Monday, August 30, 2010

An ESL Guide, Part 5: Uncountable Nouns

In an earlier post on uncountable nouns, I mentioned 20 nouns which, in the context I used them, should be used singularly. But here’s the problem: Some of them can be used as plurals.

Most of the examples are true to the rule; words like advice, equipment, information, knowledge, and traffic are singular although they suggest plurals. On the other hand, let’s take a look at five others that can be singular depending on the context in which they are used:
  1. The air is better today. But if I think you’re trying too hard to impress me, I may say, “You’re putting on airs.”
  2. Her art never fails to impress us. But I am likely to say that an actor, a dancer, a musician, a playwright, and a sculptor are in the arts.
  3. The coffee from Brazil and Colombia is famous. But when I order two cups of coffee for my friend and myself, I may say to the waiter, “Two coffees, please.”
  4. The water in my town and yours tastes great. But I may warn you about entering a hostile nation’s territorial waters.
  5. Their work is exceptional. But I may say that I’m reading the collected works of a poet.

Monday, August 23, 2010

An ESL Guide, Part 4: Prepositions

Prepositions are hard for ESL learners for at least four reasons:
  1. Prepositions such as from, of, in, and on have so many meanings—senses might be a better word—more than the best dictionary is likely to cover.
  2. Native speakers even disagree on the use of some prepositions. For instance, a lot of New Yorkers wait on line, while the rest of the country waits in line. Some people prefer to be called on a telephone number, while most others favor being called at a number.
  3. Some preposition usage just makes no sense. We’ll say we’re in the car but on the bus or on the train.
  4. Prepositions don’t translate well from one language to another. For example, the Spanish de can mean of or from, and its en can mean in or on based the context in which it is used, while English speakers like to distinguish between these word pairs.

What’s the solution to the preposition conundrum for ESL learners? The same as the one for the article, which I write about in the last post: Read a lot of high-quality, current writing (reading aloud will help even more), and get as much writing feedback from coworkers as you can.

Books by Philip Vassallo
How to Write Fast Under Pressure
The Art of E-mail Writing
The Art of On-the-Job Writing
The Inwardness of the Outward Gaze: Learning and Teaching Through Philosophy

Monday, August 16, 2010

An ESL Guide, Part 3: Articles

Articles (a, an, and the) are especially tricky for nonnative speakers who do not have the article in their first language, such as Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Polish. It would be easy for them to memorize the many rules for the definite article (the) and the indefinite article (a, an), but the number of exceptions exceed the rules themselves. For instance:
  • We don’t usually use the with proper nouns like Yankee Stadium, but we do use the if those proper nouns are sports teams, as in the Yankees.
  • We avoid the to refer to proper nouns of universities like New York University, but we do say the if the first word is university, as in the University of Michigan.
  • We won’t use the for proper nouns like Penn Station or Grand Central Station, but we feel equally comfortable saying, “I’ll meet you at the 59th Street Station” and “I’ll meet you at 59th Street Station.”
  • We say the United States and the USA; however, we say the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and either the MTA or just MTA.
  • People from England and Australia feel it’s fine to say, I’m going to university, or I’m going to hospital, but those expressions sound strange to Americans, who want the to precede university and hospital.
All of this may sound funny to native English speakers, but it is linguistic torture for nonnative speakers trying to write in a natural English (or American) style. Therefore, after studying the rules for the article, ESL learners need to read a lot in English, especially current writing, to get the nuances of the article. They should also ask their native speaking coworkers to critique their use of the article. These techniques will help them see improvement quickly.

Monday, August 09, 2010

An ESL Guide, Part 2: Linking Verbs

Most people will say that a verb is an action word. Not always. We also have state-of-being verbs, such as the verb to be (e.g., am, are, is, was, were, be, have been). These verbs tend to link two words in a sentence. So when we say, “I am hungry,” we mean that I am in a state of hunger, or I and hunger are one in the same.

Knowing linking verbs is important because we use adjectives to link with them, whereas action verbs are modified by adverbs. Examples:

  • Linking verb with an adjective complement: I am hungry.
  • Action verb with an adverb as a modifier: I ate hungrily.

Other linking verbs include certain sense words (look, sound, smell, feel, taste), but sometimes they are action verbs. Examples:

  • Linking Verb: You looked happy yesterday.
  • Action Verb: You looked happily at the sunrise.
  • Linking Verb: He sounded powerful to me.
  • Action Verb: He sounded the trumpet powerfully.
  • Linking Verb: After emerging from the smoke, we smelled bad.
  • Action Verb: He smells badly enough to fail the scent discrimination test.
  • Linking Verb: They felt wary.
  • Action Verb: They felt their way warily through the dark tunnel.
  • Linking Verb: Her drink tastes bitter.
  • Action Verb: She tasted the drink bitterly.
Still other linking verbs exist, such as appear, become, get, grow, keep, lie, prove, remain, seem, stay, and turn—all requiring adjective complements.

Monday, August 02, 2010

An ESL Guide, Part 1: Past Tense

Many of the participants in my writing classes were not born into the English language; in other words, they are ESL learners. The term ESL (English as a Second Language) is inaccurate, as many people can communicate in more than one language besides English; however, I will use ESL here because it is commonly used and not meant pejoratively.

I am always amazed at how people like my parents have the courage to come to the United States with limited English proficiency and only basic formal education or professional training. Seeing bleak economic prospects in their native country, they look to America as a chance to make a living and provide greater opportunity for their family. My parents arrived in New York with not as much hope for themselves as with dreams for their children’s future.

But this picture does not accurately portray the vast majority of ESL participants in my writing classes. Most are highly educated, diversely skilled, and multilingual. Many are PhDs, professional engineers, registered architects, certified public accountants, and medical doctors. Yet they might have learned English recently, or they learned it earlier without having to use it professionally. They would be the first to say that English must be their first language in the workplace and that they cannot rise to higher levels in their organization without a strong command of spoken and written English. To these respectful, talented, diligent souls, I dedicate this seven-part series on ESL writing issues, starting with this post on verb tense.

The past tense is a common error that pops up for ESL writers. Errors like the following ones are common:

Incorrect: We were advise by the client.
Correct: We were advised by the client.

The past participle form of the verb is needed when using the passive voice (i.e., the verb to be and a past
participle form to make the verb, as in am recommended, are chosen, is concluded, was spoken, were
, and be known).

Incorrect: She has master her work.
Correct: She has mastered her work.

Helping verbs, or perfect tense verbs, (i.e., have, has, and had) require the accompanying verb to be in the past participle form.

Incorrect: You need a sign contract.
Correct: You need a signed contract.

Adjective forms of verbs need the past participle form, so the employee I choose becomes the chosen employee, the book you recommend becomes the recommended book, and the task she completes
becomes the completed task.

The error is understandable for those who learn English by listening because nearly all native speakers do not enunciate those past tense endings without the extra syllable while they do enunciate past tense endings with the extra syllable. Here’s a test for native speakers. In your normal speaking voice, say these two sentences:

Barbara has noticed your excellent work on the Hill project.
Barbara has recommended you for the Mountain project.

You’ll observe that you hardly pronounce the past tense, noticed, in the first sentence because it lacks an extra syllable, but you do pronounce the past tense, recommended, in the second sentence because it does have an extra syllable. Therefore, those who are learning English are likely working with audio cues when writing these forms. They will get recommended right but noticed wrong, writing notice instead, because they do not hear it when spoken.