English Grammar for ESL Students – Common Grammatical Troublemakers
It’s been said that English is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn because it has so many exceptions to its own rules. One problem students of English as a second language face are homophones – words that sound alike but have entirely different meanings. Another common problem is single words that can be pronounced differently depending on the context of the sentence. Some of these words sound more or less alike depending on the accent of the native speaker.
The following are some examples of common troublemakers. For best results, read these through several times, and then try to identify examples of their usage in the real world. For example, pick up an English language book you’re working through and see if you can identify some of these homophones in action.
Red: the color vs. Read: to have read a book – Read: to be reading a book vs. Reed: a plant
For example: John said he read the red book, but he still needed to read the book on reeds.
Blue: the color or emotion – Blew: the past tense of the verb to blow
For example: John was feeling blue when he blew out the blue candles on his birthday cake (blue as an emotion refers to a feeling of sadness or mild depression.)
Meet: to encounter a person – Meat: flesh of animals consumed for food
For example: John wanted to meet me at the meat counter of the grocery store.
Poor: lacking money or an adjective – Pour: as to pour a liquid from a container – Pore: a small opening in the skin
For example: Poor John. He wanted to pour lemon juice on his skin to tighten his pores, but he was too poor to afford it.
Right: to be correct, or the direction opposite left – Write: to compose or transcribe words using pen and paper
For example: John was right – the best table to write at was on the right side of the library.
Kitty: a small cat or kitten – Kitty: a group of funds pooled together
For example: John’s kitty wanted to play poker, but it had no money to ante up for the kitty.
Weeding: to remove weeds – Wedding: a marriage ceremony
For example: John finished weeding the garden with plenty of time before the wedding was to begin.
Desert: an arid environment – Dessert: a sweet dish or pastry often served at the end of a meal
For example: Lost in the desert, John could only dream of the ice cream he had had for dessert.
They’re: a contraction of the words they are – There: a location – Their: a possessive pronoun
For example: They’re sure they left their car over there by the big oak tree.
To: the preposition – Two: the number 2 – Too: meaning also or an adverb meaning excessively
For example: John wanted to go to the movies with his two brothers too but he was too tired.
As you can see, although many of these word combinations can be tricky, they’re often spelled differently. Use these clues to help determine which word to use in any given situation.
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Literary Choices for Students of English as a Second Language
Once you’ve achieved a basic mastery of the English language and have a good understanding of English vocabulary, the world of books and literature will open up to you. There are many good choices in the realm of English literature for you as a newly-minted speaker.
One of the best places to start is with the works of Ernest Hemingway. He is not only noted for his use of simple words, but his mastery of the English language is one of the best of all time. It would be hard to make a bad choice among his collected works, but a favorite of many new English students is The Old Man and the Sea.
In this book the characters are portrayed simply, and the language becomes a tool for that portrayal. The levels of characterization are complex, but that is never reflected in complex grammatical structures. Hemingway’s mastery is in the way that his simple terms and simple sentence structure become complex images. For example, to describe a fish as it is pulled from the sea, Hemingway wrote, “The fish came out of the water endlessly.” Immediately the reader knows, and knows deeply, that this is a big fish. But the word choices are uncomplicated and easy for a reader to grasp while retaining the great beauty of his prose.
Another good choice for the new English reader are the James Herriot books, known collectively as All Creatures Great and Small. Their portrayal of the veterinary practice of a mid-twentieth century veterinarian in the Yorkshire countryside is an easy read, but one that speaks to anyone who grew up on a farm – regardless of where that farm was.
Where the Red Fern Grows is another fine choice for the new English reader. Not only is it an interesting story, but it’s written in simple language that isn’t hard to decipher. The novel centers around a boy and his dogs, another theme that many new readers can relate to. In keeping with the dog theme, there’s also Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck, another American master of 20th century literature. Like Hemingway, his evocative style isn’t diminished by his simple vocabulary choices.
There is another book by Steinbeck that should be mentioned – his telling of the Arthurian legend, published under the title The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. Steinbeck was impressed by this book when he was a young boy, and as he grew as both a man and a writer, he became concerned that these stories were becoming less and less accessible to the common man. He wanted to change that with the writing of this book, which features simple, easy to read text and rich descriptions.
But, of course, no list of great English literature would be complete without a mention of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. The serious subject matter of racial injustice is set off with humor and a tight storyline – all written in simple, understandable language. In fact, it has been said that Lee is more of a storyteller than novelist, and this novel gives an enjoyable introduction to a very dark time in American history.
Of course, these books are only the tip of the iceberg of great English literature, and many deserving works have been left out of this list. But hopefully, this will give you a good introduction to finding great literature. In addition, every community has an expert that will be glad to help you – you’ll find these wonderful and helpful experts behind the desk of any library
Learning and Understanding Idiomatic Speech
When I first began to work with the international students in college, I asked someone at a luncheon, “What brings you here today?” Looking at me like I was a bit crazy, he answered, “The bus.”
