Welcome to my English User Guides. These pages are formatted for your computer screen or iPad rather than the smartphone you carry with you everywhere. Sorry about that, but there is a good reason. Core English learning points are here presented in table form, with clear examples always in view alongside. Excessive scrolling up and down can thus be avoided, which should especially appeal to busy students preparing to sit exams.
Important terms are hyperlinked to their definitions elsewhere on the site, and in the British and American vocabulary glossaries words with differering meaning on either side of the Atlantic are cross-linked for quick comparison.
The color scheme of this 'no-template' website has also been kept simple, with good contrast throughout to make reading easier for all age groups. A recent increase in font size has further improved legibility on tablet devices.
After teaching English in Japan and Sweden for three decades, and also studying various foreign languages, I have to say my approach to grammar is a rather traditional one. I remain convinced that — just as with safe driving — language acquisition and effective communication are helped along by some basic rules of the road.
So there it is then. Whether you are a native speaker of English or a non-native learner, I trust you will find something of interest. Send in any comments here, and thank you for today's visit!
May 17, 2022 | David Appleyard
Suicidal poets 'leave behind clues in their writing'
American researchers have discovered that the words of poets who later commit suicide show a clear tendency toward disengagement from others. This is exemplified by a marked preference in their writing for self-references such as first person singular forms (I, me, and my). In contrast, it seems non-suicidal poets tend to make greater use of the first person plural (we, us and our), as well as communication words such as talk, share and listen. Not surprisingly, they also include fewer death-related words than their suicidal counterparts.
The study, conducted by Shannon Wiltsey Stirman of the University of Pennsylvania and James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas in Austin, was first presented back in 2001 in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine under the title Word Use in the Poetry of Suicidal and Non-suicidal Poets.
These researchers conclude that although, of course, most poets do not take their own lives, they appear to do so more often than other categories of writer or, for that matter, the population as a whole. In such tragic cases there is frequently a history of mental depression, signs of which can now be identified in the individual poet's writing.
British, American and Russian poets were selected for the survey, with suicidal and non-suicidal poets being paired off as closely as possible by nationality, educational background and gender.
John Berryman, Hart Crane, Sergei Esenin, Adam L. Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Sarah Teasdale were chosen as examples of suicidal poets. These were matched with the non-suicidal poets Matthew Arnold, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Alfred Joyce Kilmer, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Adrienne Rich and Edna St Vincent Millay.
May 10, 2022 | David Appleyard
Children still need to master handwriting skills
Despite our ever-increasing dependence on computers, tablets and smartphones, children's capacity to write clearly and legibly with more traditional tools can play a decisive role in how well they manage in school exams. If words fail to flow from their pens, they may not be able to get down all that they know within the time allowed and perhaps lose vital points. Further marks will be lost if there is no clear distinction between letters which look alike, such as o and a, v and u, or m and nn.
Clear handwriting involves the eyes as much as the hands, so both must work in harmony. Just as when we learn to play the piano, the many fine muscles of the hand need to be strengthened, something only achieved through plenty of practice. Every opportunity should therefore be given for children to write things down — and preferably on a daily basis.
A key point to bear in mind is that they themselves should feel there is a purpose in what they are doing — they will soon get tired of repetitive exercises only aimed at improving certain strokes. One good idea is to let them keep a diary to be filled in at bedtime. Another suggestion is to have them write shopping lists when food items run out.
The advice of experts on the subject is sometimes age-specific. When older kids draw pictures they should be encouraged to make less use of "undemanding" marker pens and greater use of crayons and colored pencils. For very young children, practice sessions need to be kept relatively short because their delicate hand muscles and movements need more time to develop.
Lasting benefit is sure to come if emphasis is placed on the regularity of practice sessions rather than their duration. Just be sure to make them fun!
May 3, 2022 | David Appleyard
1,500 languages in safekeeping for 10,000 years
Carved in 196 BC in Egyptian and Greek using hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek scripts, the Rosetta Stone has helped the modern world unlock some of the mysteries of ancient Egypt.
Named after the village of Rosetta (or Rashid), where it was first discovered by French soldiers in 1799, its inscriptions are tributes of a council of priests to a 13-year-old pharaoh, Ptolemy V Epiphanes.
After years of arduous study and careful comparison with other surviving samples of Egyptian writing, French researcher Jean-François Champollion managed to decipher the hieroglyphs in 1822. The language of one of the great ancient civilizations was thereby saved for posterity.
Now our modern-day researchers are warning that anything between 50 and 90 per cent of the world's 6,800 or so remaining languages could die out within the next century. Two decades ago a growing sense of urgency led The Long Now Foundation to embark on an ambitious project to safeguard basic documentation of as many of today's languages as possible for 10,000 years into the future. This it aimed to achieve by recording sufficient data for at least token representation of each language on an "extreme longevity nickel disk" to be mounted in a robust but aesthetically pleasing spherical container. It was envisaged that a large number of these "Rosetta Disks" would eventually be held by key institutions and project members around the world, and anyone else willing to look after a copy.
According to information previously gathered, the Rosetta Project is to be complemented by a "single-volume monumental reference book," as well as an online database into which the public is invited to submit the following seven items deemed by the foundation to be of greatest value to future researchers:
- Detailed language descriptions (origin, number of speakers, distribution, etc.)
- Translations of chapters 1–3 of the Book of Genesis (because these are thought to be the most widely and carefully translated texts in the world)
- Culturally specific glossed vernacular texts with grammar analysis
- Orthography and pronunciation guides
- Core vocabulary lists
- Phoneme inventories
- Audio files
The Rosetta Project has come a long way with its online database. It now purports to be the largest collection of linguistic data on the Internet, providing lasting documentation of some 1,500 languages.
