Will and shall

8 February, 2008

This is a tricky one! When do you use “will” and when do you use “shall”?

The rule is that, in the first person (i.e. “I” or “we”), you use “shall” when you are talking about a future action, as in “I shall be catching the bus at 4.30”; but “will” when expressing an intention to do something in the future, as in “I will come to visit, I really will!”

To make matters just that little bit more interesting, the rule is exactly the opposite with the second (“you”) and third (“he, she, it, they”) persons. So that “you shall catch the bus” is an order, not a prediction, and “he will visit you next week” is simply a statement of a future action.

How on earth do you remember which is which? Here is a little story (entirely made up I am sure) that might help:

Some years ago a Frenchman came to England on holiday. While swimming off the beach at Bournemouth he got into difficulties and waved frantically for help. However, nobody noticed him, or just thought that he was waving to a friend, and he got more and more desperate. Finally he shouted out “I will drown, I will drown, nobody shall save me!” The people who heard him, who had all been to very good schools and spoke in perfectly grammatical English, were convinced by this that he was committing suicide and allowed him to carry on drowning!

What he should have shouted was “I shall drown, I shall drown, nobody will save me”, which might have saved his life!


there, their, they’re

3 February, 2008

These are three words that are pronounced the same way (or very nearly so), but the spelling is different and so is the meaning. However, many people get them confused.

“There” is an adverb that is used to indicate a place where something is, as in “I put it over there.” However, it can also be used as a pronoun, as in “There is a house in New Orleans”, where the speaker is not so much  pointing to the house as saying that the house exists and then telling you where it is.

“Their” is a possessive pronoun, in the same league as “his”, “her” and “its”. In common usage it can be used for both singular and plural owners, so that it is quite acceptable to say “The average person prefers their coffee to be hot”, whereas to be strictly accurate it should be “his or her cofffee”.

“They’re” can only mean “they are”, as in “they’re coming to stay for a week”. Remember that an apostrophe means that something is missing, in this case a space and the letter “a”.

Remembering when to use “there” and “their” is not quite so easy, unless you bear in mind that “there” goes with “where” and “here”. Just remember the question,  “where shall I put it, here or there?” You would never write “wheir” or “heir”, so you would not write “their” in this circumstance either!

For more help with your writing of English, visit the website at www.welfordwrites.co.uk

Good or well?

6 January, 2008

To my British ears, the response of “I’m good” to the greeting “How are you” is discordant in the extreme!  As I’ve said to people who have answered in this way, “I was asking after your health, not your morals”!

So what’s wrong with using “good” in this sense instead of “well”?  Basically, the difference between the two words is that “good” (in this context) is an adjective and “well” is an adverb.  Remember that an adjective is a word that qualifies a noun (as in “a large house”) and an averb qualifies a verb (as in “he fought bravely”).  Many adverbs end in “ly” but this is not a universal rule, and “well” is one of the exceptions.

 Therefore, if I ask you how you are, I am expecting a qualification of a verb, namely the verb “to be”, not a noun.  You should therefore use an adverb in your reply, not an adjective.

Just to confuse matters, “good” can also be used as a noun as well as an adjective, so there can be cases where “he did good” is correct!  For example, if the context is the life story of a saint, you would not be surprised to find the statement, “throughout his life, he did good wherever he went” (as opposed to the biblical “he has done evil in my sight”).

However, when a sportsperson, in an interview,  says “we did good today” you can be pretty sure that they are not talking about how they have benefitted society at large, but should have said “we did well”!

Feel free to comment on this post, or to ask a question about some aspect of English grammar or usage that puzzles you.  You can get more help with your written English via the website www.welfordwrites.co.uk

British and American spelling

21 December, 2007

It was George Bernard Shaw who said that Britain and America were “divided by a common language”, and this is brought home quite forcibly when we look at our rules of spelling! 

In the UK, the English language has evolved over many centuries, and the way we spell our words today is not always been how our ancestors would have done so.  Emigrants to the New World took the English language with them in the state that it was at the time, and there has been a certain degree of divergence since then, although there are many examples that show that it is the British spelling that has changed in the meantime, not the American.

There have also been several deliberate attempts at spelling reform in the United States, most notably by Noah Webster of dictionary fame, and Melville Dewey, who devised the Dewew Decimal Classification for libraries and preferred “catalog” to “catalogue”.  Spelling reforms have also been proposed in the UK, but with much less success. However, the constant cross-fertilisation supplied by American books, journals and (especially) web-based materials has led many British people to accept American spellings in daily use.

