Nuances in English: Ask, Inquire or Require?

March 20, 2008

What is the difference among “ask”, “inquire” and “require”? When do we use them? Can we use them interchangeably?

The questions above highlight a few interesting nuances in English. A nuance is a small way meanings change between words, even when they seem similar. Let’s take a look at these three words to see how they are similar and how they are different.

First, you should notice that “inquire” and “require” look and sound very familiar, while “ask” is a totally different word. This gives you a little insight into the history of English. There’s a lot to say about that topic, but you should know that “inquire” and “require” have Latin origins, while “ask” comes from Old English.

Almost 1000 years ago, English was mostly a mix of Northern European languages. Then, English was heavily influenced by French, which has its roots in Latin. As a result, modern English has a wide mix of origins, giving us many ways to say the same thing.

Today, we blend old and new words in Modern English without really thinking about it. But knowing about these different influences helps you make good choices when writing and speaking, as well as learning those tricky irregular spellings for verbs and plurals. They are really not irregular: they usually just come from the rules of Old English!

Generally speaking, words from Latin are a bit longer and can be broken down into parts, such as prefixes, suffixes and roots. For example, “inquire” and “require” share a common root, which is “quire.” “Quire” comes from the Latin word relating to seeking or searching. The prefixes “in” and “re” change the meaning of each word in specific ways. In contrast, “ask” is a perfect example of an Old English word: short, flexible and packed with meaning.

All three words share the idea of requesting information or action, but they are used in different circumstances. “Ask” is the most flexible of the three, and you can use it in many different ways. It serves as both a transitive and intransitive verb, so you can ask someone to do something, ask for the bill, ask around or ask to leave. “Inquire” means to request information. It also can be transitive or intransitive, so you can inquire about the weather, inquire why they are leaving or inquire after his mother (checking on her health). “Require” means to need or to demand (ask someone strongly). It is only transitive, so you need an object each time. You can require some new supplies or require her to finish on time.

Now that you know the meanings of each word, knowing when to and how to use these words is often harder for language learners. The verb “ask” can actually be used in most in almost all of these examples above, while the Latin-based words “inquire” and “require” are used for specific circumstances. A guideline is to understand that English speakers often perceive Latin- or Greek-based words as being more precise and more sophisticated, especially in writing. However, students can use these words too much and their language can sound unnatural. Just stay clear and simple and you will quickly learn when to add more colorful words for effect.

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Apostrophes in English: Millers’ Store or Miller’s Store

March 20, 2008

Some people get confused with apostrophes. There are a lot of puzzling rules which are not easy to remember. If the Millers family owned a store, would it be right to say “Millers’ Store” or “Miller’s Store”?

But don’t worry! Apostrophes do cause a lot of confusion for everyone. In fact, even native speakers make mistakes.

First, remember that apostrophes have two uses: (1) to show possession and (2) to form contractions. Words such as “don’t” and “can’t” are contractions. A contraction is two common words put together to form one word – for example “Don’t” is short for “do not” and “can’t” is short for “can not.” Apostrophe is also used for a contraction of a set of numbers – for example ’60 simply means 1960. In contraction, one or more letters or numbers is omitted and the apostrophe shows this omission. Here are some examples:
can’t = can not
I’m = I am
he’ll = he will
where’s = where is

Contractions are easy to use and make these common words faster to write and to say. However, just keep in mind that contractions are not appropriate for academic papers or in official documents. It is only common in speaking and in informal writing.

Many non-native speakers confuse its and it’s. Remember that “its” is a possessive, which we will discuss later, and “it’s” is a contraction of “it is.”

Our example about the Millers family deals with possessives – not contractions. Possessives show ownership, such as Tom’s car, teacher’s desk or Japan’s leaders. To form a possessive noun, you use an apostrophe and an s (–‘s).

The reason why the Millers family example causes confusion is because of plurals. As many of us probably know, plural means more than one, while singular means just one. When plural words end in –s, forming the possessive becomes confusing.

