“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?
For word lovers, it’s often fun to trace (find or discover) the history of a word. I frequently stop at the Online Etymology Dictionary – etymology is the study of the beginnings, history, and changes in the meanings of words – to do just that.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal tells the story of a word – bucket list – that first appeared just a few years ago but has already become very popular. How popular? I received more than 63,000,000 search results when I googled it (searched for it using Google).
In the popular 2007 movie Bucket List, the word meant a list of things that you haven’t done, but want to do before you die. The movie was about two men who had terminal (an illness that causes death) cancer and tried to do as much as they could before they died. The movie is how most people first learned about the word.
To understand where bucket list came from, you have to go back to an idiom – kick the bucket – that first appeared in 1785. You may have heard that one. If someone kicks the bucket, it means they died. There are several different ideas about where the idiom comes from, but no one really knows for sure.
In 1999, Justin Zackham, the man who wrote the movie, began a list that he called “Justin’s list of things to do before he kicks the bucket” – things to do before he dies. The name seemed too long, however, so he shortened it to “Justin’s bucket list.”
As Zackham’s bucket list grew, he decided that a bucket list would make a good story for a movie. He wrote the movie script (the written form of a movie), and when the movie was completed, everyone agreed that Bucket List was the best name for it.
When words become popular and a lot of people begin to use them, the way they use them often changes. Bucket list is no exception (it’s not different). Zackham first used it to describe the list of things he wanted to do before he died. But a few months ago, President Obama used it in a speech to refer to the things he wanted to do before the end of his presidency (time as president). As a result, the meaning of bucket list has already shifted (changed) to include the things someone wants to do before an important time in their life.
Let me make a prediction (say what will happen). I think that a lot of people will think that bucket list is a cool (fashionable, attractive) new word and want to use it. And they will use it in a variety of new ways – for example, to refer to any list of things that they need or want to do, what we call a to-do list. Some day you’ll be able look in a dictionary and see if I was right.
I’m wondering, what would you put on your own bucket list?
Two weeks ago I wrote about heroes and told you about a few of mine. Sadly, one of them – William Zinsser – died a few days later; he was 93 years old.
Today I want to remember him by doing something that would surely please him. I want to share with you a speech he gave in 2009 to a group of international students about writing in English as a second language. I have used his words as much as possible.
Zinsser said that he was “hopelessly in love in with English because it’s plain and strong. It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise (exact) shades (differences) of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex (difficult), that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English – if it’s used right.”
Good English writing, according to Zinsser, begins with good nouns and good verbs. “The good nouns are the thousands of short, simple…nouns…of everyday life: house, home, child, chair, bread, milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road.… When you use those words, you make contact with the deepest feelings and memories of your readers.” Never use a noun, he said, because you think it sounds more impressive.
“Your best tools are short, plain…active verbs…. If you could write…using only active verbs” – like he wishes, she learns, or they discover – your writing would automatically be clear, warm, and full of life. “So fall in love with active verbs,” says Zinsser. “They are your best friends.”
Zinsser told the international students that there are four principles (basic ideas) of writing good English:
Clarity. “If it’s not clear, you might as well not write it. You might as well stay in bed.”
Simplicity. “Simple is good. Most students from other countries don’t know that. When I read them a sentence that I admire, a simple sentence with short words, they think I’m joking. ‘Oh, Mr. Zinsser, you’re so funny,’ a bright young woman from Nigeria told me. ‘If I wrote sentences like that, people would think I’m stupid.’ Writing is not something you have to decorate to make yourself look smart.”
Brevity. “Short is always better than long. Short sentences are better than long sentences. Short words are better than long words. Don’t say currently if you can say now. Don’t say assistance if you can say help. Don’t say numerous if you can say many…. Don’t call someone an individual [five syllables!]; that’s a person, or a man or a woman…. Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. Writing is talking to someone else on paper or on a screen.”
Humanity. “Be yourself. Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not. Your product, finally, is you. Don’t lose that person by putting on airs (acting better than you are), trying to sound superior (better than someone else).”
One of the most useful words you can learn in English is “OK” (also spelled “okay”). It can be used for many things.
