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Archive for the 'Language & Terms' Category

Tuesday - May 19, 2015

Writing In English As A Second Language

Zinsser_CasualTwo 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).”

If you want to read more of Zinsser’s suggestions for writing in English, read Learning to write – in English on my web site. And if you’d like to learn more about writing from him, consider getting his book On Writing Well.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of Successful English, where you’ll find clear explanations and practical suggestions for better English.

Photo of William Zinsser from his website.

Tuesday - January 20, 2015

We’re OK, A-OK.

1024px-OK-button_-_Macro_photography_of_a_remote_controlOne 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.
Lucy: OK!

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.
Lucy: OK.

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!

– Lucy

Photo Credit: from Wikipedia

Tuesday - December 9, 2014

A Capital’s Capitol Requires a Lot of Capital

Capitol_Hill_and_Reflecting_PoolQuestion: 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.


Photo credit: Capitol Hill and Reflecting Pool, Wikipedia

Tuesday - December 2, 2014

He’s THAT Guy

640px-Guy_Fawkes_effigy_by_William_Warby_from_FlickrIf you speak to an American, before long (very soon) you’ll probably hear him or her use the word “guy.” That’s because we use it all the time in conversation.

When the noun is singular — “guy” — it’s used to refer to a man.

“What is that guy doing over there?”
“While waiting for her friends at the cafe, Shayla met a guy named Liam.”

When it’s plural — “guys” — it can be used either to mean more than one man, as in:

“Do you think there are more guys who are fans of football than women?”
“Can you get a group of strong guys to help us move this piano?”

Or, “guys” can mean more than one person of any sex — men or women, boys or girls:

“Okay guys, we need to finish this project this afternoon or else we’ll have to work over the weekend.”
“Do you guys want to come over to watch a movie tonight?”

There is some debate about whether “guys” can be used for a group of all girls or all women, though I would not hesitate to use it this way and would not be surprised or feel strange to hear others use it this way.  To make sure this isn’t a gender (men/women) difference in usage, I asked Jeff and he agreed.  He would use the term “guys” with a group of all girls or women. too.

This usage of “guy” can be confusing for English learners, but you’ll hear the word used all the time by Americans. Surprisingly, though, the origins of the word may have darker (unhappy; unpleasant) beginnings.

Some people believe that the word “guy” has it origins (beginnings) in the name Guy Fawkes. In England in 1605, Guy Fawkes and his conspirators (people who shared a secret plan) attempted to assassinate (kill, usually an important person) the English king at the time, King James I. The plan did not succeed and Guy Fawkes was captured (caught).

To this day, on November 5th of each year, England celebrates the foiling (ruining) of this plan by burning an effigy (likeness; rough model of a person) of Guy Fawkes and having fireworks (explosions of lights in the sky) and bonfires (large, open fires, usually for entertainment or celebration). The word “guy,” over time, became a derogatory (insulting) slang word for a man, especially a poorly dressed one.

At some point, the term made its way (traveled) to the United States, and over time, lost its negative connotation (association) and became a general term for men or people. I would bet that most Americans do not know or suspect (guess) that there is any connection between this ubiquitous (found everywhere) term and a 17th century English plot (secret plan to do harm).

– Lucy

Photo Credit: From Wikipedia

Tuesday - October 7, 2014

Headline English: A Captain Should Be Pitch Perfect at a Multitude of Skills

icon_5360Here’s a recent headline from the Financial Times:

A Captain Should be Pitch Perfect at a Multitude of Skills

This headline is for an article that compares the game of cricket, popular in Great Britain and other countries, to the world of baseball. But there are lots of interesting things we can learn from it.

Let’s start with captain. A captain is a leader in the military (such as the army and navy), but we also use that term for someone who is the leader of a sports team. Sports vocabulary is also very popular in the American business world. So in business, a captain would be a leader, usually of a company.

There’s an old expression, “the captains of industry,” meaning the business leaders of a country.

The next interesting term here is “pitch perfect.” The word pitch has two different meanings here, and the headline is using both to make a little joke, what we would call word play or play on words. To pitch (as a verb) means to throw a ball, like a player in the game of cricket or baseball might do. But pitch (as a noun) refers to the musical note that a person can sing.

