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!

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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What is the Difference Between a Linguist, Grammarian and Lexicographer?

Some students of language have wondered about the difference in the language professionals, namely a linguistic, grammarian and lexicographer. I would like to take a moment and explain the difference in the video blog below. It is really quite simple, although it must be noted that many language professionals may fall into more than one category.

Video Link

Personally, I am not a grammarian at all. I really hate grammar with all its complicated rules. Like most native speakers, I don’t rely on grammar rules, just experience of what ‘sounds right’. I often have to look up grammar information to answer student questions or provide explanations of why a grammar point is what it is. It’s clear that I’m not a grammarian. While I enjoy dictionaries and English word etymologies, I don’t think of myself as so much of a lexicographer. What I find most interesting is the study of linguistics, not just English but language in general. I love learning about language, how the brain processes it and how people learn and use it. I use this information to help my students learn in a better way. Look for information about all the disciplines of language study on my blog and in my videos.

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Word Roots, Suffixes and Prefixes

How can a better knowledge of word roots, suffixes and prefixes help you make progress in your English? Well, understanding these helps you understand difficult or long words better. A word root is the basic foundation of a word. It may or may not be a word on its own. Prefixes are added to the front of a word, and suffixes are added to the end of a word. Click to watch the YouTube blog video below to learn more!

Word Roots Video

Want to learn more about these building blocks of words? Check out this website link from Learn that Word. (Click here) for word roots and prefixes and this one also from Learn that Word (Click here) of suffixes. This website is a comprehensive dictionary of all these word pieces. By learning what the word roots, prefixes and suffixes mean in a word, you can more easily break down a difficult word and make sense of it.

Try it: Can you identify the word roots, prefixes and/or suffixes in these words:

  1. Interrupt
  2. Brilliant
  3. Countable
  4. Unbelievable
  5. Prepackaged
  6. Musician
  7. Spectator
  8. Zoology
  9. Sectarianism
  10. Digestion

 

 

 

 

Aaron’s Three Interesting Facts about English

Editors Note: Sorry for the delay in publishing new information. Here at Aaron’s English we’ve been working on updating our video format to make it more fun and interesting. After all, that’s what we are all about, real-world fun and interesting English learning. In addition, Aaron is expanding his own skills with college courses on the subject of linguistics . 

I thought I would share with you my favorite three things about the English language. While it may be easy to guess that I love talking about English, I really do believe there is so much value in learning English and expanding your fluency in it. So here are my favorite fun facts about English (Don’t forget to watch the YouTube video link too):

1. Although English is categorized as a Germanic language, the language that we tend to borrow the least from is German. We borrow much more from other languages. Some have the mistaken idea that German is somehow the parent language or root of English. However, English and German both developed and evolved independently from one another from one common language.

2. English is probably the most important language of practical use to learn. I know many people will be quick to point out that Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language. They’d be correct in saying that but that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to go out and start learning Chinese (unless you’re planning on moving to a Chinese speaking country). The simple fact of the matter is that English is a global language. Most scientific papers are published in English, almost half of the business deals done in Europe are done in English, it’s the official language of air traffic controllers, and there are currently over a billion people currently learning English. It’s the official language of 4 countries, 64 sovereign states, and 27 non-sovereign entities. (See the illustration below) That’s certainly some incentive to learn English! Which by the way, there are more English-language-learners than there are actual native English speakers.

Countries in which English is the first language of the majority of the population. (shown in dark blue); other countries present possess substantial English knowledge dating back to the British Empire (shown in light blue) Source: Wikipedia “English Speaking World”

3.  English is one of the only languages that has a thesaurus. Japanese makes use of one as well, but this is a rare exception. The reason English needs a thesaurus is that English borrows so much from other languages that it necessitates a thesaurus. English borrows from Anglo-Saxon, Norse, Latin, French, Greek, etc. so we’ve adopted and adapted these to English. Interestingly, when using a thesaurus you’ll, more often than not, find words with different shades of meaning. Some are more technical, archaic, slangy, scholarly, or literary. It’s important that you use the word most commonly used to the audience you’re writing for or talking to.

Video link:   YouTube Aaron’s English Page