Thursday, August 16, 2012

Explain THIS, Part 4

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist

Welcome back once more! In Part 3 we took a look at sentences, most of which show subtle but important differences or changes in meaning. In the first section below, I asked you to explain the differences in meaning between pairs of sentences. In the second section, I asked you to make any corrections you felt necessary and then, most importantly, think about how you would explain the corrections to your students in a clear, simple fashion. So here are my explanations and changes. Let’s see once again how similar our work is.

Section 1. What’s the difference between . . .

a. Mr. Spock is a character on Star Trek.

    Mr. Spock is a character in Star Trek.

Explanation: We say on Star Trek if we’re talking about the television series, but we say in Star Trek if we’re talking about the movies. It’s on a TV show, but in a movie.

b. Mr. van Straten is on the phone.

    A Mr. van Straten is on the phone.

Explanation: In the first sentence, the speaker knows the person who’s on the phone. But when the speaker doesn’t know the person on the phone, he/she communicates this to somebody else by placing the indefinite article before the title or the title and name. That’s what we see in the second sentence.

c. She’s going to have the baby.

     She’s going to have a baby.

Explanation: In the first sentence, it’s clear that the speaker and the listener(s) have been anticipating the birth of this baby. The use of the definite article signals this. In the second sentence, the use of the indefinite article communicates that the speaker is telling the listener some new information, that somebody they know is now pregnant.

 d. They have little money.

    They have a little money.

Explanation: When we use little + noun, as in the first sentence, there’s a negative implication. The person is saying that those people are pretty poor. When we say a little + noun, we’re talking about a small amount of something, but without that negative implication. That’s the subtle but important difference.

 e. Did you remember to do that?

    Did you remember doing that?

Explanation: It’s curious how we use what follows remember. If we use an infinitive verb, as in the first sentence, it means remember something that needs to be done in the subject’s relative future. However, if we use a gerund, as in the second sentence, we’re talking about something that’s already been done, something that’s in the subject’s relative past. Interesting, isn’t it?

Let me clarify this some more. Let’s say today is June 21: Did you remember (on June 18) to do that (on June 19)?

Again let’s say that today is June 21: Did you remember (on June 19) doing that (on June 18)?

f. This tree has blooms.

   This tree has blossoms.

Explanation: In the first sentence, the speaker is referring to some type of tree that bears flowers, e.g., a dogwood, a magnolia, or a royal Poinciana. In the second sentence, however, the speaker is referring to a tree that bears fruit. Bloom is a synonym for “flower,” but blossom refers to a flower that appears right before we see the beginning of some kind of fruit, e.g., an orange, lemon, or pear.

g. I’m going to call my lawyer.

    I’m going to call my attorney.

Explanation: This was a trick question! There’s really no intrinsic difference between lawyer and attorney except for the fact that, for some reason, the word attorney sounds more formal and more intimidating to most English speakers in countries where these two terms are used, such as the United States. If you’ve done something that has angered me so much that I want to sue you, I’ll probably say, “You’ll hear from my attorney!” or “I’m going to call my attorney!” rather than use the word lawyer. I guess it’s a cultural thing.

h. I don’t like that program. Let’s find another station.

    I don’t like that program. Let’s find another channel.

Explanation: The speaker in the first sentence is talking about a program on the radio, but the speaker in the second sentence is referring to a program on television. We use station for the various spots on a radio which we can tune in to listen to programs, but we use channel for those spots on a television where we can watch different shows.

What’s really interesting is that people who work on radio or on television both work in buildings or office suites that are called stations, i.e., radio stations or TV stations!

i. Turn right at the next traffic sign.

   Turn right at the next traffic signal.

Explanation: A sign is something that communicates a message with the use of words or symbols or both, such as a stop sign or a restroom sign for men or women. A signal communicates a message with the use of electricity, such as traffic lights or flashing lights at draw bridges or railroad crossings.

Section 2. What’s wrong with a certain part of each sentence, and why?

a.  He makes much money.

Explanation: We don’t normally use much + uncountable nouns in an affirmative sentence, especially in conversational English or in written English that’s not overly formal. Much is commonly used, however, in a negative sentence: He doesn’t make much money. When the sentence is affirmative, we commonly use a lot of, lots of, or a great deal of: He makes a lot of money.

b. That tornado was horrible. The local ER was unbelievably crowded because so many people had sustained damages.

Explanation: The problem is with the word damages, and actually, there’s more than one problem here. When we talk about a person or animal being hurt, we use the word injury (pl. injuries). So those people in the ER had sustained injuries during the tornado. When we refer to inanimate things, we use the uncountable noun damage, so there was damage to their houses and cars, for example, but the people and their pets or livestock had injuries.

And here’s an interesting observation about the word damages. Until recently, the only time you’d hear the word damages was in a legal reference to an amount of money that somebody was being sued for: The plaintiff in that civil suit is seeking damages in excess of $100,000. Nowadays, more and more people are using damages as a countable plural noun when referring to some inanimate object that’s received damage in more than one spot. For example, in a car accident, if the front of the car and the driver’s side were negatively affected, many native speakers will now say, “There are damages to my car.” I don’t think this is in the dictionary yet, but it may well end up there if enough native speakers continue to use damages this way.

c. Hi, Jim. Ooh, I like that new perfume you’re wearing!

Explanation: The problem here is that in English, we don’t use perfume for men; it’s used only for women. When referring to what a man wears, we say cologne. It’s interesting that cologne can be used both for men and women, but perfume only for women.

