A Brief History of English Dictionaries

It’s hard to believe, but we didn’t always have the ability to reach for a dictionary to look up a word to see what it meant. Even when dictionaries were around, there were no guarantees that you could find the words, understand the definition, or that the information given was even correct!

In my latest video, I give a short history of dictionaries, talking about some of the most important ones, at least in my opinion. Click the link here to watch it.

Today, there are many dictionaries to choose from. Which one you use depends on, well, you. You may prefer learner dictionaries that give definitions in simple words that are easy to understand. I really like using a learner dictionary to teach ESL. However, more advanced students may require more advanced and specific definitions that include the etymology, or origin and history, of a word. The etymology of a word may not seem that important, but it really is. It gives us insight into where the word came from, how its usage has changed and often can provide a nuance, or shade, to the exact meaning. Synonyms and antonyms are often useful in helping to better understand a word or for vocabulary expansion. Spelling dictionaries provide an easy-to-find list of words broken down into syllables without long definitions and other distracting text, for quick reference. Finally, technical dictionaries cater to specific fields of study and provide definitions and usages based on very specific and detailed uses of technical words. An example of one of these would be a medical dictionary.

Some dictionaries also cater to American English over British English, and this depends on your preference. Dictionaries, like the OED, will include words that are archaic, or out of common use. This might be extremely useful for some readers, but confusing for others.

Technology has, of course, changed the way we use dictionaries. We used to have to first hunt down a big volume and then flip through the pages to find a word. Now, voice activated artificial intelligence technology let’s me find out just about anything I need to know with a simple voice command. “Siri, what does anthropomorphic mean?”

Technology has, however, inadvertently brought us back to the problem of knowing for sure that the information we are receiving is accurate. While we still can trust well-known sources, sometimes we find that we are getting information from a website that lacks credibility. I have googled a word and found myself on a forum or other site that uses popular opinion or comments to provide answers to questions, without any guarantee of the accuracy of. After all, anyone can set up a website or write a blog. This reminds me a bit of OED’s method of gathering definitions.

These are the dictionaries I use in my personal study, as well as English teaching and consulting:

My favorite American English dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/

My favorite British dictionary: http://www.oed.com/

Honorable mention British dictionary: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us

My favorite American learner’s: http://learnersdictionary.com/

My favorite British learner’s: http://www.ldoceonline.com/

My favorite etymology site: http://etymonline.com/

 

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Is it “I” or “Me”?

It’s a question that troubles even native English speakers, Do I use “I” or “me” in a sentence? In my latest YouTube video I discuss just that with a simple example. Be sure to click here to check it out!

So we learned that the subject of a sentence is always “I” and the object is always “me”. This leads us to the question, how do we know when it is a subject and when it is an object? Glad you asked!

The subject is what the sentence is about. My wife goes to the store. That’s simple, it’s the pronoun, she. It starts to get trickier when we add more people to the mix. What if I go to the store with her? Then it is, My wife and I go to the store. Here I’m put with the subject, so I is part of the subject of my wife. However, if I get separated from my wife (that always happens when we go shopping– ha ha, very funny), and I goes to the end of the sentence, I becomes the object and changes to me. My wife goes to the store with me. With is added to show that she’s doing something connected to something (or someone) else, which means it is now an object. Confused? I have always warned you, English grammar rules are confusing, and this is not a really hard one!

Here’s an even simpler trick, just don’t end a sentence with me! Most of the time, subjects are at the front of the sentence and objects at the end.

Native speakers also learn the trick that if you can replace the I or me with he (a subject)  or him (an object), it’s easier to figure out because it will sound correct one way or the other. This may not work if you aren’t a native speaker, but it’s worth a try. My theory on why native speakers struggle with this concept at all, when deciding on he or him is easy, is because as children we sometimes mistakenly use me as a subject when adding it to another person. A child might say, Timmy and me are here. This comes from the developing concept that the second person usually is an object, so the object pronoun gets used mistakenly. The child is corrected and taught, It’s you and I, not you and me! This gets into our minds as the correct version. When we start making more complex sentences, it becomes a little confusing when me is actually being used correctly. While this may happen to a child learning the language progressively, it may also happen to an ESL student as they learn to speak.

By the way, don’t forget to check out my Facebook page, it’s a great way to stay connected! You can also subscribe to my YouTube videos. I’m working on developing more videos in response to student questions, so stay tuned!

Collocations and Verb Phrases

How can you understand collocations and verb phrases in English? Why do you make the bed, but do the dishes? This confuses many English language students. It is very important for learners to understand common collocations and verb phrases. Everyday English is made up of thousands of these, many of which native speakers may not even realize they are using.

For example: Why do English speakers eat fast food, but not quick food? This is common collocation in English. Fast and food are just always used together or collocate.

Are there rules to know when to use certain words together? Not really! That’s the interesting thing about English! Collocations and verb phrases can vary, as well. You may find them to be different in different areas. Think about how in the United States you grab some take out food, but in Britain, it’s take away food.

To properly understand collocations and verb phrases, a learner simply needs to learn them as a whole unit, like a vocabulary word. This can be done by memorization, but as I suggest, learning by listening and then using helps your brain get used to what “sounds right”. By exposure to the use of them in naturally occurring conversation, music, movies, T.V, and even in literature, you can learn them the way a native speaker learns even the trickiest collocations and verb phrases.