Generally, you put an apostrophe then –s (‘s) at the end of a singular word to show possession. If the singular word ends in –s already, such as glass, then many people will add the –‘s to form glass’s, as in the glass’s rim. But don’t be surprised if you also see cases where people don’t add an extra –s. For some people, having the extra –s is too much. For example, people disagree about the possessive form of Chris. For some it is Chris’s and for others it’s Chris’. Personally, if I find a case like this, I prefer Chris’s since it reflects how it is pronounced.

This only applies to cases where the letter –s is used at the end, not the sound /s/ that can be spelled with –ce at the end – as in terrace. Then you would add the ‘s to make terrace’s every time.

Now, for plurals the situation is a little bit different. Since most plural words already end in –s, we don’t add another –s after the possession apostrophe. For example, cars become cars’, books become books’ and houses become houses’.

But you do add an –s when the plural does not end in –s. For example: children (plural) will become children’s (possessive).

For our example, I would rather to assume that Millers’ is the correct form. Miller is a common family name, and the store would be owned by the family collectively, so they would use the plural form. Then, to make it possessive, they add the apostrophe without an extra –s since it is plural already: Millers’ Store.

I suggest you look at real world examples. You will quickly see some variation even among native speakers. This shows how language is always a little fluid, changing with the preferences and educational cultures of the speakers. As English is used by native and non-native speakers worldwide, you can expect variety and disagreement about the rules to keep things interesting.

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Rule for Capitalizing Job Title

March 20, 2008

In English, people tend to capitalize a person’s title but not the job they do every day. When people give out name cards to each other at business meetings or social events, usually there is a job title next to the name. This way you know what role the person plays in the organization. This title would be capitalized. It’s considered a sort of second name for the person. For example:
Jane Smith
Director of Human Resources
Acme, Inc.

You could also expect to see a job capitalized if the word appears before a person’s name, in a sentence such as: “At yesterday’s seminar, Director of Human Resources Jane Smith gave a presentation about interviewing strategies.”

In contrast, when we speak about jobs in general, we generally do not capitalize the words. So, for example, you can speak about accountants, receptionists, company vice presidents and so on without using upper case letters. Even in the example above, if you put Jane Smith’s title after her name, then you do not need to capitalize the job – as in this example: “At yesterday’s seminar, Jane Smith, the human resources director, gave a presentation about interviewing strategies.

The main thing to remember is that jobs are capitalized when they act more like a name than a general word for a job category. You can see this in the following examples:
I want to see Doctor Harris.
You really should see a doctor.
Did you see Governor Thomas on the news?
She voted for Thomas, the state’s governor.
He just spoke to the Prime Minister.
The president lives in the White House.

Find a newspaper in English in print or online, and take a look at some of the front page news stories, especially ones related to business. You will see several examples of job titles that are capitalized and job types that are not. As always, finding real world examples will help you see the patterns and help you make decisions for yourself in no time at all.

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Odd and Creative Ways to Memorize Vocabulary

March 20, 2008

Every time I give my students English homework, they really study hard. But it seems like the day after, they have already forgotten all the words. So here I come out with a good way of remembering vocabulary.

A few people are really great at remembering everything they see. The rest of us have to practice and come up with creative ways to make sure that what we learn doesn’t disappear when we wake up.

Everyone has different ways to remember details: people’s faces, phone numbers, street names, songs, you name it! You may often hear that some people learn better by remembering what they see, while others remember what they hear. Still others remember best when they actually do something. You will learn what works best for you as you try out some new strategies for learning vocabulary.

If you are the type that remembers faces and names well, then try a few of these tricks:
– Make flashcards with the word on one side and a picture of the word or concept on the other.
– Study the pages where new words appear and try remember where on the page they are and what other ideas they are near.
– Write the words out and just look at the shape of the words: the length, the letters, the word parts (like prefixes and suffixes). This will help your spelling as well as helping you recognize it in the future.
– Look for examples of the words in daily life, through the internet, billboards, magazines or just walking around. You’ll be surprised at how often words appear in other countries and how much you already know.
– Pay attention to the frequency of the word: it’s probably more useful if you see it a lot.
– Create groups of new words: sort them by meaning, spelling, familiarity, difficulty, etc.

