Article by Vicki Lucas
Does the title of this blog cause you to wince? Or do you not see a problem with it? Can you explain to someone the difference between It’s and its? What about They’re – their – there?
I firmly believe that English above all other languages provides the most frustration. As Richard Lederer said, “You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out, and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on.”
As an English as a Second Language teacher for eleven years, I’ve seen my share of mistakes. One student told me her favorite food was “Lice.” It took me a few minutes to get over my shock. Then I realized she meant “Rice.” While discussing table manners, one man told me that in his country, it was fine to blow your nose on the table. I had quite the mental image of a family with their noses literally on the dinner table until I realized that he meant at the table. Often we’d laugh at some of the silly mistakes, but I would always get asked the same question from every student that walked through the door.
“Why do I have to learn to use English correctly since Americans don’t speak or writer with proper grammar?”
Here was my answer. “You don’t have to learn English well. You can flip burgers at a fast food joint the rest of your life. But if you do learn it, you will get better paying jobs than any native speaker who doesn’t use English well. Your choice.”
But the question always bothered me. It still does. I’m constantly shocked at the abuse of English. I know it’s tricky. The rules bend and twist until you’re lost in a tangle of language.
So what can you do if you stuck on a problem area of English?
1. Know your weakness. The first step is always to admit it. Don’t be embarrassed. Any grammar person loves answering these questions because we rarely get asked. Also, it excites us that someone actually has a desire to learn instead of continuing the errors. Think of one area you would like to improve.
2. Attack it with knowledge. Once you know your problem, begin your research. Ask a competent person that you may know. If you don’t know anyone, there are many great places on the web. Make sure to check their qualifications, though. The rules are different in places around the world. Sometimes you might not know how to search. For example, let’s say you aren’t sure you are using commas correctly. Then broaden your search on Google to “correct comma usage.” You will find a wealth of information.
3. Practice. Swallow your pride and find practices online. There is one easy way to do this. Linda has a problem of using the correct Past Participle. (In other words, she tends to say “I have ate” instead of “I have eaten.”) She researched a little and found that “eaten” is a past participle and has learned when to use it. She can now Google “Past Participle exercises.” She will find a ton of material to practice with. If she includes “ESL” in her search, she will find some great places where the web pages give instant feedback.
4. Create visual aids. Further and farther used to drive me nuts. While I researched, I’d forget as soon as I put the right one into my document. Out of great frustration one day, I wrote a quick explanation of the rule on a piece of paper and posted it by my computer. Writing it out helped it stick in my brain more than a causal reading does. It also gave me a quick review every time I saw the paper. A couple months later, I threw the paper in the garage and haven’t needed it since.
5. Don’t trust two sources. We love to trust two places which very often lead us astray. The first one is Microsoft Word’s grammar check. It is okay most of the time, but even while writing this post, it tried to tell me the Subject-Verb Agreement was wrong in a sentence. In truth, the computer was wrong. Don’t automatically think that the computer is right. Use your brain.
The second one is our ear. Ever think, “That doesn’t sound right?” I recently explained well and good with a friend, and that was her comment. Saying “It went well” sounded bad to her because she was used to hearing the wrong grammar. Her ear had been trained to accept incorrect grammar. As you learn better grammar, you’ll struggle with this. Then your next cry will be… “But everyone does it wrong!” Exactly.
English can be tricky. To quote Richard Lederer one more time, “English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn’t a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it?”
But English is not impossible, especially when you take these action steps to training yourself to use better grammar. So, let’s begin.
What’s your greatest problem in English? Do you have a question you’ve been dying to ask but not brave enough to? Here’s your chance!
I have always struggled with the question “What are you going to be when you grow up?” I received my Bachelor’s in Psychology…only to find myself with no desire to work in that field. I switched careers to Teaching English as a Second Language and obtained a Master’s from Seattle Pacific University. Thankfully, I found joy in the classroom. Teaching at universities and community colleges gave me eleven years of incredible experiences, remarkable coworkers, and unforgettable friends from many different countries. However, the distant mountains began to call, and I responded, not knowing where I was going or what my purpose was. After a year and a half of traveling through the quiet places that are left in the world, I settled in Montana with my husband and my dog. I have begun to write the stories I heard on the wind.