show how good active verbs can give your reader or listener a better idea – a picture, in fact – of what you’re describing.
You don’t need to know much about hockey to make sense of (understand) Emerick’s verbs. Just remember that in hockey, players skate back and forth on the ice and use sticks to try to hit the puck (small round piece of hard rubber) into the other team’s net, or goal. It’s like soccer on ice.
I’ve chosen two groups of verbs. The first group describes how players hit the puck. The second group describes how the puck moves, especially as it goes into the net.
Here are some of Emrick’s verbs:
Chop – He chopped at the puck. / He hit at the puck as if trying to cut something with a tool.
Finesse – He finessed the puck into the net. / He hit the puck in a skillful or expert way.
Jab – He jabbed at the puck. / He hit at the puck with short quick movements of his stick.
Muscle – He muscled the puck into the net. / He used all his strength to hit the puck into the net.
Sky – He skied the puck. / He hit the puck high into the air.
Swat – He swatted at the puck. / He tried to hit the puck the same way you would try to hit a mosquito or some other insect that was bothering you.
Hop – The puck hopped into the net. / The puck jumped into the net like a rabbit.
Curl – The puck curled into the net. / The puck moved into the net in a curved (not straight), or circular, line.
Trickle – The puck trickled into the net. / The puck moved slowly into the net, little by little.
Skitter – The puck skittered across the ice. / The puck moved lightly and quickly, like a small animal.
If you do a lot of reading and listening, and pay attention to the verbs writers and speakers use, you’ll discover many more good active verbs.
Can you think of some other good active verbs for hockey or soccer? Let’s see how many verbs we can come up with that fit one of the sentences I used above – He _____ the puck (or ball) or The puck (or ball) _____ into the net. Add your verbs to the comments.
Anyone learning English already knows that the English language is full of quirks (strange things). One quirk has to do with capitalization, whether a word is written with a capital first letter (Letter) or not (letter). With some words, its meaning actually changes when you capitalize it. These words are called “capitonyms.”
Some of the most often used capitonyms are related to place names. Here are a few examples.
Earth: the planet that we live on “Do you believe there is life on planets other than Earth?”
earth: dirt, the material on the surface of the ground
“The workers found important historical artifacts (items made by people who live a long time ago) under the top layer of earth.”
Notice that the pronunciation of both terms are the same. That’s not the case with the example below:
Polish: relating to the things or people of Poland
“Are you going to eat that Polish sausage (a type of food, similar to a hot dog)?”
to polish: to make something shiny (reflecting light) by rubbing it
“Yimi polished his leather shoes before going on the important interview.”
Other capitonyms have nothing to do with place names.
Frank: a man’s name
“Do you know Frank Bumgardner? I went to high school with him.”
frank: in speech or writing, being honest and direct
“Please be frank with me. I want to know the truth even if it’s bad news.”
August: the eighth month of the calendar year
“Many families go on vacation in August, right before school begins again in September.”
august: respected and considered very important
“Monica didn’t expect to attend a dinner with such august guests that included members of the royal family.”
There isn’t a comprehensive (with all included) list of capitonyms, but you can find more examples here. The only way to know how they are being used is by looking at the context (words used around it).
Are there similarly strange quirks in the languages you speak? Do capital letters make a difference in meaning?