So what are the differences?  One that is now becoming very blurred is “-ise” and “-ize” as a word ending.  I would always prefer to see “recognise” rather than “recognize”, as I regard “-ize” as an Americanism, but some British dictionaries now give “recognize” as the preferred form.  However, this “rule” – if it is a rule – only applies to words of two or more syllables – for example, don’t confuse “prise” and “prize”, which are words with entirely different meanings.

One very clear difference is the American omission of the “u” in “-our” word endings.  So whereas a Brit would write “neighbour”, “harbour” and “colour”, an American would write “neighbor”, “harbor” and “color”.  The important thing to remember here is not to use both forms of spelling in the same document – decide which spelling code to adopt and stick with it.

There are some examples where spelling reform has led to confusions that do not occur in British English.  For instance, a floor of a building is a “storey” in Britain but a “story” in the USA.  However, a “story” is also a tale that is told, on both sides of the Pond.  In the plural, both “storeys” and “stories” are correct in the UK, depending on the context.

Another example is “kerb” and “curb”.  If you hold something back, you curb it. If that something is the edge of a pavement (or “sidewalk” to an American), a Brit will do so with a “kerb”, but in American English “curb” is used for both meanings, and the special meaning of “kerb” has been lost.

I am not saying that one way of spelling is correct and the other is wrong, only that these  differences exist and it is important to be aware of them, so that when writing in English you are consistent.  However, as I said above, things are not completely cut and dried and you can be forgiven for not getting it right every time – very few native-born writers of British English do so anyway!

Feel free to offer your comments on this or any other post in this blog.  For more help with your written English, have a look at my website, www.welfordwrites.co.uk and contact me if you need a longer piece of work corrected or edited. 

-ice or -ise?

12 December, 2007

Some of the problems faced by the learner of English arise from differences between British and American usage – and there are of course other varieties of English such as Australian and South African.  I am British, and so therefore my advice and what I practise are based on British usage.

The last sentence above shows what I mean.  In American usage, “practise” is commonly used in cases where British usage would be “practice”, but in British English both forms are used.

So what is the difference?  Basically, the “-ice” ending indicates a noun, whereas “-ise” is used for a verb.  I can advise you (verb) to take my advice (noun), which is to practise (verb) your English practice (noun).   Think of “ice” as being a thing (i.e. a noun), so a word ending in “ice” will also be a noun.

But beware!  This rule only applies in the very few cases where both word forms exist – I cannot actually think of any apart from the two mentioned above, can you?  It is not the case that a word ending in “-ice” is always a noun (“entice” is a verb), and the “-ise” ending is also used in British English for some nouns, such as “exercise”, which can be either a noun or a verb – “keep exercising at those exercises!” 

Feel free to offer a comment, perhaps to suggest a point that I could include in a future post.  This post is the result of just such a comment.

If you would like my help in more general terms, such as to proofread/edit your longer pieces of English text, please visit my website at www.welfordwrites.co.uk

Less or Fewer?

3 December, 2007

Supermarkets are fond of displaying a sign over their express queue that reads “6 items or less”, although some have now realised that it should be “6 items or fewer”.  So what’s the difference?

When deciding which to use, ask yourself whether the thing or things under discussion are counted or measured.  

If you are asking the assistant at the deli counter to give you a piece of cheese that is smaller than the piece she has just offered you, you should ask for less cheese, because this is something that is measured – by weight in this instance.  It would make no sense to say “please give me fewer cheese”.

However, if she has given you too many olives, you would say “please give me fewer olives”, because olives are things you can count.

Be careful when you are dealing with collective nouns, such as “people”.  You can count people, so it is correct to say “there are fewer people in France than in India” and wrong to say “there are less people”.

The golden rule here is – Measure Less, Count Fewer.  If you can remember the line from Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” that goes “Through caverns measureless to man”, you won’t go far wrong! 

 Do you need more help with your written English?  Pay a visit to www.welfordwrites.co.uk and find out about the services that are available to you.

Its and It’s

20 November, 2007

It’s a problem that arises because of its use, or not, of the apostrophe.  This is something that confuses many people, and it’s not just learners of English who fall victim to its difficulties.