How to benefit from ambiguity
Robert J. Thornton, professor of economics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA., was feeling frustrated about one of the worst occupational hazards of being a teacher—that of having to write letters of recommendation for people with dubious qualifications. In an attempt to address the problem he decided to put together an arsenal of statements that can be read two ways, and he called his collection the Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations—or LIAR for short.
LIAR may be used to offer a negative opinion of the personal qualities, work habits or motivation of the candidate, while allowing the candidate to believe that (s)he is being praised to high heaven. Peruse the following examples and you will soon get the hang of it:
- When called upon for an opinion of a
friend who is extremely lazy, just say:
"You will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you."
- To describe a person who is totally
"I most enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever."
- To describe an ex-employee who had
problems getting along with fellow workers:
"I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine."
- To describe a
candidate who is so unproductive that the job would be better left
"I can assure you that no person would be better for the job."
- To describe a job applicant who is not worth further
"I would urge you to waste no time in making this candidate an offer of employment."
- To describe a person with
"All in all, I cannot say enough good things about this candidate or recommend him too highly."
Thornton points out that LIAR is not only useful in preserving friendships but it can also help avoid serious legal trouble in a time when laws have eroded the confidentiality of letters of recommendation.
In most American states, he notes, job applicants have the right to read the letters of recommendation, and can even file a suit against the writer if the contents are too negative. When the writer uses LIAR, however, "whether perceived correctly or not by the candidate, the phrases are virtually litigation-proof."
Professor Thornton's book first appeared back in October 2003 and is published in paperback by Sourcebooks Hysteria at a list price of $14.99.
How to write right
Tongue-in-cheek advice from Frank L. Visco
- Avoid alliteration. Always.
- Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
- Avoid clichés like the plague. (They're old hat.)
- Employ the vernacular.
- Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
- Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary (and in poor taste).
- It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
- Contractions aren't necessary and shouldn't be used.
- Foreign words and phrases are not apropos; in toto.
- One should never ever generalize.
- Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
- Comparisons are as bad as clichés.
- Don't be redundant; don't use more words than
necessary; it is highly superfluous;
be concise and understandable. Do not repeat yourself in any case.
- Vulgarity is damned well unappreciated.
- Be more or less specific whenever possible.
- Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earthshaking ideas.
- One word sentences? Eliminate.
- Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
- The passive voice is to be avoided.
- Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
- Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
- Who needs rhetorical questions?
- Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
- If you cant spel gud then at least write right. Right?
How punctuation can define relationships
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours?
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
- Harness the power of punctuation with our Guide to Writing with Precision.
Ambiguous newspaper headlines
Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case
Survivor of Siamese Twins Joins Parents
Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
Stud Tires Out
Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
Eye Drops Off Shelf
Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim
Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Axe
Miners Refuse to Work after Death
Stolen Painting Found by Tree
Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge
Deer Kill 17,000
Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
Man Struck by Lightning Faces Battery Charge
New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft
Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
Arson Suspect is Held in Massachusetts Fire
Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
New Vaccine May Contain Rabies
Steals Clock, Faces Time
Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors
Some Pieces of Rock Hudson Sold at Auction
Sex Education Delayed, Teachers Request Training
Include Your Children When Baking Cookies
Police Confirm Shotgun Attack on Bullet Train
Fake Cardiologist Breaks Woman's Heart
Seasoned Turkey Takes Stuffing Out of China
Virgin Celebrates First Mid-Air Birth
Last Settlers to Leave Gaza Strip
- Notice how many of these unfortunate ambiguities could have been avoided with better punctuation. In particular, more frequent use of commas and hyphens would clearly show which words belong together syntactically.
The English lesson
We'll begin with box, and the plural is boxes;
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a whole lot of mice,
But the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
Why couldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
But the plural of vow is vows, not vine.
And I speak of a foot, and you show me your feet,
But I give a boot — would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?
If the singular is this and plural is these,
Why shouldn't the plural of kiss be nicknamed kese?
Then one may be that, and three may be those,
Yet the plural of hat would never be hose;
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
The masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis, and shim!
So our English, I think you will all agree,
Is the trickiest language you ever did see.
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough, and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps
To learn of less familiar traps.
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead; it's said like bed, not bead;
For goodness sake, don't call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother.
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there's dose and rose and lose
— Just look them up — and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I've hardly made a start.
A dreadful language? Man alive,
I'd learned to speak it when I was five,
And yet to write it, the more I sigh,
I'll not learn how 'till the day I die.
- Before giving up altogether, seek solace in our Guide to English Spelling Rules.
wonder they say that English is difficult
We have to polish the Polish furniture.
To take the lead I must take the lead out of my shoes!
A farm can produce produce.
The dump was so full it had to refuse refuse.
The soldier found it hard to desert in the desert.
A good time to present the present is the present.
At the army base, a bass was painted on a bass drum.
The dove dove into the bushes.
I did not object to the object.
The insurance for the invalid was invalid.
The bandage was wound around the wound.
The first row of oarsmen had a row about how to row.
They were too close to the door to close it.
The buck does funny things when the does are present.
A sewer went down to stitch the tear in the sewer line.
To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
My jaw got number after a number of Novocain injections .
She shed a tear when she saw the tear in her skirt.
The researchers had to subject the subject to many tests.
How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
I spent all last evening evening out a pile of dirt.
- Then there are words that differ in their spelling but look similar enough to get mixed up.
Browse our list of English Words Often Confused.