That was my first realization that no matter how good an ESL speaker is, there are phrases that will always tend to cause confusion to non-native speakers. These idiomatic phrases add color and interest to any language and are worth learning if you want to converse fluently with native speakers.
The following are a few phrases that, when taken literally, would seem confusing. But with a simple explanation, they can be easily understood and ultimately used by someone who has studied English as a second language.
“By no stretch” – The speaker is referring to something that’s very hard to achieve or realize, even with great effort, as in, “It was not a good meal, by any stretch of the imagination,” which means that even being generous, the meal could not be described as good.
“Not worth a damn” – A mildly vulgar expression that something isn’t of any worth or value. Use cautiously. It’s not appropriate in formal situations or other situations where profanity would be offensive. For example, “That dog is not worth a damn.”
“To run circles around” – Rarely used literally, to run circles around means to be substantially better than another, as in, “Her job performance was so good that she ran circles around her coworkers.”
“Half dead” – An expression of extreme tiredness, having nothing to do with actual health, commonly used at the end of a long and tiring day. For example, “I was half dead after I worked all night at my job.”
“To take under one’s wing” – A reference to bird behavior, this means that someone has taken responsibility for another and will help them along in their development, often in a mentoring capacity. Often used in work, military, academic or athletic setting, you can see an example in the phrase, “The coach really took the new guy under his wing.”
“By the book” – This means that an action should follow the rules exactly. It also references the nature of someone who won’t deviate from a set of rules, regardless of circumstances. For example, “When you work with him, know that he’s a by the book kind of guy.”
“More power to you” – This isn’t a wish for you to have better electricity from the power company – it’s an injunction, usually slightly ironic, that the speaker thinks that you are unlikely to do a task, but you should try if you think you can accomplish it. It generally means the speaker has no intention of helping you achieve your goal, neither will they dissuade you from attempting to reach it. For example, “I don’t think you can meet that deadline, but more power to you.”
“As easy as pie” – A reference that something is as simple or easy as eating a delicious dessert, or that it requires little effort to successfully accomplish. In colloquial conversations, this phrase does not refer to the process of cooking or eating. As an example, “Learning a few idiomatic expressions in English is as easy as pie if you read this article.”
English Grammar Components
When you’re learning the English language, you may feel overwhelmed when it comes to all the different grammar components. There are so many variables that affect the choice of words, even in everyday conversations. In order to get the most from your English lessons, you’ll need to understand all the different grammatical elements that are used. The following is a listing of some of the most commonly used English grammar components and what each one means.
Pronouns: Personal pronouns will often take the place of a person’s name. There are four different cases of personal pronouns: subjective, objective, genitive, and possessive. Pronouns may also have number, person, or gender attributes. Here are some examples:
Subjective: These are pronouns that are used in the subject of the sentence and include “I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “it,” “we,” “you,” and “they.” An example of a subjective pronoun used in a sentence is, “I have a book.” In this case, “I” is the subject of the sentence and has taken the place of the speaker’s name.
Objective: These are words that are used as the object of the sentence and include “me,” “you,” “him,” “her,” “us,” “you,” and “them.” An example of an objective pronoun used in a sentence is, “Give her the book.” In this case, “her” is the object of the sentence.
Genitive: These are words that generally used to modify noun phrases. This type of pronoun is also called an “attributive possessive pronoun.” These pronouns include “my,” “your,” “his,” “her,” “our,” and “their.” An example of a possessive adjective is, “This is your book.” In this case, “your” demonstrates ownership of the book without actually giving the name of the owner.
Possessive: These pronouns occur in the object of the sentence and include “mine,” “yours,” “his,” and “hers.” An example of a possessive pronoun is, “This book is ours.” In this case, “ours” shows a more detailed point of ownership of the book.
Participles: Participles are verbs that are used as adjectives and commonly end in “–ed” or “–ing.” A participle expresses a deed or state of action. Since participles are used as verbs, they usually end up modifying nouns and pronouns. The following are two examples of participles in action:
“The crying baby woke up.”
“The burning wood smells good.”
Past participles usually end in “–en,” “-ed,” “-d,” “-t,” and “-n.”
Prepositions: These are words that are used to link one part of a sentence to another. Here’s an example: “The dog slept on the floor.” The preposition in the sentence is the word “on,” which connects the dog to the floor.
Verbs: Verbs are action words. In the sentence, “I caught the ball,” the verb is the word “caught.” Many of these verbs will be spoken, written, and read differently, depending on the choice of nouns or pronouns. If you’re ever stumped, try speaking with someone who is fluent in English. While they may not be able to tell you “why” something is wrong, they can tell you the correct way to conjugate different verb tenses.
It’s not as difficult as you may think to learn English grammar; however, it will take dedication and patience. It’s best to set aside a specific time each day to study – if not, it’s easy to become frustrated and quit.