I have used both “it’s” and “its” twice each in the opening paragraph, to show you how they differ in meaning.  A teacher I had many years ago used to say that an apostrophe was a tombstone for a departed letter – a bit morbid, perhaps, but in most cases this is true. 

An apostrophe is used when a word has been shortened by leaving out one or more letters, such as in “Lucy’s car’s crashed and she’s been taken to hospital”.  In the case of “car’s” and “she’s” it is easy to work out what is missing, as the full version would be “car has” and “she has”.  However, “Lucy’s” is an indication that what follows is something owned by Lucy, so what could be missing?  If you go back a few hundred years it was common for people to write “William his book” rather than “William’s book”, so “hi” is missing; but Lucy is a woman, so changing “Lucy her car” to “Lucy’s car” means that my old teacher’s tombstone theory needs a bit of tweaking!

Going back to “it’s” and “its”, the apostrophe is still a tombstone, because the full version is “it is”, and you should usually use the full version when writing anything official or formal, except when reporting what someone has said.  “Its” is a possessive pronoun,  as are “his” and “hers”.

If you wonder which to use, remember that you would never write “hi’s” or “her’s” as a possessive pronoun, so you don’t use “it’s” either.

Also remember that “it’s” is always short for “it is” or “it has” (as in “it’s been great to meet you”), and never short for “it his”! 

You can get help with your written English by making use of the services of Welford Writes at www.welfordwrites.co.uk, and you are also welcome to suggest topics for this blog by leaving a comment.

Insure, Ensure, Assure

9 November, 2007

These words cause confusion, partly because there are differences between British and American usage.

In British usage their meanings are quite distinct, namely:

insure – to protect something (your house, car, etc) against loss or damage, usually by taking out an insurance policy.

ensure – to make sure that something will happen, as in “we need to ensure that she keeps her promise”.

assure – to make somebody confident about something or to convince them, as in “I can assure you that the money will be paid” or “She assured us that she had done what she promised”.

In American usage,  insure and ensure are simply variant spellings of each other and the distinction in meaning has been lost.

Remember that we use “ensure” to refer to future possibilties and “assure” when something is already in place or has happened.

There is also confusion over “insurance” and “assurance”, in that we typically have “car insurance” but “life assurance”.  The thing to remember here is that we insure against possibilities but assure against the consequences of certainties – your car MAY be damaged or stolen, but your life will DEFINITELY come to an end one day – sorry!

Please feel free to offer a comment on this or any other posting on this blog – perhaps you want to tell me about a problem that I might be able to help you with.  You can also visit my website at www.welfordwrites.co.uk and find out how I can help you in other ways.

Compliment or complement?

27 October, 2007

These two words are often confused with each other, but they have quite different meanings.

If I compliment someone, I say something nice about them – “I like your new hairstyle”, for example.   A complimentary remark or statement is therefore one that shows approval.

However, a complement is something that accompanies something else, maybe offered as a gift.  For example, if my restaurant meal comes with a complementary glass of wine I would assume that it is free of charge because it was not on the original bill of fare, but something extra that the restaurant supplies to its customers.

Confusion sometimes arises when a situation can involve both meanings.  For example, in the case given above the glass of wine could arrive with a note that reads “with the compliments of the manager”.   In other words, the “complementary” (i.e. extra) glass is offered because the manager wishes to “compliment” his customers for having the good sense to eat in his restaurant!

Feeling tense?

21 October, 2007

Learners of English often have problems when deciding which tense to use. For example, what is the difference between:

David has arrived with the shopping.


David is arriving with the shopping.  ?

Both of these are “present” tenses in that they describe actions that are happening now, rather than in the past or the future, but the difference is that the former is saying that the action has been completed, whereas the latter implies that it is still happening.  If you like, the former is the present looking to the past but the latter is the present looking to the future.

To be technical, the former is called the present perfect – “perfect” here meaning that the action is complete.  You use “have” or “has” and the past participle of the verb, such as “have known”, “has come”, etc.

The latter is known as the continuous or progressive form of the present tense, and is formed from a part of the verb “to be” and the “-ing” (present participle) form of the verb that describes the action, as in “am going”, “was asking”, etc.

Why not practice the use of these tenses by writing pairs of sentences, one describing an action that has just ended and the other an action that is still going on, based on these examples:

Susan  (bake) a cake

John (write) a letter to the Council

It would not surprise me if the boys (play) football today

Do you have a particular problem that you would like me to discuss?  You can write a comment, or go to my website at www.welfordwrites.co.uk