Idioms are closely related to collocations and verb phrases. Idioms differ because they are sayings, or made up of a longer phrase of words. Collocations and verb phrases, although occasionally longer, are usually just two words. The individual words may or may not contribute to the actual meaning. In general, collocations and verb phrases are easier to figure out than idioms based on their individual words.

So take a break, and watch the YouTube blog video I’ve made on this subject!

Click here!

Interview with an English Teacher

My friend, Bryan, is an English teacher in China. Currently, he’s teaching elementary school age learners. He’s got quite a bit of teaching experience, and has mastered the ability to make English fun and interesting for his students. Bryan also has learned Mandarin and Cantonese fluently, making his living experience in China especially enjoyable and rich. Bryan is a perfect example of a successful ESL teacher that loves his job and has been able to help many people succeed in learning English, while getting the most out of the local culture.

Watch the YouTube video link to see my interview with Bryan. https://youtu.be/nCIoz6jdeyQ

Here is a list of Bryan’s tips for learning English. These are not only helpful for students of English, but also ESL teachers and all language learners.

Biggest Obstacles:

  1. Pronunciation. Perfect your pronunciation by watching native speakers. Chinese speakers often have trouble pronouncing the “th” sound. Mimic American English speakers and don’t be shy about sticking your tongue out a little bit.
  2. Grammar. In Chinese, there are tones which English speakers find difficult to master, but English has 16 different time frame tenses. These are complicated, and even native speakers don’t use or understand them all. Don’t worry too much about grammar, just work on being understood.

Mastering Fluency:

  1. Live the language. Bryan relates how he was forced to become fluent in Chinese when his roommate didn’t speak English. It forced him to communicate as best he could, and this made him learn quicker. Don’t worry about being ‘book smart’ when it comes to a language, get out there and use it. Put yourself in situations where you use the language.
  2. Watch videos. Watch videos and TV in English. Don’t just watch them to be entertained, watch them to learn something. Repeat what you are watching, even if you learn just a few sentences. Go ahead and learn things, even if they seem silly. Bryan learned how to ask people if they prefer cats or dogs and then went to China Town in New York and asked every Chinese person he could find his question.
  3. It takes time. Bryan estimates it takes 3 years to become fluent enough to hold a conversation in English for about an hour. This could vary, depending on the person and learning opportunities. The important thing is not to give up, but keep trying and learning. Don’t worry if after years of learning, you still don’t understand everything, that’s normal.

Prescriptive and Descriptive Language Views– Understanding Language

I often tell my students and other language teachers that I hate grammar. “But how can you be an English teacher and hate grammar!” is often the reply. While it is true that I have to teach grammar concepts, and yes, even live by them, I simply don’t care much for them. Grammar (and by extension spelling) rules are confusing and difficult. Just ask any student of English. Most native speakers learn English intuitively, without memorizing the complicated rules, so they speak and write according to what ‘sounds correct’. Second language learners must struggle to understand countless rules and exceptions to rules.

The linguistic terms ‘prescriptive’ and ‘descriptive’ are used to describe two contrasting views of a language. In my latest video, I explain the difference. You can tell that I am more of a descriptivist, since I don’t like grammar. My approach to teaching English is to teach non-native speakers how to sound like native speakers, not necessarily follow all of the rules. Other language professionals, such as grammarians, are more prescriptionist in their views. They prefer to remind everyone how a language, like English, should be used. In reality, like most things, a balance is needed. A language must be looked from both sides. Check out my video and let me know what you think!

(click here for the YouTube video link)

Did you know? According to linguists that study this subject, most languages in the world are only spoken, not written. Out of the over 7,000 identified languages, it is estimated that 2/3 are spoken, but not written. While some of these languages may actually have a writing system or alphabet, it may not be used by the majority of the native speakers, due to tradition or illiteracy.

Metathesis in English

The term ‘metathesis’ means that when a word is pronounced certain vowel sounds or syllables are transposed, or shifted. It’s one of the more common reasons for mispronunciation of words in English. It happens because our brains often try to work out an easier, more logical or more comfortable way to say something. Even if we know the correct pronunciation of a word, it may be difficult to say it correctly. Another related reason for metathesis is popularity. Popular, but incorrect, pronunciation of a word may obscure, or make it difficult, to remember or use the correct pronunciation. But what really is correct pronunciation of a word? This may seem like an easy question, but in reality English has changed and is continuing to change. Some “correct” pronunciations of common words we use everyday are actually the metathesized versions of the original pronunciation that changed with time and usage. Watch my blog video at the link below to learn a little more and see some examples.

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Why Doesn’t English Use Gender?

Many languages assign a gender to nouns. For example in Spanish, the house translates to la casa. The article la indicates that the noun, casa, is female. The gender usually has nothing to do with the meaning of the word. It often just relates to the morphology or phonology of the word. Since many Indo-European languages follow the same pattern, such as French, Latin, Russian, German and Italian, it seems reasonable to think that English would have gender assigned to nouns as well, but of course it does not.

While we may think of gender related pronouns, he, she, his or her, these are actually rarely used with inanimate nouns. The only really common examples I can think of are when referring to a ship or a nation. For example,  She has a beautiful set of sails. Gender assignment may occasionally be used poetically in literature, as well, but it is not found in the general use of English.  My YouTube video explains why. It is actually a very logical reason that has a lot to do with Vikings.

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