If you can remember the words to a song you learned when you were five, then take the audio approach and give these a try:
– Record your voice saying the words out loud. Moving your mouth and hearing the noises helps your memory. Go further and speak whole sentences using the words.
– Speak the words in your head and play with their form: try plurals or different tenses. A real key to language learning is finding patterns to help you make new words from ones you already know.
– Listen for words that you’re learning in other media like TV, radio, movies or even among friends or tourists. Give yourself a pat on the back when you identify ones you are trying to learn. It is amazing how much there is right there in front of you that you already know.
– Make comparisons with your native language. What does the new word sound like to you? The meaning will likely be totally different, but if it’s a funny image in your head, you’ll be sure to remember it.

These are just a few suggestions to get you going. The more methods you use, the more you reinforce the words in your mind. Be sure to play games to test yourself to see if you can remember your newly-learned words. Remember, finding patterns and associations between words will make your English even stronger. To remember new words you need to take them out of storage and use them often. They need fresh air, just like you!

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© 2008 EF English First. All rights reserved.

Writing Essays in English for University Admissions Committee

March 20, 2008

This article will help you tackle an issue that many of you are facing: writing an English-language essay for a university application. While most students have practiced writing in English in school, many of them have not learned how to write English in an academic style. In this article, I would like to share some tips with you to help you ace the essay!

Your “style” means how you choose and organize words. Writing styles are different around the world, so you may need to organize your thoughts differently when writing for the university admissions committee. They will expect your style to be clear, direct, organized and to the point. In other words you have to have an option and stick to it. This is quite different from traditional writing styles in Asia, where very often you are expected to explore all perspectives and avoid confrontation, sometimes delaying your thesis (or main idea) until the very end. In addition, Asians may even criticize their own opinion. This approach will likely to be confusing to the native English speaker.

In most case, you will be given a specific topic to write about and a target length. Follow these and any other instruction carefully. Plan your essay by creating an outline: a list of the main ideas for each paragraph. The easiest formula to follow has five paragraphs, each with one focused idea and several examples clarifying the main point:

1. Introduction: tell the reader what you are going to write about in general, including mention of each of the main ideas for the next 3 paragraphs.
2. Body paragraph 1: give your first main idea with supporting examples.
3. Body paragraph 2: preset a second idea that you can also buck up with details.
4. Body paragraph 3: give your third and final idea with even more information.
5. Conclusion: mention all three main ideas again concluding the general idea you talk about in the Introduction.

Try to balance the length of each of these paragraphs, using a similar number of sentences, but with different lengths for variety. You must absolutely pay attention to your grammar, spelling and punctuation. Every period and comma matters!

Thousand of people apply to universities each year, so you can imagine how many essays have to be read. The committee wants students who are not only prepared to study at this level, but also those who will fit into the environment and make a successful contribution. You should have an opinion and a very clear individual voice of your own. In other words, you won’t offend anyone by contradicting an accepted idea or being unique and creative; in fact, you will be listened to and remembered. And that is the key: impressing the university committee with your original ideas so they think of you when deciding who gets in that year.

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Living English: How English Evolves

March 20, 2008

English is always changing. Millions of people around the world speak English. Every day, people form new words for innovations in music, technology or sport. Longer words are shortened or acronyms become common. Teenagers have fun with language and create new words. Old words stop being used. As the world changes, so does English! How can you keep up? Read more about how English evolves.

Slang

Slang is a nonstandard English expression. You cannot find slang in formal writing or speech, but people use slang everyday. Some slang does not last very long. Some slang is only used by a small group of people. But in order to understand English movies, TV shows or conversations at work or with friends, it is very important to understand and use slang. Listen for slang and use it in your everyday speech.

Different slang is used by different groups. Here are a few examples:
– American slang: “What’s up, dude?”
– British slang: “Alright?”
– Australian slang: “G’day, mate!”
– Universal slang: “How’s it going?”

Idioms

An idiom is a phrase whose meaning is different from its literal meaning. Many foreign students try to learn idioms. But many idioms get old and people don’t use them anymore. Old or inappropriate idioms sound very strange. Only use idioms you hear and ask a native speaker if you are unsure.

