This is a forum to discuss the gray areas of the English language for which you would not find answers easily in dictionaries or other reference books.
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I moved to the US from Japan when I was 16, and in the 30 years I’ve lived here, I’ve noticed the ease with which Europeans communicate with native English speakers even when they have heavy accents. In contrast, Asian immigrants seem to have a harder time being understood by the native speakers. Asians typically blame the problem on their accents and their pronunciation but Americans, particularly urban Americans, are used to hearing a variety of accents. It seems to me that there is something else at work causing the difference between Asian and European ESL speakers.
Compared to the Japanese language, some of the phonemes in English are very subtle (like the th sound). So, over the phone, when we are spelling a name, we provide contextual information, like, “M as in Mary. S as in Sam,” and so on. The subtleties are lost over the phone, and we cannot differentiate between N vs. M, S vs. F, and so on. The Japanese language does not have this problem. I believe English is a more context-dependent language because there is a constant need to fill in the information lost in the subtleties.
Even when two native speakers are talking to each other, often they can’t hear each other well (e.g., noisy bar, subway platform, poor quality phone connection, etc..) but they THINK they hear everything. They are actually filling in the missing information from the context.
The reason Europeans have an easier time even with heavy accents is that their cultures are still very similar. They are able to provide better contextual information as they speak. Because Asian cultures are so different, Asian speakers are not able to provide enough contextual information in their sentences and their body language. Even if they can speak with no accent, their sentences can come out sounding foreign, like the automatic translation provided by Google—grammatically correct but incomprehensible. This makes it hard for Americans to understand especially if the speaker has a heavy accent.
A friend of mine is a pilot for Japan Airlines. As long as he is communicating within the context of air travel (like speaking to the passengers on the plane about the delays and weather forecast), nobody has trouble understanding him. This is because the cultural context in this instance is very narrow and well-defined which allows everyone to fill in the gap easily. But he has trouble understanding and being understood outside of this context because of the wide range of contextual possibilities.
If a French person were talking to an American about how he was treated at a particular restaurant, neither would have any problem understanding the cultural context since the restaurants in France function very much like the restaurants here in the US. But the restaurants in Japan work very differently. In fact, their customs in restaurants are so different that some Japanese people take an etiquette class to be able to eat at Western restaurants. (You can see an example of this in the movie, Tampopo). When you are deficient in the cultural knowledge to this degree, accent becomes a secondary issue. Even with flawless pronunciation, you could still have trouble being understood because the listeners have no idea what you are referring to.
Many native speakers find Indian English speakers hard to understand, even those who have been speaking English all their lives. We readily recognize Indian accent like we recognize Southern and British accents. So, the problem is not lack of familiarity. I think it’s the lack of contextual information because the Indian culture too is very different. We mistakenly believe that the problem is their accent.
What do you think?
Does “hate with passion” sound wrong to you? Should it be “hate with a passion” instead?
One of the visitors to Pain in the English emailed us and asked if “hate with passion” is grammatically correct or not.
Here are some other similar phrases we can consider:
Sing with passion
Sing with a passion
Sing with feeling
Sing with a feeling
Say it with feeling
Say it with a feeling
When we analyze these expressions, we begin to feel that the article “a” adds some sense of specificity, like:
Sing with a passion befitting Pagliaccio!
Sing with a feeling of remorse!
Say it with a feeling of malaise!
Without the article, the word “passion” and “feeling” both remain abstract concepts.
What do you think?
In some recent fiction books written by American authors, I have seen the word “acclimated” as in “...she took a day to become acclimated to her new area.”
Shouldn’t this word be “acclimatised” or is this a case of American’s using one word and New Zealanders using another, both for the same purpose?
I cringe when I read (a million times a week), “I am so sorry,” “I am so happy”...
It feels like there is part of the statement missing, like “I am so happy I could cry,” or “I am so sorry, I don’t know what to say.” Is “so anything” a legitimate phrase on its own? Or am I right in thinking it needs more?
If a city and state (and full date) start a sentence in possessive form, would you consider the punctuation correct in the following three examples?
- Frankfort, Kentucky’s crime rate has increased.