In music, to be “pitch perfect” means to always be able to sing the “right” or correct note, or to recognize it when you hear it. (And, to make things even more confusing, “pitch” as a noun is also used in British English to refer to what Americans would call the “field,” the area where a sport is played.)

However, in normal conversation, pitch perfect means to do or say exactly the right thing, to be perfectly accurate and effective in what you say or do, or to say something with just the right tone or mood.

Juliana: Did you hear John’s explanation of why we lost 200 million dollars last quarter?

George: Yes. I thought his explanation was pitch perfect. The investors seemed to be less nervous after his talk.

I should also add that “pitch” as a verb can also be used to mean to attempt to convince someone to accept your proposal, to buy what you are selling, whether it is a physical object, a service, or even an idea. Pitch can also be a noun meaning the act or process of selling or convincing.

Gustavo: I have a great new idea for a movie.

Justin: How are you going to pitch it to the movie studios?

Gustavo: I’ll just give them the story idea. You see, there’s a planet full of sharks who are as big as dinosaurs and then they start to eat people and . . .

Justin: Okay, I’ve heard enough (I don’t want to hear any more)!

The final word of interest here is “multitude.” Business vocabulary in English is filled with polysyllabic words (words that have more than one syllable; poly means “many”) that are used even though you could say the same thing with a shorter, easier word. I guess people think that if you use long words, you are smarter than if you use short ones.

Multitude is a good example of a polysyllabic word that people use to impress their colleagues. It just means a large group or number, or simply, “many.” Normally, we use the preposition “of” after multitude, as in a “multitude of skills.”

Leo: This project has a multitude of problems, doncha (informal for “don’t you”) think?

Kevin: No more than all of our other projects!

So, to sum it all up (to review or summarize what we just said): this headline says that if you are a leader of a team or company, you need to be able to do lots of things really well. But you probably knew that already, right?


Image Credit: The Noun Project

Tuesday - May 27, 2014

“Pocket Dialing” Disasters

400px-Mobile_phone_evolutionPocket dialing — also called “pocket calling,” “butt dialing,” or “butt calling”  (with “butt” referring to the part of the body you sit on) — is when you accidentally make a phone call using your cell phone because you sit or place your phone in your pocket or purse (handbag that women carry) so that the speed-dial (with one number on the keypad (area where the numbers appear on a phone) programmed with a phone number for faster dialing) is hit. When you receive a butt call, you typically hear background noise or a conversation you weren’t meant to (intended to) hear.

That’s what happened last November to Larry Barnet, a 68-year-old man from Arkansas.  Barnet was speaking with another man and plotting (making plans for) the murder (killing) of a former employee when he made a butt call to the intended victim (person meant to be harmed). The intended victim quickly realized they were plotting his death. The victim listened to the 90-minute conversation, including Barnet telling the other man to do whatever he needed to do to kill him, but to be sure to make it look like an accident. The intended victim later went to the police and the police came to his house. The police found that the victim’s house had been burglarized (with items stolen) and the gas stove tampered with (damaged or changed so that it would not work properly). Barnet was charged (officially said to have committed a crime) with conspiracy (making a secret plan with others) to commit murder.

And in 2012, a Pennsylvania man, Justin Kryzanowski, was speaking with a drug dealer (seller of illegal drugs) when he made a butt call to the police. The police recorded the entire transaction (business deal) and traced (found the source) of the call. The police searched Kryzanowski’s apartment, found drugs and weapons, and arrested him (taken by the police).

The moral (lesson) of the story is: If you must plan a murder or make drug buys (buy illegal drugs), buy a flip phone.

Have you ever made or received a butt call?

– Lucy

 Photo Credit: Mobile phone evolution from Wikipedia

Tuesday - January 28, 2014

Y’all Going to a Yard Sale to Buy Some Tennis Shoes?

Reebok_NPC_ArgyleOne of the difficulties in learning a second language is the fact that, in most languages, there are different words for the same concept or idea. People in the United States, for example, often use different words to describe the same thing, depending on where they live. Most Americans know the meanings of these different words even if they don’t use them themselves, but these variations can be very confusing for a non-native speaker (someone who didn’t grow up speaking the language).

