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Usage

In previous articles I have chosen various aspects of the English language system to examine as a whole. For example, I have looked at present and future tenses, spelling and pronunciation, how to wish in English. I now want to present a mixed selection of difficulties that do not fall under any specific area of grammar but can be called examples of usage*. Usage is about individual words and phrases; there are no rules or logical explanations for the way they behave - it's just how we happen to say things. For the learner who is looking for patterns in language, this can be frustrating because usage has to be learned case by case.

A first example will help to make this clear. The word often does not seem to be too problematic. The student quickly learns its meaning and that it usually occupies second position in the sentence. For example: I often play tennis on Sundays or My mother often phoned me when I was living in London. But if he tries to follow the pattern and says My mother often phoned me yesterday, he is unfortunately using the word incorrectly. Often can refer to events that are repeated over a longer stretch of time but not to those events that happen in a shorter time period. It has to be My mother phoned me many times yesterday. Similarly, it is incorrect usage to say My car often broke down on the way home if you are referring to one journey - it has to be My car kept breaking down .. or My car broke down several times. It is acceptable, however, if you are referring to all the journeys you made home over a longer period of time. There is no particular reason why often should behave in this way - it is just so.

Now consider the phrases for long and for a long time. These might seem to be synonyms but in fact they have quite different usages and meanings. You can say I waited for a long time but I waited for long is not possible. Conversely, you can say I didn't wait for long but I didn't wait for a long time does not mean the same and is in fact a very unlikely expression. [Its use is just about possible in the following situation: For a long time I didn't wait for the postman to come, but after my grandmother became sick I started to wait anxiously for him every day.]

Question 1

Can you explain the difference in meaning of the following two sentences?

Now let's look at one or two verb constructions. The words suggest and advise have very similar meanings but their usage is different. We can say both I advise you to go and I advise that you go, but only I suggest that you go is correct; I suggest you to go is not possible. Conversely, I want you to go is right but I want that you go is not.

Question 2

Which constructions using "go" are correct with the verbs allow, defy, command, insist and hope? (For example, are both I insist you to go and I insist that you go correct, only one of them or neither of them?)

There's a similar problem with the synonyms like and enjoy. We can say both I like playing tennis and I like to play tennis but I enjoy playing tennis is correct, whereas I enjoy to play tennis is not. And consider the antonyms stop and start. She started eating is the opposite of She stopped eating, but She started to eat is not the opposite of She stopped to eat.

More on gerunds

Question 3

What does She stopped to eat mean?

Question 4

Which one of the following expressions is incorrect usage?

Question 5

Look at the following sets of sentences. Which, if any, of the sentences in each set is incorrect usage?

a. I was written a letter by my grandmother. I was sent a letter by my grandmother
b. It cost a lot of money. It cost a lot of dollars.
c. It's raining. I know. It's raining. I know it!
d. Bye. I'll see you later. Bye. I'll see you a few days later.
e. This statue is made of wood. Paper is made of wood.
f. Do you want coffee cups or tea ones? Do you want plastic cups or china ones?
g. We had a meal together once. We must have a meal together once
h. That book is a little interesting. I feel a little better today.
i. Is that the new teacher? I believe. I believe it. I believe so.
j. Thank you very much. Thanks very much. Thank you a lot. Thanks a lot.

These are just a few examples of the hundreds of usage problems in the English language. If you want to learn more, I can recommend the following two books:


Answers

In most aspects of grammar, we can explain why a particular form is necessary by referring to general patterns. For example, we can say that the indefinite article is needed because it is the first reference to a particular countable object. Similarly, we can justify the use of the present perfect tense because we are referring to a completed action that has some connection to the present. There are no explanantions for the answers below, however, since usage deals with the way that individual words or expressions behave. They are how they are, and no patterns or generalities exist to help us predict their behaviour.

Question 1

She didn't eat for long means that she ate for a few minutes and then stopped whereas She didn't eat for a long time means she did not eat, possibly because of illness, for a long period of time and then she started eating again.

Question 2

Question 3

She stopped to eat does not mean the same as She stopped eating; it means she stopped whatever she was doing and started to eat. (For example, she had been walking in the mountains for several hours then she stopped walking in order to eat.)

Question 4

I don't hope she will come is incorrect usage. It has to be: I hope she doesn't come.

Question 5

The following sentences are NOT usual English formulations:

** A reader of this page objected to my designation of this sentence as incorrect, so I set out for him my reasoning: A statue made of wood is carved out of a piece of wood, not made by processing wood and then forming it. Paper, on the other hand, is made from processed wood. Hence it may be slightly better to say Paper is made out of wood. But the difference is very subtle and probably ignored by most people. I think the reader was right in his objection!


* Note: The word usage has various definitions. In this article it refers to what could be designated single word grammar. Hence I distinguish between (standard) grammar and usage mistakes as follows:

For example: He live in Frankfurt contravenes the rule that all verbs in the 3rd person singular present simple tense require an -s (with the exception of modals), and is hence a grammar mistake.

My grandfather is a very high man is a usage mistake. We can formulate a rule that high applies to mountains not people. But the rule applies to one member of the word class only and hence the mistake is one of usage.

On this basis, these errors are grammar errors:

And these are usage errors:

The issue is of more than purely theoretical importance because learners need to know whether they should consult a grammar book or a good dictionary/usage manual to find out if what they have written is correct.

It is interesting to note that two excellent English reference works both have the word usage in their title: Garner's Modern American Usage and Swan's Practical English Usage.

Swan's book includes numerous entries on what I would term grammar; including negation, passive, modals, determiners, etc. And Garner's contains exclusively what I would term usage mistakes, but a different kind of usage mistake than the one I have explored in the article above. Garner's usage mistakes are mistakes typically made by native speakers in choosing the wrong word for a particular context. An example is the incorrect use of it's in the sentence: The dog has lost it's bone. Paul Brians' excellent website has a comprehensive list of the most common usage mistakes in this category.


Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)