The difference for women is that perfumes are very strongly scented and can be very expensive. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, but women generally use perfume at night when going out for some social reason. Women’s colognes, on the other hand, are diluted, so to speak, so that they’re not so strongly scented and are much more affordable. They’re worn more during daytime or work hours.

d.  A dentist uses this special tool to extract teeth.

     A dentist uses this special tool for extracting teeth.

e.  I’ve come here to learn all about dental instruments.

     I’ve come here for learning all about dental instruments.

Explanations: There is nothing wrong with either sentence in item d. We can use both to (short for in order to) and for to communicate the very same idea. We do have a problem, however, in the second sentence of item e. In this idea, we cannot use for, and here’s why:

In item d both sentences communicate the same idea, the purpose of that special tool (pulling teeth). In the first sentence of item e the speaker is not talking about a purpose, but rather an intention. And there you have it! We can use both to and for when communicating the purpose of something, but we can only use to when communicating what we intend to do. That’s why the first sentence in item e is fine with to since it means intention, but the second sentence in item e doesn’t work because for doesn’t express intention, only purpose.

Here’s another example:

She’s joined her local gym to get lots of exercise. (correct; to = her intention)

She’s joined her local gym for getting lots of exercise. (incorrect; for doesn’t mean intention)

A: I’m going to a movie tonight, Gustavo. Would you like to join me?

B: Yes, I’d like.

Explanation: Gustavo should say, “Yes, I’d like to.” This is an abbreviated way of saying Yes, I’d like to join you to see that movie tonight. But why do we need that to? It’s because like is a transitive verb, which means it must have a direct object. Since the direct object in this case is a verb phrase representing an activity (to join you to see that movie tonight), we use that little to in order to show that there’s an understood direct object even though it’s unspoken for the most part in this case. Students need to understand that transitive verbs must have direct objects.

g. I ate too many chickens for dinner last night. I’m still stuffed.

Explanation: The sentence needs a correction, which is I ate too much chicken for dinner last night. Why? It’s because most words that refer to living creatures used for food are countable nouns, so we can refer to them in the plural form when they’re alive. Once they’ve been slaughtered and prepared for the table, however, they become uncountable nouns, which signifies that they’ve now become an abstraction of sorts since they’re no longer living creatures and have been turned into food items. That’s why many chickens becomes a lot of chicken; a lamb becomes lamb; a tuna becomes tuna.

Of course this phenomenon only occurs for a limited number of creatures that we turn into food items. We do have another curious way, though, of dealing with this change from living creatures that are out and about to food on the table. We use the Anglo-Saxon terms for some living creatures (e.g., cow, calf, sheep, deer) but the Norman French terms for those same creatures when they’ve been turned into culinary delights (beef, veal, mutton, venison). Quite a unique feature of English, wouldn’t you say?

I hope you did well figuring out the differences between sentences in section 1, and how to correct other sentences and explain your corrections in section 2. This is the kind of stuff that textbooks normally can’t deal with due to restraints in size and quantity of material allowed inside the books, and that’s understandable. There’s just so much that a textbook can handle.

Please stay alert and curious to the kinds of things you’ve seen in these four blogs I’ve written for “Teacher Talk.” Who knows? Maybe one or two of you will get so inspired by how important this kind of information really is that you’ll take on the challenge of writing a supplemental book for ESOL students to help them out with material otherwise unavailable to them. Hmm … There’s a suggestion for you to think about, wouldn’t you say?


Comment from leila
August 22, 2012 at 10:25 am

Useful and well presented and explained. Thanks a lot.

Comment from Richard Firsten
August 23, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Thanks very much, Leila. Glad you’ve found this useful. : )

Comment from manana
August 24, 2012 at 10:52 am

Thanks a lot, very detailed,useful and rare: can’t be found in every textbook.

Comment from Marilyn
August 28, 2012 at 7:12 am

I love this information. I often can’t find these kind of answers. Wh

Comment from Richard Firsten
August 28, 2012 at 9:11 am

Thanks very much, Manana and Marilyn! It makes me feel very good knowing that I can offer information not easily found in textbooks. That’s one of my “missions.” : )

Comment from oriel ortega
September 20, 2012 at 7:44 pm


I bought Troublesome English Volume 1.I think these explanations are there,aren´t they?I read all the book and it is terrific.It is a powerful tool for teachers.

I have tried to find volume 2 in Amazon but it isn’t there.Is this book out of print? or this book never sees the light??


Comment from oriel ortega
September 20, 2012 at 7:46 pm

I will receive the worbook next week!!!


Comment from Richard Firsten
September 28, 2012 at 6:35 am

I’m really glad you like “Troublesome English,” Oriel. And it’s great that you’ve located the Workbook. Volume 2 never got published, unfortunately, with that publisher, but another book of mine, which contains almost all the information that Volume 2 would have contained plus lots of other information and teacher tips has been out for a few years. It’s called “The ELT Grammar Book: A Teacher-Friendly Reference Guide,” and it’s published by Alta Book Center ( Please check it out.

Comment from oriel
September 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm

I asked for the two books the workbook and ELT grammar book…I haven´t read it yet.But I have good feedback from other teachers in the USA.Sadly I didn´t get the workbook.The Amazon seller told me that he doesn’t have a copy.He sent me my money back, but I wanted the workbook.When I read the ELT book, I will send my comments.

Comment from Ammar
October 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Rare and well detailed

Pingback from Teacher Talk » English, a Constantly Evolving Language, Part 5
November 1, 2013 at 11:55 am

[…] made mention of this change to the use of damage in a previous contribution to Teacher Talk entitled “Explain THIS, Part 4,” but I think it’s worth briefly mentioning it again. It used to be that damages referred to money […]

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