For example, the photo you see here is a pair of shoes that have rubber soles (bottoms) on them, usually used for athletic events or exercise. What are they called? In most states in the U.S., they are called “tennis shoes,” even though we use them for more than playing the sport of tennis. However, if you live in the northeastern part of the U.S., in a region called New England, they’re called “sneakers.” Oh, and if you live in Chicago  or Cincinnati (both in the Midwest), you would call them “gym shoes” (gym stands for gymnasium, a place indoors (inside a building) where people play sports). Same shoes, three different terms.

Figuring out (discovering) these variations in language use has become much easier with the Internet. Linguists can ask people from different parts of the country what they call various items, and then map these differences and see which words are used in which region or area.

A couple of researchers at Harvard University collected responses (answers) to dozens of questions on language use from more than 350,000 Americans last year. Here are some of the things they found:

  • A large motor vehicle used to carry freight (goods (things to be sold) moved from one place to another) (see photo below) is called either a “semi” or a “semi-truck” in most parts of the U.S. (the “i”of “semi” is long, pronounced like “eye”). But if you live in Louisiana (in the central, southern U.S.), you would call it an “18-wheeler” (the number of wheels that many of these trucks have). And in New England, they’re know as “tractor-trailors.”


  • When you have a sale of old things you want to get rid of at your house, you would call that a “garage sale” in large parts of the U.S., including the central regions of the country (a garage is an enclosed (with walls and a ceiling) area to keep your car). In most eastern states, “yard sale” is the preferred term, except in western Massachusetts and Connecticut, where it is called a “tag sale” (a tag is normally a small piece of paper that has the price of the thing being sold). In the West, both “yard sale” and “garage sale” are used, depending on which city you’re in. Here in Los Angeles, most people would call it a “garage sale,” but in Tucson, Arizona, 500 miles west of here, it’s more commonly called a “yard sale.” “Yard sale” is popular in Salt Lake City (Utah) and Fresno (central California), but “garage sale” is used in San Francisco, Seattle (Washington), and Portland (Oregon).
  • One of the clearest and easiest differences to detect (notice) in American dialects (different ways of speaking the same language) is the term used to address or get the attention of a group of two or more people. In the South (which is actually the southeastern part of the U.S., including Texas), the term is “y’all.” In every other part of the U.S., it is “you guys” (“guys” here meaning both males and females). If you meet someone who says “y’all,” you can be pretty sure he or she is from the South.

Sometimes dialectical differences are found in one small area of the country. In Minnesota, for example, you say “you betcha” to indicate that you agree with the other person, or simply as an informal way of saying “yes.”  In other places in the U.S.,  you would probably say “you bet” or “sure.”

Is all of this very confusing? You betcha!


Photo credits: Athletic Shoe, Woolworth’s Truck

Tuesday - September 17, 2013

“Don’t be an Indian Giver”

725px-Fort_Nez_Perces_Trading_1841One of the most offensive (insulting) phrases that Americans still use today is, “Don’t be an Indian giver.” This refers to the idea that Indians (“Native American” is the term we use most often today) give gifts and then take them back. You may hear children calling their playmates (children they play with) “Indian givers” if they argue and take back toys they’ve shared or traded, and you may even hear the phrase in the media (such as newspapers and TV news) when talking about a divorcing couple where one side wants its expensive gifts back. This phrase is rooted (based) in negative and offensive stereotypes (images or beliefs about an entire group that are usually untrue) about Native Americans and it may have all started with a cultural misunderstanding.

When white explorers (people who travel to a place few have traveled to before) such as Lewis and Clark, two of the first people to travel to what is now the western part of the United States, met Native Americans for the first time, Lewis and Clark were offered gifts. When the explorers, and later the white settlers (people who move to a place where few people live), were given gifts by Native Americans, they may have thought, “Oh, that’s nice. They’re giving me a present.”

However, from the Native American’s point of view, they weren’t just doing something nice to welcome a new visitor. They were doing business, the business of trading. They were bartering, which is when you give something of value to someone in exchange for something of value in return (not money).

For the whites, a gift was a gift. You don’t have to give anything in return, at least not immediately, and personal gift-giving was not mixed with business trading. The two were entirely different things.

To the Native Americans, they were beginning a business transaction, with the expectation that they would get something in return of value. When they did not, they did what any business trader would do: they took back their “gift.”