New Words

When does a word become a word? If a word is used for a long time and by a lot of people, you can find it in a dictionary. Since Merriam-Webster first published its Collegiate Dictionary in 1898, at least 100,000 words have been added. In 2005, the new edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was published. The dictionary had more than 100 new words.

It usually takes about ten years for a new word to be in a dictionary. Why? First, because new dictionaries are not printed often. Most dictionaries, like the Oxford English Dictionary, have an online version. New words can be found in online dictionaries before they can be printed. For example, words like “internet”, “chat room” and “browser” were in the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary years before they were in print.

Who decides what is in a dictionary? Teams of researchers spend time every day reading magazines, websites, novels, speeches and newspapers to look for new words. Every time they see a new word, they write down the word and its meaning. If a word is being used often and for a long time, they can add it to their online dictionary. Next time they print a new dictionary, they include the new word.

New words in the 2005 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary:
– Brain freeze (noun): when you eat ice cream too fast and get a headache.
– SARS (noun): an infectious lung disease.
– Chick flick (noun): a movie only girls like.
– Cybrarian (noun): a person who finds, collects and manages information that is available on the Internet.

How Can You Keep Up?

Are you afraid English is going to run away from you? First of all, don’t worry – there are many aspects of English that don’t change. Secondly, just remember these tips:
1. Keep Listening: Listen to the English around you. Listen to English radio, watch English movies and listen to native speakers
2. Keep Talking: Talk to people! The more you talk, the more natural your English will sound.
3. Be Flexible: If you hear something new, ask a friend or teacher. Don’t be afraid to try new words and phrases!

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© 2008 EF English First. All rights reserved.

Funny Facts about the English Language

March 20, 2008

So you think you now everything? Look at these funny facts about the English language.

• ‘Stewardesses’ is the longest word typed on a keyboard with only the left hand and ‘lollipop’ with your right.
• No word in the English language rhymes with ‘month’, ‘orange’, ‘silver’ or ‘purple’.
• ‘Dreamt’ is the only English word that ends in the letters ‘mt’.
• The sentence: ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ uses every letter of the alphabet.
• The words ‘racecar’, ‘kayak’ and ‘level’ can be read from left to right or right to left.
• There are only four words in the English language which end in ‘dous’, which are: ‘tremendous’, ‘horrendous’, ‘stupendous’ and ‘hazardous’.
• There are two words in the English language that have all five vowels in order (a, e, I, o, u): ‘abstemious’ and ‘facetious’.
• ‘Typewriter’ is the longest word that can be made using the letters on one row of a keyboard.

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Reasons to Learn English: Why English?

March 19, 2008

You have many excuses for not improving your English: you’re too busy, it’s too hard or you’ll never need. But you’re wrong! Read why English is important for you (and anyone else)!

Make more friends
If you can speak English, you can talk to over 1.5 billion people around the world. That’s a lot of friends! One in four people speak some English and more are learning. You can chat online, write to pen pals or travel the world – using one language!

Advance your career
Most international business is conducted in English. If you want a management job in a multinational company, you will probably need to speak English. And English is not only important for business people. The technology, aviation, diplomacy and tourism fields also use English.

Ask for directions in 75 countries
English is the official language or has special status in 75 countries and is spoken in 100. It’s the international language for business, academics, sports, science, technology, advertising and diplomacy. Learn English and go anywhere, do anything!

Access more media
Many books, magazines and newspapers are available only in English. And many non-English books are translated into English. If you can read English, you’ll have many more books to choose from.

Unlock the internet
You may think many websites are translated into local language, but eighty percent of electronic information is actually only in English. If you don’t know English, you can’t read over a billion pages of the internet!

Be a scientist
The world’s scientists use English to talk with each other. Scientific conferences are conducted in English and most research is published in English. Over two-thirds of the world’s scientists read in English.

Pursue overseas opportunities
There are thousands of international study, work and volunteer programs all over the world. But many are not available to non-English speakers. Worlds of opportunity open when you can speak English.

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March 11, 2008

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