- Paris, France’s breathtaking sights left us in a state of raptures.
- September 11, 2001’s tragic events will forever be indelibly etched in the minds of everyone.
Please, no recasts.
I run. I ran. I had ran. I had run.
I went. I had went. I had gone.
There appear to be localized aberrations where people insist on saying “had ran” even though they know “had run” is proper. They seem to be victims of conforming to local language.
This group of people seems to me to come from a region. I grew up in California, and I never saw this. I started seeing it in Colorado. It was a little more common in Kansas. It was very common in GA. It always showed up in people who had moved west from eastern locations like MA, KY, DE, VA, WV, NC.
What is it that I am trying to say here? Peer pressure overrides language correctness? Is there a better way to refer to this?
I’m reviewing a New Zealand scientific report which uses the word ‘equivalency’. This sounds to me like an Americanisation of the word ‘equivalence’, both being nouns but with the redundancy of an additional syllable in ‘equivalency’.
As we use British English (despite word processing software trying to force American English upon us) I’m inclined to use ‘equivalence’. What do you think?
What does “that” mean in the following sentences? Are there any rules which apply to the exact phrases which “that” refers to?
1. The graphs above show the rates of electricity generation of Kansas and “that” of the U.S. total in 2010.
Q. Doesn’t “that” refer to “electricity generation”? If yes, isn’t “of” needed before “that”?
2. The rate of electricity generation by nuclear power plants in Kansas was about the same as that of the U.S. total.
Q. Doesn’t “that” refer to “the rate of electricity generation by nuclear power plants”? If yes, why is it “that in the U.S. total”, instead of “that of the U.S. total” to be parallel with in Kansas?
I had never thought I would ever wonder what “width” is until my 12-year old daughter came home one day and told me that her math teachers (not just one but two) told her that “width” in geometry is the vertical side of a rectangle. That to me was like saying up is down and down is up. How could this be?
It turns out that her teachers are not alone. Take a look at this page I came across while Googling on the topic. It says:
In the case of a square or a rectangle, the expression length (1) is commonly used instead of base and width (w) instead of height. In the case of a circle the expression diametre (d) is used.
“Width instead of height” is very much like saying up is down. Where did this come from?
And, what is even more disconcerting is that the teachers are not aware of this ambiguous nature of “width.” Two other teachers told me that width is always the horizontal side, and another told me that she has heard others call the vertical side “width.” So, apparently, each is teaching their students in an authoritative manner their own definition of “width.” If a 12-year old is told by her math teacher that “width” in geometry refers to the vertical side, why should she doubt it? Unless, of course, she was also told that “width” can be vertical or horizontal (i.e. direction neutral, like “length”). But that is apparently not what is happening at school in New York City.
If we teach our kids that a triangle has three sides, we don’t want them thinking that the definition of “triangle” could be flexible as if it could have four or five sides. If the definition of “width” is not universal, they need to know that. Here is a case in point. The following question was in 2016 Common Core Math Test for Grade 6.
“A carpenter built three bookcases, A, B, and C, to stand next to each other along a wall. The total length of the wall is 456 centimeters. The carpenter will build two more bookcases, D and E, along the same wall. These two bookcases will have equal widths. The widths of bookcases A, B, and C are shown in the table blow.”
Now, if you were taught that in geometry, “width” means the vertical side and “length” means the horizontal side, you would have to be confused reading this question. The correct response would be, “But why should the ‘widths’ of the bookcases have anything to do with the ‘length’ of the wall in fitting the bookcases?”
My daughter tried to figure this out by drawing a bunch of bookshelves with different heights, and eventually gave up because the question made no sense to her.
In Merriam-Webster, the word “width” has no ambiguity: “the horizontal measurement taken at right angles to the length.” After all, the word “height” has no ambiguity, so why should we think “width” would?
But looking at the Oxford dictionary gives us a slightly different answer: “The measurement or extent of something from side to side; the lesser of two or the least of three dimensions of a body.”
In other words, in a rectangle, “the lesser of the two” sides would be called “width” regardless of the orientation. So, it appears that this is an American-versus-British issue, or is it? (Note the spelling of “diametre” on the page from fao.org quoted above.)