By doing this, the Native Americans, from the whites’ point of view, were being deceptive (saying something but doing something else). To the Native Americans, the whites were not holding up their end (doing what is expected or required) of the business deal. That’s the cultural misunderstanding a recent National Public Radio story explains is at the root of (underlying; behind) this phrase.

Are you aware of any cultural misunderstandings that have given rise to (started; been the source of) terms or phrases people use today to describe different people or groups?

— Lucy
Image Credit: Fort Nez Perces Trading 1841 from Wikipedia
Tuesday - September 10, 2013

Headline English: A Modest Step Toward a Grand Bargain

Peaceful_ResolutionLet’s talk about a business headline today. This one comes from a recent issue of Bloomberg Magazine, one of the largest business magazines in the United States. Here’s the headline:

A Modest Step Toward a Grand Bargain

The news story is about the president of the United States trying to negotiate (work out; come to an agreement over) a deal (agreement) with Congress. In the U.S. political system, as you probably know, Congress is a group of elected representatives in charge of (responsible for) passing or approving laws. After Congress approves a new law, the president has to sign or agree to the law. (It doesn’t always work exactly that way, but that’s the normal process.)

Now, one of the problems that we have in our modern American economy is the same as in many economies: how much should people pay in taxes? That is, how much money should businesses and individuals have to pay the government for the government to do its job?

The headline is about negotiations between the president and Congress. It begins with the words “a modest step.” The adjective modest usually refers to a person who is humble, a person who doesn’t brag, a person who doesn’t like to talk about himself or herself. If someone compliments (says something nice about) a modest person, that person might say, “Oh no, that’s not really true. I’m not very good at that.”

In the headline, “modest” is used to mean something slightly different. It means a very small amount of something. In this case, we’re talking about how much progress is being made toward a certain goal. A step is normally a movement of your feet, moving one leg in front of the other to walk. You have to take steps in order to walk, but we also use that expression, “to take steps,” to mean to make progress, to do things.

So, a modest step is a small amount of progress toward some destination, some goal. The goal in this case is a grand bargain. The word bargain can have a couple of different meanings. One meaning for bargain is a good deal, a cheap price for something that you’re buying. But a bargain can also be an agreement. To make a bargain is to agree to do something. That’s the meaning that is used in the headline.

Finally, we come to the word grand. “Grand,” like modest and bargain, has a couple of different meanings. Here, it means something important, something large, something that is very complex and complicated that is going to solve a lot of different problems at once.

This phrase, “a grand bargain,” is actually quite common in American politics. You will see it in reading about American history, usually to describe how different political groups come to some agreement that solves a lot of  important problems.

In our story, the president and Congress are trying to come to a grand bargain about how much people should pay in taxes. I’m not sure how exactly it will all work out (what the specific result will be), but I’m guessing that whatever they agree to, it won’t be a bargain (good deal) for American taxpayers.


Photo credit: Peaceful Resolution by Nomadic Lass, Flickr CC

Thursday - August 29, 2013

Punctuation: A Matter of Life and Death

628px-Achtung.svgWe all know the importance of punctuation. Periods (.), commas (,), quotation marks (” “), semicolons (;), colons (:), question marks (?), and other punctuation marks in the English language give clarity (being clear, not confusing) and meaning to a phrase or a sentence.

On a recent airplane flight, I was reminding of just how important punctuation is in conveying (communicating) meaning. Before take-off (when the airplane leaves the ground) while waiting on the tarmac (road covered with a black material, like on an airplane runway), I took out one of the airline magazines to look at.

This magazine was actually a copy of Sky Mall, which is a catalogue (magazine with things to buy) that tries to sell things to passengers while they suffer from diminished capacity (with weakened mental powers) from having too little oxygen (substance in the air needed by humans to breathe) in the airplane.

Near the back of the magazine, I saw a picture of a T-shirt for sale that read:



If the T-shirt’s message isn’t clear, let me explain.

1) LET’S EAT GRANDMA:  We will bake Grandma in the oven or cook her on a barbeque and invite Dr. Hannibal Lecter to join us for dinner (from the movie Silence of the Lambs).

2) LET’S EAT, GRANDMA:  We want to enjoy Grandma’s company while we eat a meal together.

And, yes, in this case, commas save lives. I know which sentence Grandma thinks has the correct punctuation.

~ Lucy

Graphic Credit: Achtung from Wikipedia