It is probably used most often to mean agreement – that you agree with someone:
Jeff: Let’s leave work early today and not tell the boss.
It’s also used to acknowledge that you heard or understood something:
Jeff: We’ll need to record 60 more scripts before the end of the day.
In one of its most confusing usages, OK can indicate the quality of something. It can be used to mean that something is good enough or acceptable.
Lucy: This cheese is old, but there isn’t much mold (furry green and black stuff that grows on old food) on it. I think it’s OK to eat.
Jeff: I think I’m going somewhere else for lunch.
Or, in contrast, it is used to say that something is just so-so or not very good in quality, something mediocre. When used in this way, we often include the word “just” before it.
Lucy: What do you think of my singing?
Jeff: It’s just OK. You might consider taking up (starting as a hobby) dance instead.
There are even more ways to use OK, but these are perhaps the most common.
Considering how much Americans rely on the word “OK,” it’s surprising how much disagreement there is on its origin (where it came from). In fact, there are many theories (explanations or guesses based on information), and some people think we still don’t know. But one man spent many years trying to find out and thought he found the answer.
Allen Read, who died in 2002, was an English professor at Columbia University in New York City. He studied the English language for over 30 years, and while he wrote and published several books and many articles about many different aspects of American English, he always returned to the question of where “OK” got its start.
Some people believed that the term OK came from the name of a brand of cracker (thin, crisp food usually eaten with cheese or other foods) the U.S. government supplied (gave) to the Union or northern soldiers during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Others believed that it came from the name of a key (something you press on a machine so something will happen) – called an “Open Key” – on a telegraph machine, a machine used in the old days to send messages through wire. Both of these explanations were possible, in Read’s view, but then he came across (found) an even earlier mention of OK.
In an 1839 Boston newspaper, Morning Post, Read saw a satirical article about bad spelling. (Satire is the use of humor to show people’s mistakes or stupidity). “OK” was used in the phrase “Oll Korrect,” a misspelling of “All Correct.” Read believed that he had found the first use of OK and published an article in 1964 about his discovery.
Incidentally (in addition, although it is not directly related to what I’ve just said), you may also hear the term “A-OK.” A-OK means everything is fine, conditions are good, or there are no problems. This version of OK was first used by people involved in the space program (program for space travel), but became more generally used over time. Today, while it’s not very common in daily conversation, you may still hear it used occasionally.
OK, that’s all I have to say about “OK.” I hope that was an OK explanation and that you’re all A-OK!
Question: What’s the difference between capital and capitol?
Answer: I’ll answer this question with a little story.
In many American elementary schools (schools for children ages six to twelve), it’s very common for students to memorize the names of the U.S. state capitals. The capital of a state is the seat or home of that state’s government, where you will find the main government offices for that state. Here in California, the capital is Sacramento. Where I grew up, in Minnesota, the capital is St. Paul. Each of the 50 states has its own capital.
When I was in third grade (about eight years old), we had a contest (competition) in my school to see who could memorize all 50 state capitals the fastest. As soon as I heard about it, I thought, “Well, I have to win this contest!” So, I went home and I started memorizing the names of the state capitals.
After a week or so (approximately one week later), I went to the teacher and said, “I think I’m ready.” She gave me a piece of paper with the names of the states and I had to write the names of the capitals. I got them all correct, and won the contest. That victory (win) still stands as (still is) the greatest academic achievement of my career.
And what was the prize I received for being the first third grader to memorize the state capitals? One quarter – twenty-five cents.
Now, to make things even more confusing, there’s another related word, capitol, spelled with an “o.” Capitol is used to describe the building where part of the state government meets and has its offices (usually the part we call the legislative branch, the elected representatives). Each capital (city) has a capitol (building).
But wait! We’re not finished yet. You see, we can also say that building a capitol in a state’s capital requires a lot of capital.
This last use of capital refers to the amount of money you have to invest in or start a business, or just to do some large project. We use the same word, capital, for two different concepts – the seat of government and money to build or do something.
But perhaps these two meanings of capital aren’t so different after all. I mean, if you want to get elected so that you can work at the capitol in your state’s capital, you’re going to need a lot of capital.